The Poetics of the Desert-Place in Robert Frost, Mary Oliver and Leonard Cohen
As described in Patrick Süskind’s Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, people who seek out deserts are “penitents, failures, saints, or prophets”.
Deserts are a place of religious solitude or spiritual trial, they represent crossings and journeys and as such could be considered as an opposite to ‘home’. The lone desert flower in ‘The Little Prince’ mistakenly believes that humans “have no roots” because all it knows is the desert. “You never know where to find them. The wind blows them away” it tells the Prince.
There is an inherent danger about the desert. It’s a metaphor for aloneness, a place of the bare and the barren, the unfathomable and inhospitable. According to David Jasper, author of The Sacred Desert: Religion, Literature, Art and Culture “All deserts are alike in the imagination – unreal places of loss and restoration”
The desert also happens to come up in three of my favourite poems and songs.
It was only a matter of time until I sneaked a Leonard Cohen reference into this blog, and here it is on post number two.
The song Famous Blue Raincoat is written as a letter from the character “L.Cohen” to an unnamed man who forms the third part of a love triangle between L.Cohen and his partner, Jane. The low, resigned tone suggests that some time has passed since the events occurred.
“The last time we saw you, you looked so much older
Your famous blue raincoat was torn at the shoulder”
And that the recipient of this letter was also the villain of the story.
“You treated my woman to a flake of your life.
And when she came back, she was nobody’s wife”
But the portrayal is pluralistic. The betrayal comes from a beloved friend who both he and Jane still love and seem to need.
“What can I tell you, my brother, my killer. What can I possibly say?
I guess that I miss you. I guess I forgive you.
I’m glad you stood in my way”
Furthermore, L.Cohen realises by the end of the song that he has no greater claim over Jane than his brother/killer, and that although Jane remains with him, he has still, somehow lost.
“If you ever come by here, for Jane or for me.
Your enemy is sleeping. And his woman is free”
‘Place’ plays a significant part in this song. We know almost from the start that the character L.Cohen lives amid the bustling multitude of the city. This draws up a striking contrast to the situation of his rival, serving to highlight the vast space and distance between them.
“New York is cold, but I like where I’m living
There’s music on Clinton Street all through the evening
I hear that you’re building your little house deep in the desert
You’re living for nothing now. I hope you’re keeping some kind of record”
The nameless character has gone somewhere that is both ‘away’ and silent. The desert here signifies the ‘nothing’ he now lives for– an escape to somewhere that represents ‘nowhere’, a place to forget and be forgotten.
As the flower in The Little Prince will attest, humans don’t stay in one place in the desert. That the character has built a house in an inhospitable, hostile environment outlines the extent of his self-exile. The experience of this love triangle has seen him not just abandon the situation, but all civilisation. Is the house, in this context, a symbol of committed penance? Self-protection? Or has he just given up on his belonging anywhere?
And what of our narrator, ‘L.Cohen’? Although it is true that this character is living in the city, the very first thing L.Cohen tells us in his letter is: “It’s four in the morning, the end of December”. A time devoid of people and sound- itself a sort of desert hour – in the middle of the darkest and bleakest season of the year. Combined with the soft, sparse guitar and a slight echo in the vocals (“the desert, like literature, is always full of echoes” Ref), it is clear that there is more than one kind of desert-place in this song. The rival lover– the one “living for nothing” – is ‘nowhere’. Jane is “nobody’s wife”. All three characters are effectively estranged from each other in some way.
But who is the third, unnamed man? In his essay from 2012 on the subject, author Lawrence J. Epstein outlines the interpretation that “L. Cohen is one part of Leonard Cohen singing to another part of Leonard Cohen”. This theory receives strong support from the fact that the ‘famous’ raincoat worn by the nameless man has real-life significance. In the liner notes of the 1975 ‘Best Of’ record, Cohen writes:
“I had a good raincoat then, a Burberry I got in London in 1959. It hung more heroically when I took out the lining, and achieved glory when the frayed sleeves were repaired with a little leather. Things were clear. I knew how to dress in those days.”
If Cohen is using the love triangle format to confront the dual aspects of his personality, it is the romantic, hopeful and ‘searching’ version of himself, the rose-carrying “thin gypsy thief” coming “home alone without Lili Marlene” (“a symbol of perfect love that has gone away” Ref) who is banished.
This version of himself “is not like ‘L. Cohen” Epstein writes. “He is emotionally apart from other people, far away from them in his mind”. This could then demonstrate the need to reconcile two warring aspects of Cohen’s personality, or perhaps two very different demons. It also heightens the comparison between the interior and exterior desert, physical vs emotional distance, and – most interestingly to me – the idea that he is estranged from himself.
However you choose to interpret the song, it is clear that for Leonard Cohen the desert is not only a physical place. It’s inescapably within.
But the power of it as a metaphor is that, as something physical, as something of form and substance, the desert is confrontational. It offers you no place to hide from yourself, no comfort, no mercy. This, it seems is the stance that Robert Frost takes, using the blank, nearly featureless landscape of a snow-covered field to explore his own ‘desert places’.
Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.
The woods around it have it–it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.
And lonely as it is that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less—
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express.
They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars–on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.
In this poem, which like Famous Blue Raincoat begins at a time of transition between light and dark, Frost makes it clear to the reader that the ‘desert’ is an internal one, but he does so by folding himself into an external landscape that, covered in snow, appears “blank” and “empty”. The snow is a blanket force that smothers not only animals and trees, but also sound.
These are the defining characteristics of nature in the poem, described as something claimed and owned by the land, the essence of which is mysteriously and mystically referred to as ‘it’.
“The woods around it have it – it is theirs”
When Frost later acknowledges “I have it in me”, the repetition of ‘it’ adds a surprising gravity for such an innocuous word. ‘It’ is the feeling of the desert, hardly articulated, such is its vastness, blankness and unknowability.
By being “too absent spirited to count”, Frost is a stranger in a scene of silence and loneliness that includes him simply by not noticing or needing him, rendering his presence meaningless. Essayist Albert J. Von Frank suggests that what Frost realises from this encounter is that the physical ‘desert’ is not just a blank space, but a blank “canvas” for the viewer to define their own inner meaning or geography. The “benighted snow” offers Frost no guidance, no comfort and “no expression, nothing to express” except his own projections – his own fear of the inner void.
As with ‘L’Cohen’s complicated relationship with his love rival/other self, the desert equals separateness. For both Leonard Cohen and Robert Frost, the desert is instrumental in addressing their solitude through their own duality; to be at once part of somewhere and outside of it. This, according to David Jasper (The Sacred Desert), is itself a key characteristic of the desert, defining this process as a kind of “Kantian detachment“ that allows the observer to find inner meaning.
Von Frank also suggests something similar, noting that it is emotions such as doubt that make “us look outside ourselves for points of reference.” He goes on to opine that “when the poet-observer comes to understand that he is himself the repository of meaning, he discovers a sense of self”.
We could however, also argue that Frost cannot find a ‘self’, merely the threat of oblivion.
Mary Oliver also questions the relevance of the desert in finding inner meaning. In ‘Wild Geese’, the poet tells us that “whoever you are, no matter how lonely” your ‘self’ already belongs, free to “love what it loves”. The use of the desert in this poem is part of an abrupt start in which, as a symbol of suffering, spiritual atonement or rite of passage, it is essentially dismissed, putting the reader immediately into a state of relief and comfort.
“You do not have to be good, you do not have to walk on your knees through the desert repenting”
This forthright beginning works alongside the use of simple, soothing language and pace to suspend the reader in the moment. As with Frost, nature is depicted as something ‘apart’ from us, existing ‘unawares’, and it is from this position that Oliver, again like Frost, addresses the inner desert.
“Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine
Meanwhile the world goes on”
As with Frost, nature is used to provide a sense of scale. While Frost contemplates “stars on stars where no human race is”, Oliver depicts how the “sun and the clear pebbles of the rain/are moving across the landscapes/over the prairies and the deep trees,/the mountains and the rivers”.
In opposition to the desert, this is imagery of movement and life, of cause and intent. And this sense of animal, biological purpose is given specific form through the arresting image of geese.
“Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.”
The similar technique however, yields a different perspective. While Frost looks for the sublimity of fear and awe in nature only to find nothingness in both it and himself, Oliver uses the grandness and simplicity of the landscape to offset the inner desert – to bring it home to a world that “offers itself to your imagination” and “calls to you like the wild geese”.
“over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.”
For all her use of physical “things”, what Oliver brings to us is actually the idea of the invisible. A connection to ‘eternity’ that, through unseen forces places us in a wider network and pattern of nature.
Underscoring each of these examples then is the theme of something – or someone – simultaneously being there and also not there (like a mirage?). Of meaning coming from absence.
When I began this post, I didn’t think of the desert as being a place of dualism. It’s certainly an area I now intend to explore further.
“The house, the stars, the desert — what gives them their beauty is something that is invisible!”
-Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince
 Incidentally, and if you believe a singer can ever be relied upon to tell you the truth of their song, Cohen has claimed he can’t remember the “actual triangle”. You can read all his comments on it here.