Let Us Compare Mythologies is Leonard Cohen’s first book, published when he was only twenty-two years old back in 1956. Similar to Book of Longing, there is a very sensual element to Cohen’s poetry in this collection. But, Cohen was also grappling with an element of devastation and sense of loss being felt by the world in the decade following World War II. Cohen of course was Jewish, so he was uniquely feeling that pain, and some of that was certainly present in this collection.
Sometimes he combines the two elements in the same poem. For example:
During their first pogrom they
Met behind the ruins of their homes—
Sweet merchants trading: her love
For a history-full of poems.
And at the hot ovens they
Cunningly managed a brief
Kiss before the soldier came
To knock out her golden teeth.
And in the furnace itself
As the flames flamed higher,
He tried to kiss her burning breasts
As she burned in the fire.
Later he often wondered:
Was their barter completed?
While men around him plundered
And knew he had been cheated.
I’d love to hear any interpretations of this poem in the comment section. I think this poem is about something that I’ve been reading, writing, and thinking about a lot lately, and that is the capability of humankind to commit acts of equal parts good and malevolence. Great love, in this case, is being ripped apart by the great malevolence of the Nazi final solution.
This poem reminds me of other great thinkers who I’ve studied (and recently reviewed their books if you’re interested in going back and reading those) lately who have also grappled with recognizing man’s great capacity for both good and evil:
“…inasmuch as I become conscious of my shadow I also remember that I am a human being like any other.” -Carl Jung via Modern Man In Search of a Soul
“The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” -Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn via The Gulag Archipelago
Let Us Compare Mythologies marks the second book of poetry I’ve read by Leonard Cohen. The first was the famous Book of Longing, which was written in the 1990s, by a much older man than the one who wrote Let Us Compare Mythologies. I rather enjoyed reading Book of Longing, even upon the first reading; but it wasn’t until the second reading that I really fell in love with it and decided that I wanted to read all of Cohen’s books.
It’s funny how that works sometimes; music can be like that, too. Maybe you’re not sure after the first listen, but you’re completely hooked after the second or third.
I don’t need a second reading of Let Us Compare Mythologies to be convinced that what I was reading was near-perfection. Another way that I thought about describing this collection was that the poetry within it’s pages is not unlike trying to interpret the narrative of a dream; there were times that I didn’t have any idea what Cohen was writing about, but the proper emotion was still conveyed… And that’s kinda’ the whole point of poetry.
Final say: If you like poetry, and you find the poem above fascinating, this is a beautiful collection of poetry and I highly recommend it.