In a second floor apartment in a non-descript building on a street in the Heights section of Jersey City, on a wall likely hidden under coats of paint, is “The Only Poem” by Leonard Cohen. That is its title. “The Only Poem.” I know it’s there—unless, of course, the building has been knocked down or gutted—because I painted it. It was big, maybe three feet wide and five feet tall. I painted it with a small watercolor paintbrush and blue wall paint, starting at about 2 a.m. and finishing about 6 a.m.
It was the mid-nineties, I was in my mid-twenties, and that apartment was the first place I rented on my own. The rent was $450 a month. On the night I painted the poem, I was months into a serious bout of depression, deeper than I had ever experienced before. It was the kind of depression that we know well today. At work, and out socially with friends, I could be jovial and positive. No one would suspect I had depression. But alone, I struggled deeply. Unable to get myself out of bed, I saw no future for myself. I was overwhelmed by hopelessness and fear, and calmed only by the thought that no longer being alive might be the only way to make the pain go away. On the night I painted the poem, the depression had seized me like never before. I started to consider how I might acquire a gun. I wondered what pills might be best. I worried about who might find me and what might happen to my cats.
I don’t know what moved in me, but in the middle of that night, I grabbed my copy of Leonard’s song and poetry collection, Stranger Music. I flipped through looking for something, anything, to tide me over and get me through the night. And there it was. “The Only Poem.”
This is the only poem
I can read
I am the only one
can write it
I didn’t kill myself
when things went wrong
I didn’t turn
to drugs or teaching
I tried to sleep
but when I couldn’t sleep
I learned to write
I learned to write
what might be read
on nights like this
by one like me
The poem spoke directly to me. Leonard had maybe been in the same exact place, and this was his letter to those who would follow him to that place. He learned to write, what might be read, on nights like this, by one like him. I needed that poem with me all the time. Every night. So I got up, found a small brush, and opened up one of the cans of paint I had used to paint the apartment doors and trim. It was painstakingly slow with the small brush. It took me all through the night and into the morning. And when it was finished, it was crooked and the lines weren’t exactly written in the way Leonard has intended. But it was there, in the sunlight coming through the blinds. For hours, I was not hopeless. I did not think about ending my life. I thought about the poem, and I thought about writing.
Of course, you cannot write yourself out of serious clinical depression. That requires professional help and often medication. And with a reprieve, I soon took steps to find a doctor who diagnosed me and got me the help I needed. The depression would return, in cycles in the years ahead, and fortunately, I always knew when I could no longer keep it at bay and needed to seek help.
But that poem certainly helped. It’s not hyperbole to say it saved my life. I’m thankful to it to this day. And thankful to Leonard, who’s since never been that far from me. I have a tattoo of the cover of his album, The Future, on my arm—a hummingbird lifting a heart free from its binds. And for a decade I carried in my wallet a copy of a passage from his book, Beautiful Losers, about what it means to be a saint. I only stopped carrying it because it disintegrated from being taken out and put back and read so much.
I have a photograph of the painting of the poem, and last night, after hearing of Leonard’s death, I sent it my dear friend of 30 years, Kevin, who moved into that apartment after I moved out. He decided to keep the poem up for awhile, even if it was a little weird to his guests. It was certainly a conversation piece. It was he who mentioned that it might still be there, under many coats of paint. His exact words were that, “The Poem still lives under coats of paint.” Lives. I liked that and suggested it was poetic all on its own.
There’s an oft quoted lyric from Leonard’s song, “Anthem,” from the album, The Future: “There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.” He might be right. Maybe there’s a poem behind everything, too.
I’ll miss knowing Leonard walks among us. But I know he’s still here.