Travelling Blind with Leonard Cohen
We were unexpectedly awakened out of the routine of our Canadian Literature classes when our professor mentioned Leonard Cohen. She even added something concerning Oviedo, the city we currently reside. We gave each other a perplexed look, but didn’t pay much attention to what had been said and continued our daily ritual: illustrating the poems we were currently analyzing. At the time, we didn’t really know the secret hidden beyond that name: Leonard Cohen. The only thing we could conjure up in our heads were hazy images of the singer – always sporting an elegant fedora – on billboards for an upcoming concert in Bratislava last year.
When we entered the classroom the next day, we found the professor awaiting us and a huge portrait of Cohen on the wall. As soon as we had gathered, she announced we were going to dedicate some lessons to Cohen’s work. The programme for that day consisted of listening to and talking about his songs. Actually, she had prepared a few videos that we screened on the wall one by one. The first was Take This Waltz. We quickly discovered that the lyrics are actually the English translation of Federico García Lorca’s poem Pequeño vals vienés. After the singer’s voice fell silent, we started to analyze and compare the texts verse by verse. We could feel Cohen’s fascination with the Spanish poet pulsating in every lyric. Gradually, the classroom started to fill with a mysterious energy. The second song that enveloped our now silent class was I’m Your Man. This time, the deep, velvet voice enfolded us in its fibres and would not let us go. Spellbound, we sat in stillness, impressed by the slow rhythm of the melody and powerful lyrics. The magic of Cohen’s poetic world that rainy afternoon devoured our minds. After class, we searched for more of that magic. As we became more familiar with Cohen’s person, life and literary work, we felt like we had known him for ages. Those hazy images were coming into focus. We also learned why he was coming to Oviedo: He was to receive the Prince of Asturias Award for Literature.
As the name suggests, the award was established by the heir to the Spanish throne, Prince Felipe of Asturias, who still attends the ceremony every year. Some other members of the royal family, including the King or the Queen also usually attend. There are awards in eight fields: the Arts, Communications and Humanities, International Cooperation, Literature, Social Sciences, Sports, Technical and Scientific Research, and Concord. They are given to individuals, entities and organizations from all over the world whose achievements have somehow contributed to the world’s welfare in their chosen field. This year the award for literature was to be given to Leonard Cohen. And we would get to take part.
The day finally came: Thursday, 20th October 2011. After class, we found ourselves heading for the university library where Travelling Blind, a poetry recital in Cohen’s honour, was to be held. Still slightly dazed at the prospect of being a part of this remarkable event, we were thrilled to arrive early enough to get second-row seats. The auditorium quickly filled with devoted fans of Cohen’s magic, yet the silence and stillness in the room were overwhelming. In front, the stage was faintly lit by one tiny lamp on a tea table on which a full bottle of whisky and two empty tumblers were also sitting. Flanking the table were two armchairs, both awaiting their inhabitants. All of a sudden, two smartly dressed men stepped onto the stage. The one with the long sandy hair tied back in a ponytail, and the rather laidback and larky attitude turned out to be Niall Binns, a British poet and professor currently living in Spain; and the other, the one with the dreamy eyes but resolute voice, was Fernando Beltrán, a Spanish poet and professor. For the following hour, we were immersed in the ocean of Cohen’s exquisite poetry guided by these two men. The bilingual journey was extraordinary, as both poets swiftly and easily switched between English and Spanish, our most beloved languages – we could enjoy both their distinctive beauties and sounds. The poets, nursing their whiskies all the while, took us on a ride through various works and selected texts from Cohen’s books Flowers for Hitler, The Energy of Slaves, Death of a Ladies' Man, Book of Mercy and Beautiful Losers. They included many of his more famous songs and poems such as Suzanne, Like a Bird on the Wire, Chelsea Hotel and Take this Waltz. The atmosphere was both intimate and eerie. The poet-performers spoke with their eyes closed as if contemplating, their brows knit as if worrying, and their arms waving as if balancing. At times, they whispered; at times, they roared and set their voices flying free above our heads. Cohen’s magical poetry was brought to magically real life.
The unforgettable experiences were not over. The Aulario A, a lecture hall, was to play host to a collection of Cohen’s prints and we again would have front-row seats. Students were allowed on the first-floor and second-floor balconies of the two-storied Aulario A to observe the paintings and happenings below. Below us, security officers, photographers, local TV stations and journalists eagerly waited for the star to arrive. The building filled with hundreds of people, students, professors and visitors of all kinds, all been drawn to the spot for the same reason. A sudden rustling, the clicking of cameras and clacking of heels announced that the Man was coming. We waited... until Leonard Cohen finally appeared below us, with his trademark fedora, stylish suit and easy gait. The woman accompanying him showed him his prints on the walls and the hundreds of little green and yellow pieces of paper surrounding each one. When he asked what they were, the woman explained they were messages to him, written by University of Oviedo students. He seemed so moved he was at a loss for words. He put on his reading glasses and started to read some. We knew they were written in Spanish, English, French, and even Asturian. Students had expressed their thanks, given wishes, shared verses, and even commented on his work. It seemed to be an emotional experience. After a few minutes, Cohen realized there were dozens of students above him, silently watching him from the balconies. He took off his hat, uncovering his silver hair, and waved, a bright smile on his beaming face. Finally, the woman officially welcomed him to the University, asked him to unveil the commemorative plaque in his honour and open the exposition. As he did so, rapturous applause thundered throughout the hall. After a few ineffective and one finally successful attempt to stop it, he gave a brief “thank you” speech, wrote a short note in the Book of Honour of the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters of the University of Oviedo, waved again, and, with a broad smile, left.
It took us quite a long time to absorb all our feelings and impressions after it was all over. We played Cohen’s music and could not believe that only a few minutes before he had been standing right in front of us. With the image of the warm-hearted smiling man with the luminous silver hair in our mind’s eye, we will also treasure the memory of Travelling Blind, of the two poets who gave life to Cohen’s verse. ‘Travel blind’ – a line from Cohen’s Suzanne – is what we did too, as we travelled a short distance with Leonard Cohen and touched his perfect body of work with our minds.
Anna Ďurišíková, Jana Eldesová