A Guest Post By David Peloquin
“There’s a tension between the hummingbird and the handcuffs. We all live somewhere between the two.”
As readers of Cohencentric know, Allan Showalter has offered a number of posts that follow the evolution and use of Leonard Cohen’s icons through the years. Thoughtful interpretations on these designs were scarce until DrHGuy began to gatherer the icons together for closer investigation. Most importantly, he sought out and correlated many direct quotes of Leonard Cohen musing about the images and their inspiration.
The album cover for Leonard Cohen’s 1992 album, The Future, introduced the iconic imagery of the heart, the open handcuffs, and the hummingbird. Dianne V. Lawrence originally designed the avian component for the 1979 album Recent Songs (see Leonard Cohen’s Hummingbird: A Guest Post By Dianne V. Lawrence). The hummingbird symbolism evolved and the new design for The Future, which included Dianne Lawrence’s original hummingbird, was conceived by Leonard Cohen and realized by artist and designer Michael Petit. This icon became one of the most familiar in Leonard Cohen’s language of symbolism. The inner cover of his last album, You Want it Darker (Design by Sammy Slabbinck), is graced with a hummingbird in flight, indicating that his iconic spirit bird was still close to his heart as he neared the end of his life.
This discussion offers a perspective on Leonard Cohen’s hummingbird symbol. It has no pretense of conferring any one specific meaning, and is certainly not meant to imply that it is an exhaustive treatment. As in all true art, Leonard’s elusive hummingbird will survive any attempt to capture or cage it. We will never learn its secrets through forensic analysis. Rather, as is always the case with Leonard Cohen’s work, we are invited to personally experience the numinous hummingbird for ourselves.
The Presence of the Hummingbird
Allan Showalter’s investigation has shown that Cohen’s icons were often repurposed for various settings.1 The hummingbird has made many appearances since its introduction on Recent Songs. Yet, throughout all its many incarnations, one central theme has been consistent from the beginning: the presence of the hummingbird is always accompanied by intimations of compassion, wisdom, and liberation.
A true symbol points to what is beyond thinking, beyond words. As Cohen has said, “These things cannot be explained; they have to be embraced.” Cohen’s work as a poet centered on creating art that could open directly to inner landscapes of the spirit, although he often followed unusually dark, twisted, and painful pathways to get there.
Many poems and images in Book of Longing, published in 2006, are drenched in Buddhist sensibilities and reflect on Cohen’s long involvement with Zen. The next consideration is such an example. I chose a poem from the book that, to my knowledge, has not received any serious attention. More to the point, it offers one of the deepest meditations on Cohen’s use of the symbolic hummingbird that I have found.
This book will begin to speak
- See, for example, Leonard Cohen Album Logos: More Best Of Leonard Cohen Album Identifies Six Icons [↩]