Hydra and the Bananas of Leonard Cohen


By Roger Green

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English poet Roger Green left the safety of God, country, and whiskey to immerse himself in an austere and sober life on the Greek Island of Hydra. But when Green discovered that his terrace overlooked the garden of sixties balladeer Leonard Cohen, he became obsessed with Cohen’s songs, wives, and banana tree. Hydra starts with a poem the author wrote and recited for his fifty-seventh birthday (borrowing the meter of Cohen’s “Suzanne,” and ripe with references to the song), with Cohen’s ex-partner Suzanne, who may or may not be the subject of Cohen’s song, in the audience. By turns playful and philosophic, Green’s unconventional memoir tells the story of his journey down the rabbit hole of obsession, as he confronts the meaning of poetry, history, and his own life. Beginning as a poetic meditation upon Leonard Cohen’s bananas, Green’s bardic pilgrimage takes the reader on various twists and turns until, at last, the poet accepts the joy of accepting his fate.


and the BANANAS of

Also by Roger Green

Small Oxford Books: The Train
(Oxford University Press, 1982)

Notes from Overground by Tiresias
(Paladin Books, London, 1984)

Translation of The Akathistos Hymn by Romanos the Melodist
(The Ecumenical Society of the Blessed Virgin Mary, 1987)

Wolvercote Dreaming
(Shoestring Press, Nottingham, 1996)

With It Or On It
(Studio Viriditas Productions, Hydra, 2000)

and the BANANAS of

(A Greek parabola for us all)

Roger Green


The Mistress of American Math


The Master of American Haiku


My mind so muddled

I think everything

must have a hidden meaning.

—Steve Sanfield

The heterogeneous nature of the material

reviewed in the preceding pages need

cause the reader no uneasiness.

—Mircea Eliade: The Myth of the Eternal Return


Once upon a time, in England, a mother used to take her small boy across the fields to Mrs. Mansell’s shop. The shop was in the front room of Mrs. Mansell’s red-brick detached house. It never seemed like a proper shop, and Mrs. Mansell never seemed like a proper shopkeeper. Shopping involved a lot of conversation in lowered voices and something to do with a gray book with a crown on it. The boy, whose name was Roger, used to get bored and fidgety.

One day Mrs. Mansell whispered to Roger’s mother that she had a special consignment of bananas. Roger’s mother produced her gray book with the crown on it and flourished it at Mrs. Mansell. She said something like: “Roger needs bananas. The vitamins are very important for him at his age.”

Roger knew his mother was making a serious mistake. She must have forgotten that he had once eaten a banana and that the combination of the dead taste and the blotting-paper texture had made him sick.

“Mummy!” he shouted. “You know I don’t like bananas.”

Much to his bewilderment, his mother cuffed him round the ear, told him he was a naughty little boy, and remained in a bad mood all the way home across the allotment footpath. She wouldn’t even let Roger go and play in the aeroplane dump.

Roger wished his father would come home more often.


Nancy Drew says I have written a story, and if Nancy Drew says I have written a story, then that must be what I have written. Nancy Drew has had at least one novel published, so she should know.

Steve Sanfield is a professional storyteller. He attends storytelling conventions. He gets paid to stand up and talk for hours about the time he drove 40,000 turtles across the Midwest, or the time he kept a pet ant and learned its language. I am not that kind of narrator. For a start, I seldom get paid.

My father was known as a raconteur. People used to come up to me and say: “Your father is the finest raconteur I have ever heard.” These people were usually businessmen. My father used to sell them advertising space over expense-account lunches. At home my mother and my father would sometimes invite people to “dinner.” Often lively conversations would develop. The meaning of life would seem to be only just around the corner when my father would suddenly and loudly cut in, saying: “Now, that reminds me of a story.” He would then hold the floor for the next fifteen minutes or so, very often with a story that had been told to him by somebody else over one of his business lunches. As I cringed inwardly, I vowed that I would never become that kind of raconteur.

I once worked for ten years for the Ministry of Defence. After I left, I tried to write a novel based on my experiences. I wasn’t happy with it. Life is so extraordinary that I can never see the point of inventing characters and situations that have never existed, or of pretending that real people and events are really fictional. Crazy. Being a moderately law-abiding person, I dutifully sent the first hundred pages or so to my former employers, seeking their imprimatur. I was honestly relieved when their reply came, saying: “We wish you well writing on another subject.” I don’t believe I had infringed the Official Secrets Act. But I believe that They could not forgive me for betraying a different kind of secret— namely, that what goes on inside the Ministry of Defence is Not Serious. Be that as it may, it was clear that I was not that kind of tale-spinner either.

I write poetry and verse, notebooks and discourses. Never have I set out to write a story. Nevertheless, people have attempted to film my notebooks, while others have said: “I liked your story” after reading or hearing one of my poems. All I intended to do this time was to present a short poem of mine as an entertainment for my friends, on the occasion of my fifty-seventh birthday, in the small square that is a natural street-theater outside my favorite restaurant, the Pyrofani (in the area known as Kamini on the Greek island of Hydra), run (after a fashion) by my dear friend Theo, who must be unique among great restaurateurs in that his highly deserved reputation does not rest on his cooking abilities.

The poem was to be a throwaway piece summarizing my life (a tad cryptically) since I had come to the island as an English teacher four years previously. I was becoming known and even tolerated as the bard of the Pyrofani. I produced verses for birthdays, for the opening and closing of the restaurant, for other occasions. There was no reason to suppose that this poem would be any less ephemeral. What happened? Or rather, what has happened and is continuing to happen?

When a few friends who had been present at the first rendition of Fun de Siècle (as I called my ditty, partly with reference to the end of an epoch in my own life, partly with a nod toward the approaching millennium, and partly to stress my own philosophy that humor is an essential ingredient of everything) requested photocopies of the text, I complied, but I thought it would be helpful to add half a dozen pages of notes.

Fine. But I could not stop. The scholia, or glosses, or whatever you like to call them, simply kept on increasing. Before I realized what I was doing, I had produced a book-length manuscript, when all I had intended to do was to equip my poem with a few footnotes that I hoped would be slightly more illuminating than T. S. Eliot’s notorious notes to The Waste Land. Indeed, I nurtured an ambition that the whole enterprise would be more fun than The Waste Land.

If you read on, you can see how things turned out. At one end (of goodness knows what) I wanted to see the poem in its contexts— chronological, mythological, biographical, geographical, discographical, bibliographical, cartographical, anthropological, botanical, physical, spiritual, theological, hagiographical, metaphysical, horticultural, and so forth. At the other end, once written and performed, the poem began to take on a life of its own, of which I wanted to give some sort of account. In between, all sorts of stuff (I know of no better word) started coming at me from all directions and demanding to be dealt with—Orpheus and angels, Rilke and Rimbaud, haiku and Hydra, Red Indians and bananas—that kind of stuff.

What I have produced seems like a ragbag to me. The best descriptions I could find for it would be names such as galimatias, gallimaufry, salmagundi, hotchpotch, charivari, satura lanx, rigmarole, sooterkin—but only if you promised not to look them up in the dictionary. But Nancy Drew (she calls me Hercule Poirot, by the way) says I have written a story, and if Nancy Drew says I have written a story, then that must be what I have written.

Fun de Siècle

I’m just another pilgrim

From a land of damp gymkhanas

Led by the warm wind blowing

Through Leonard Cohen’s bananas

I’m going on fifty-seven

So the nymphs had better hurry

Or they’ll miss their chance to savor

My less than perfect body

If you come here with a purpose

You will not fulfill your needs here

There are jewels in Dirty Corner

But the Donkey Shit still leads there

And Orpheus gathers garbage

While the angels sing hosannas

Through the elephant-ear leaves

Of Leonard Cohen’s bananas

I went down to the harbor

I was looking for my father

But all I found was Jesus

And he said that he would rather

Do anything than stay here

And he asked me which was finer:

To take a Flying back to Poros

Or a slow boat to Aegina

Everywhere our boats are burning

Torched by winos in bandannas

As the wind rattles the rigging

Of Leonard Cohen’s bananas

There are children in the Salt Mines

With an Indian squaw singing

A runic incantation

Ach, hot tears my cheeks are stinging

And Bill’s Bar is full of phantoms

Among the dusty sponges

Sleepwalkers who’ve forgotten

Their bends-defying plunges

And always there’s a danger

That if the walls prove wonky

The balladeer’s bananas

Will be eaten by a donkey

Et toujours il y a le danger

Que les rois de l’île, les ânes

Démolissent les murs pour manger

De Cohen les bananes

The Millennial Olympics

Happened in a hotel suite as

I prepared to leave the island

Fortified with margaritas

And love is what we long for

And longing can’t discover

But if we don’t look behind us

We may yet surprise a lover

Yes, everybody comes here

With their personal nirvanas

Which are as transient as the wind

In Leonard Cohen’s bananas

Which are as transient as the wind

And as Leonard Cohen’s bananas . . .

Notes to Fun de Siècle


1. Bananas. According to Chambers’ English Dictionary, the banana is “a gigantic tree-like herbaceous plant” whose Latin name is Musa sapientum. I.e., it is not a tree because it does not have a woody stem. Musa, it seems, is latinized from the Arabic mauz.

Sadly, that’s as far as I can go without a reference library. I looked up all of these details after I had written the poem. I find it remarkable that, whatever mauz may mean, the Latin name of the banana translates as “Muse of the Wise”—and beautiful.

At least, I think and hope that sapientum is the genitive plural of sapiens. Why on earth “of the Wise”? Chambers offers no explanation of this, let alone why such a wise plant gave rise to the expression “bananas” meaning “crazy.”

Anyway, for this poem the banana was my muse, and I was wise and crazy simultaneously.

2. Leonard Cohen. A Jewish Canadian singer and writer who frequented the Greek island of Hydra (the setting for this poem) in the ’60s and early ’70s. He owns a house on the island but seldom visits the place. He is said to be living now in a Buddhist monastery in California. His songs are by no means as melancholy and pessimistic as they are sometimes made out to be.

When I wrote this poem, Cohen’s former partner Suzanne was staying in Cohen’s house. I (and for all I know, Suzanne herself) was under the impression that Cohen’s song “Suzanne” was about his former partner. I have since been assured by several well-meaning people that it was about another Suzanne.

To add to the glorious confusion, Cohen also wrote a song about a Marianne who, it seems, was a girlfriend of his who also spent time on Hydra. A recent article in the Observer credited Marianne with being Cohen’s wife. Certainly Suzanne’s existence in Cohen’s slightly dilapidated mansion recalls that of Tennyson’s Mariana in “the lonely moated grange.”

I am also reminded of “The Lady of Shalott” (for “shallot” read “banana”). Whether Cohen’s song is about her or not, Suzanne cannot escape the curse. There is not much to choose between the vicarious fame of being the subject of a song and the negative fame of not being the subject of a song by your ex-husband that bears your name.

Anyway, I borrowed and adapted the meter of Cohen’s “Suzanne” for my poem. I was aware of this song only as a result of my recent purchase of a cassette of Leonard Cohen’s Greatest Hits, prompted by hearing people on Hydra speak of the man. At this point in this narrative I was a complete newcomer to the Cohen oeuvre.

3. Hydra and myself. My acquaintance with Greece goes back to the ’60s but with Hydra only as far as 1993, when I came to teach English at the language school of Mr. Bibendum. Although about thirty years previously I had copied into my commonplace book (Attic Language) these two sentences from Henry Miller’s The Colossus of Maroussi:

Hydra is a rock which rises out of the sea like a huge loaf of petrified bread. It is the bread turned to stone which the artist receives as reward for his labours when he first catches sight of the promised land.

In the last four years I have learned a lot about the island and have a very strong feeling that I am assisting at the end of an era, a siècle, nay, a millennium.

I recently moved into a two-room apartment in an area of the town known to the expatriates as “Tirania” because of the large Albanian population. It was pointed out to me that Leonard Cohen’s house and mine overlook each other. I have the added advantage of an unimpeded view of his raised garden with its fine group of banana-plants.

When Tennyson writes of Mariana that

She drew her casement-curtain by,

And glanced athwart the glooming flats,

he was plainly prefiguring Suzanne gazing out toward my apartment.

As I lie in bed, I often hear the wind in the banana leaves. It worked its way into my mind, as did the words “Leonard Cohen’s bananas,” to the point where I had to do something about it.


At first I called the poem “Fun de Saison,” but then I decided that it marked the end of more than a mere season. As for the “fun”— it is a piece of fun, intended to entertain, and I can never resist a pun. But beware—I am always deadly serious behind the farçade.

When I found out about Musa sapientum, I toyed with the idea of calling the poem Verb. sap., or even Herb sap. I liked the added suggestion of the sap rising in the stems of the gigantic herbaceous plants. But I decided against it.


1. In selecting the term “pilgrim,” I had in mind an article in praise of Hydra by the late Damianos Stroumboulis, which concludes: “Hydra merits pilgrimage, not tourism.”

2. When I wrote this, I had just returned from England, where I witnessed child and animal abuse combined as parents urged their offspring to attempt to jump obstacles on horseback in a muddy field in pouring rain. The children were all kitted out in velvet riding caps, jodhpurs, and leather boots. Soon after this, some 100,000 British men and women demonstrated in London against a bill to abolish the hunting of animals by equestrians accompanied by trained dogs known as hounds.


1. The poem was written for my fifty-seventh birthday.

2. “Nymphs”—a pleasing classical term that here signifies practically any female crazy enough to come near me.

4. An echo of references in Cohen’s “Suzanne” to a “perfect body.”


3. Dirty Corner was the expatriates’ name for a dark, cramped bar near the Salt Mines. It had various official names, including Vegera and—in a vain attempt to shake off its image—the Corner. But to the drinkers, it was always Dirty Corner, not only metaphorically but also literally, for wind and rain deposited all kinds of detritus outside, and sometimes inside, the door. It eventually closed because too many of its regulars either left Hydra or went mad or became sane or died or got married or joined Alcoholics Anonymous. Its latest manifestation is as Zoë’s Jewellery Shop.

4. There are no cars on Hydra. The street leading to Dirty Corner is known as Donkey Shit Lane. After a sighting of a British prince, there was an attempt to change the name to Royal Donkey Shit Lane, but the new epithet never caught on. Hydra remains indifferent to so-called celebrities.


1. This line alludes to Thanasis, a dust-cart driver, who used to play both guitar and bouzouki brilliantly in Dirty Corner. He sang well too. “Garbage” also echoes “Suzanne.” As for Orpheus, like Tiresias in T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, he is “the most important personage in the poem, uniting all the rest.” Really.


1–2. After I had sojourned on Hydra for a few months, I discovered that a Greek who had been a close friend of my late father ran a waterfront bar there. For my first meeting with this Greek, I wore a straw hat that my father had bought in Jamaica. It emerged that the Greek had helped him choose it. It further transpired that the Greek had taken my father in his yacht for swimming off the mysterious, uninhabited side of Hydra. I had not known that my father had ever visited the island. Our family name is Green. As the Greek handed me the manuscript of a song written by my father for the Greek to sing, the radio above our heads blared out the refrain of an ecological song: “Green, Green, Green.”

3. Jesus also features in “Suzanne.”


3. “Flying” (more accurately flaïgk) is Greek for a Flying Dolphin, or hydrofoil. The hydrofoils are quicker but much less charming than the larger ferryboats. They seldom call at Aegina.


This stanza refers to the annual Hydraean festival of the Miaoulia. This jamboree is held at the end of June to honor all the island’s seafarers, but especially Admiral Miaoulis, who is credited with making a decisive contribution to Greek victory in the War of Independence against the Turks with his fireships. The celebrations always include the combustion of at least one boat.

On the occasion referred to here, at least two of the men (clad in costumes worthy of Captain Hook’s crew) charged with setting fire to the boat were heavy drinkers. One fell into the harbor and had to be hauled out. His name was Philemon. He used to wear a look of annoyance and bewilderment, as though he had received an incomprehensible epistle from St. Paul. He died just after this poem was completed.


On Sale
Sep 19, 2003
Page Count
240 pages
Basic Books

Roger Green

About the Author

Roger Green is an English poet living on the Greek island of Hydra. Among his publications are several books of poetry, including Wolvercote Dreaming and Notes from Overground by Tiresias. In 1987 the Ecumenical Society of the Blessed Virgin Mary published his translation of the Akathistos Hymn by Romanos the Melodist.

Learn more about this author