On our first night in Montreal, we tried to watch a documentary called “Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Leonard Cohen,” but we were so tired that we started drifting off a few minutes into it. That was enough time, however, to catch a Leonard Cohen refrain from an old interview from his youth that would play in my head as we huddled under the world’s smallest umbrella in the world’s most terrifying sneak-attack thunderstorm.
After asking Cohen what concerns him, and after Cohen laughed and demurred, insisting that he hasn’t the faintest concern, the interviewer pressed the poet to share what he cares about: “surely you have to care about something to write.”
Cohen replied: “every morning, I ask myself if I’m in a state of grace, and if I’m not in a state of grace, I go back to sleep.”
“What does that mean, a state of grace?” asked the interviewer, and Cohen explained that it meant being centered in spite of the chaos all around. I thought about that as the cemetery pathways flooded and lighting began to strike all around us: I was not in a state of grace.
There’s something infuriating about Leonard Cohen, but the pull of this words and his percussive beat beat beat is undeniable. That’s why we were there that morning and how we ended up huddled under the world’s smallest umbrella like imbeciles baiting the heavens to strike.
We eventually waded through shin high water and made it to shelter, and when the deluge became more manageable, I walked the final minute or so to Mister Cohen’s resting place, where I left a question from a friend — poet to poet. I had written it on a leaf as the thunder rolled closer; it stayed dry the whole time.
Is this what you wanted, Mr. Leonard Cohen? I hope our sodden, sentimental forms brought a smile to your face.
This is what feeling blessed looks like; our visit to Kahnawake was meant to be the gem in the crown of this whole trip, and today’s experience made it so. I wanted to capture the absolute bliss of that feeling — the gentle river breeze taking the edge off of Montreal’s oppressive heat, the friendly people taking the edge off of Montreal’s gruff mannerisms — and this was it; a delicious meal on a beautiful day at a cute little restaurant that could be anywhere, but very much isn’t — it’s here, and it’s native-owned, and it was established in 2022, and you should go visit it — because indigenous sovereignty isn’t exotic; it’s delicious and beautiful and belongs everywhere.
I was struck by the sheer diversity of names and ethnicities in this cemetery and noticed a good number of Lebanese names scattered among the Boyds and the Cohens and the Smiths. I wondered if that diversity was reflected in these people’s lives before the great equalizer of death brought them into utopic communion; that thought came up again later in the evening, when we met up with a friend from Seattle who’s been here for about a month; her experiences here suggest that the Boyds and the Cohens and the Smiths and the Ayoubs were probably not hanging out all that much.
Anyway, here are some poignant moments that caught my eye before the heavens broke open and rained down its fury upon the righteous and the unrighteous.
During Christine’s research into the life of Saint Kateri, she read a passing mention of a novel by Leonard Cohen called “Beautiful Losers,” in which the saint is sexualized by a tormented narrator who – according to the back cover of the copy I immediately ordered – is actually trapped in hell (it’s an apartment in Montreal, a conceit that’s not that outlandish to me now, sitting in our under-conditioned Airbnb near Guy-Concordia).
The book itself is a very difficult read; without the allegorical clues of the synopsis at the back, I don’t think I would have kept reading, and even then, I haven’t gotten very far; think Kerouac, but even hornier and creepier. And while the publisher hints at some kind of redemptive arc to the story through an act of Saint Kateri’s own agency, I felt like Cohen’s treatment of the trope of native exoticism through western eyes was a little too on the money to read like critical commentary.
Christine’s seen this pattern in her research again and again; Kateri’s virginity is treated as devotion to Christ when her rejection was bluntly and directly of “men,” per se; her ascetism is interpreted as Christian piety when much of it was patterned after indigenous body practices; even now, she’s called a patron of the environment just because she’s Mohawk.
Even her likeness is semantically unmoored; at her shrine in Kahnawake, a Mohawk vendor said she preferred her original portrait over her “hollywood” pictures. But even that image is a document of what a priest who knew her saw in Kateri.
There’s something sweetly spartan about her final resting place, however. Her name, her tribal emblem, the fleur-de-lis, and the silent devotions of pilgrims who visit her. There are lilies, of course, but also a white rose. I’m not sure who left them for her yesterday, but I thought it spoke to her essence: totemic, polysemic, gentle, and austere.
We attended a mass yesterday at the Catholic mission that houses Kateri’s shrine in Kahnawake; we thought we’d stick out like sore thumbs but were pleased to see the arrival of a bus load of pilgrim women, mostly from the Philippines, who knew all the words to the liturgy and enthusiastically helped with setting the table when the volunteer priest in charge (retired) asked if anyone would help. For a few moments, all the codings of what it means to be in a church once fortified for the “protection of converts” on Mohawk land, led by a Francophone priest who spent his career in five African countries, melted away; I was almost moved to tears when the priest began to sing the opening hymn and voice after voice began to join in, without the benefit of a lyrics sheet – soon, the whole church was singing along, including Christine. I didn’t know the words, but I was moved by the glint of utopia made manifest in moments like these.