The Imagined Story Behind Leonard Cohen’s ‘Suzanne’

A matchmaking sprite recalls the story of a young poet and a dancer, which may or may not have inspired the famous ballad.

By Michael Cunningham

T’s Nov. 11 Travel issue is dedicated to a series of five fairy tales written exclusively for us — the kinds of stories that will inspire your own adventures, if not of the body, then at least of the mind. Read more in our letter from the editor.

I’M A FAIRY. This is my tale.

It’s a tale about love and loss, and what comes after. Poetry plays a part. Not all the characters are beautiful. Just so you know.

First, though.

If I tell you that by “fairy” I don’t mean “gay,” I hope it won’t make me sound homophobic.

By “fairy,” I mean that I’m three inches tall, and yes, I’ve got a pair of gauzy, translucent wings, but they’re more like a bat’s than a butterfly’s. We don’t flutter. We fly like rockets.

My job is to encourage hesitant lovers to take the risk. Get the phone number and call it (after a few days, so you don’t seem overeager). Go in for the kiss (if you’re sure it’s wanted, probably better to ask first).

Read more: What to See, and Where to Eat Bagels, in Montreal

Fairies don’t have sex, but we desire everyone, no matter gender or race or age. We see you, all of you, too entirely to stop at your surfaces, whatever they may be.

That doesn’t mean we don’t have favorites. Go ahead, you try to unequivocally love every living person.

I’d been delegated, since I was a sprite, to Montreal. My last assignment there: Canadian poet, closer to 30 than 20, lonely and unknown even by poets’ standards, and a 20-ish woman, a dancer, so beautiful as to have learned that beauty is a gift and also a burden. She was tired of dating men who didn’t know her and didn’t really care to, who wanted to be the guy dating the beautiful young woman who’s an artist, yeah she does these interpretive dances in little clubs, which is not, you know, my kind of thing, but my God, look at her …

Ask just about any beautiful woman about that.

Who could be more ready for a lonely, unhandsome poet, a man who actually likes interpretive dance, a man who’d recite Rilke to her after sex?

It was a good gig for me, all the more so coming off my previous assignment, getting an elderly widower to ask the elderly widow next door if she’d like to go to Red Lobster for dinner on a Saturday night.

Not that there’s anything wrong with being elderly, or with the idea that dinner at a Red Lobster is a Saturday night date.

The poet and the dancer knew each other already. He’d seen her dance, she’d been one of five or six people at his poetry readings. There weren’t a lot of artists in Montreal back then. The citizens tended to resemble friendly, talking forest animals in clothes. The ragged little band of artists and bohemians were each other’s audiences.

These two had met for coffee. They’d gone for walks.


He didn’t think he stood a chance. She was a renegade goddess, lithe and almost impossibly graceful, just tomboyish enough, careless about her beauty as only a true beauty can be, her hair tied loosely with a scrap of ribbon, prone to airy dresses from the Salvation Army.

He, on the other hand, was swarthy, big fishhook of a nose, two inches shorter than she. You don’t want to know about his posture.

I loved him. No, that’s the wrong word — fairies don’t love people, not in the traditional way. I was curious about him. I was interested. He had a heart less legible than most. It was harder to know what, exactly, he wanted.

So many human desires are even more prosaic than you might expect. Look deep, go inside, where the truest wishes reside (I speak as someone who can go inside), and you tend to see tornadoes of cash, indoor swimming pools, movie stars begging for it.

The poet’s desires were stormier, less prone to the visual — how many supplicant celebrities have I seen? I could have sworn that when I first went in, doing my initial research, that I heard the word “transcend,” muffled, like a voice speaking from far away, in a snowstorm.

All right, the poet also wanted an indoor swimming pool. Who doesn’t?

The situation, the poet and the dancer, was classic. He kept his distance because he couldn’t stand the risk of humiliation if he declared himself. (Oh, well, hmm, I’m sorry, I like you, but I don’t really think of you that way.) She assumed he wasn’t interested in her that way because he kept his distance.

He believed he wasn’t attractive enough, famous enough, given all the men who’d fallen, men with big apartments up on Mont Royal, men with jobs and cars.

She believed she was too usual for him, even with her flamboyance and her glittery charms; she believed she was too simple, too unenigmatic, too little prone to contemplation.

She’d been to his poetry readings. She knew about his hunger for the secrets underneath the secrets, the jokes God pulls on us.

She didn’t care, she didn’t care much, about his stubbled homeliness. And he was poet enough to know that everyone, every single person, was a mystery he could spend a lifetime trying to solve.

It was a misunderstanding. It shouldn’t have been difficult for me.

And really, I needed a big success. I needed to help create a couple who’d travel to islands and mountains, who’d inspire and inflame, who’d fight and screw and produce art together, greater than either could have made working solo; who’d have babies and throw famous parties and blaze away together right up to the horizon line.

It’s not that I’d been unsuccessful. But my successes had been running ever so slightly to the modest.

There was the bus driver who, with my help, fell into companionable but chaste love with the school crossing guard. There was the sturdy, hardworking young couple who bought themselves a trim little house outside of town, had a baby and devoted themselves to campaigning against abortion rights. To name two.

Not that there’s anything wrong with being a bus driver and a crossing guard who never make love, or with taking your child to sit-ins at women’s health clinics, etc. Fairies don’t judge. But I confess that I was a bit intoxicated by the more lavish potentials of the poet and the dancer.

Fairies get assignments and file reports. We’re organized. We don’t just flit randomly around in gardens and fens. Our progress is monitored by the One Whose Visage Is Too Terrible to Behold. I know. But that’s the name. I think it’s ridiculous, too. If we fall behind, we risk being transferred to other locations, and Montreal is a good post, there’s a long line of applicants. I kept on top of things, there was always the threat of getting transferred to Newfoundland or Ontario.

Not that there’s anything wrong with Ontario or Newfoundland.

But Montreal. String of frozen lights shimmering at the very limit of what some people consider the far north. Montreal, with its own private atmosphere of celebration and voluptuous sorrow, standing as it does alongside the snowbound barnyards of Vermont, the silent forests of Maine.

That’s fairy vision; I hope you don’t mind if it’s a little overwrought. Fairies can see strip malls and high-rises, we can see fluorescent franchise joints, and Montreal is as full of them as most cities, but we can’t describe those places, we can barely talk about them. It took something out of me just naming them in a sentence.

MY NEW, NASCENT lovers, then. My perfect couple who risked missing each other because of excessive modesty.

I zeroed in on them walking along the St. Lawrence, passing the Chapelle Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours, where, atop the harborside tower, stands an angel beneath the statue of the Virgin Mary, whose arms are outstretched to the water, her head encircled by a halo of stars, blessing the sailors who are setting out, and those who are returning.

Montreal is a winter city, frigid much of the year. This was its brief spasm of summer. The whole city was out, soaking it in, storing it up. He wore the ratty tweed jacket he thought was required of poets, even in weather too warm for jackets. She was luminous in a floral-print dress, covered with thumbnail-size rosebuds.

They wouldn’t have looked like lovers to the casual observer. They’d have looked more like a young queen out for a stroll with the magician’s assistant, the hobbling, gnomish guy who cast the minor, grudging spells. If you didn’t know he was talking to her, with feverish earnestness, about his newly discovered love for the poetry of García Lorca, you could have easily imagined that he was telling her about his recent breakthrough with spiders in wigs, as she paid polite, slightly distracted attention.

Actually, she’d never read García Lorca. She was embarrassed about that, but rather than confess, she turned his attention to the late afternoon light on the harbor, to the honey-colored sun that gilded Our Lady, with her eternally outstretched arms.

She preferred to be the one more aware of the transient gorgeousness of the living world. Winter hovered, even then on the verge, there’d be months and months of books, of lamps lit by four in the afternoon.

He worried that he was boring her, but he couldn’t stop himself, he couldn’t at that moment think about anything other than García Lorca, and even after he’d quickly agreed that the sparks on the river and the gold tumbling over the Virgin were wonders, he went back to the effects of flamenco music on García Lorca’s early work, the relationship between traditional music and radical poetry …

I admired that in him. I admit it. He was a power drill, a blender stuck on purée. So many people harbor such familiar fantasies, so many are moderate in their passions.

Still, she gazed out at the afternoon sun spangling the blue-black river as he kept talking flamenco rhythms and stanza breaks. It was time for me to go in.

Fairies are barely visible. We manifest as leaf shadows, we manifest as rogue glimmers of reflected window light, we come and go unremarked.

I hovered over her left shoulder, assumed the smoke form and slipped in through her ear.

You can’t imagine what a living brain is like. It’s a congregation of lights, some shorting out in sputters of electrical sparks but others shooting little geysers of radiance, which run from pure white to scarlet to cobalt. The whole thing is almost too bright to look at, fizzling and spurting like a miniature sun.

The brain-lights go out when the brain dies. If you’ve seen a brain at all, you’ve only seen dead ones. It’s like the difference between a living squid — translucent, luminous, with big pale blue eyes — and the order of fried calamari the waitress plunks down in front of you at a Red Lobster.

Not that there’s anything wrong with Red Lobster.

Fairies don’t speak to the brain in language. Specificity would spoil the effect. We toss suggestions, inclinations, into its fountaining aggregation of lights and let the brain interpret them as it will.

I merely said to her brain, “He’s right beside you.” I said, “Some men genuinely like women.”

And just like that, she told the poet that her apartment was close by. She asked if he’d like to come for a cup of tea.

She was easy. Maybe a little too easy.

I don’t mean that in a sexist way. Fairies aren’t sexist, because we’re not sexual, I hope that’s clear.

He accepted. Though he didn’t stop talking about flamenco and García Lorca.

The woman’s apartment was modest, with a cloistered aspect, though she herself was not virginal in any way. She just favored whiteness. The windows were covered in filmy white curtains, the bed (which was also the sofa, it was only one room) with a white comforter and piles of pale pillows. In the apartment, the poet looked that much darker, as if he were a man-shaped hole punched into all that snowy innocence.

She brewed tea. He was finally able to let go of García Lorca. He asked about her new dance (that’s right, ask her something about herself). He was aware, who wouldn’t be, of her slender back and hips, as she boiled water on a hot plate. He was aware (he couldn’t help himself) of how poetic it was, a beautiful young woman making tea in a little white room in Montreal.

She brought the tea and sat beside him on the bed. They talked about dancing, they talked about what the body knows versus what the mind knows. He said that a guitar is a hybrid of mind and body. He quoted García Lorca (he truly couldn’t stop himself): “The weeping of the guitar begins … as the wind weeps over snowfields.”

She told him that was beautiful. She found herself wondering what the days would be like with a man so serious, so wounded and romantic, so obviously capable of devotion.

It was time for the poet to make his move, maybe just to cover her hand with his, which was what she wanted him to do, so that she could be the one to lean in for the kiss.

And it was time for him to shut up. She wanted him to do that, too.

I went smoky, slipped through his ear into his skull.

His brain-lights were more blue and violet than most. The short circuits were noisier, they put out bigger plumes of flame-blue sparks.

What I expected to say, into the conflagration of his brain, was, “Speak to her with your body.” What I expected to say was, “Some doors only open for a little while.”

I was surprised, then, to hear myself say, “There’s a poem waiting.” I was surprised to hear myself say, “Cup this moment and run with it.”

It was almost automatic. It was as if I’d lost the ability to obey my own intentions.

But I’d done it. I’d undone it. He stood up. He thanked her for the tea and conversation, made an awkward little bow, took his leave.

She was left sitting by herself on the bed, looking at two empty teacups. And without the force of his presence, the idea of him didn’t hold for her. He had to have acted, and he had to have done it then.

The portal had opened briefly, and closed again. He’d chosen the poem over the woman who inspired the poem. She took the empty cups to the sink and gave up — not without a sense of relief — whatever fleeting notion she may have had of him as a lover.

Love can be that fragile, in its earliest stages. Love can be the train you miss by less than a minute. Love can be the wrongly meaningful typo spell-check puts into your text.

I’m honestly not sure what came over me. I suppose I saw that maybe, just maybe, the poet could transmit all that love to other people, if his longings stayed unfulfilled. It was about choosing the greater good.

And, all right, I guess I wanted him to produce the gorgeous, passionate poem, the breakthrough poem. I thought he had it in him. I wanted a life for him beyond writing poetry no one would publish, a life beyond reading to a half-dozen people in bars and branch libraries. I know, I know very well, how many loves flicker and fail, however ecstatic their beginnings. I know how many lovers end up going back to their solitary lives, trailing a few good memories and more than a few regrets.

That was the true breach of protocol. Fairies pledge our loyalty to love — first, last and always. If we don’t consider our lovers’ futures, we absolutely don’t try to direct their careers.

That was the one that got me in trouble.

I’VE BEEN IN Saskatoon for quite a while. It’s not so bad. Love announces itself everywhere, it matters just as much to the dry cleaner and the motel receptionist as it does to poets and dancers.

Since then, my poet has gotten some recognition. He started setting his poetry to music, and by now he has actual fans. He no longer reads in bars and suburban libraries. It seems his first hit (“hit” being a relative term for him) was a song about the woman in Montreal.

I have no idea what’s happened to her.

I see that I was right to end the affair before it started. I feel sure the poem and the song wouldn’t have been written if he’d put his hand over hers on that long-ago afternoon and she’d answered with a kiss, if they’d had time to reach the irritations and disappointments — the finger taps on the tabletop, the laundry piles, the uneasy silences — that are inevitable in our lives but may not be all that helpful where certain love poems are concerned.

I told him to choose the poem about the woman over the woman herself. I don’t regret it. It did get me transferred to Saskatoon, though.

Not that there’s anything wrong with Saskatoon. People call it the Paris of the Prairies, I’m not making that up.

Poems and songs survive. That’s part of why we care about them. Which is why I have no second thoughts, hardly any, about turning the poet away from the woman while she was still a poem to him.

I do wonder, sometimes, what happened to her. I’m sure she met somebody else. And after all, she was made into a song, a song playing right now, somewhere in the world.

I don’t think I cheated her out of anything. I really and truly don’t.

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