In the months prior to his most untimely death, Canadian poet, small press/mashup manifestor and supporter of transgressive literature, Mark McCawley (1964-2016) was heard questioning why we don’t very often read, publish, or otherwise deeply laud our senior writers. Sure, there are exceptions. But sadly fewer and fewer as we raise those “first bookers” often just out of their BFA/MFA on high and dismiss those who have been composing intently for decades as “has beens,” jaded with their visions and productions.
Joe Rosenblatt has been a quirky and vital part of Canadian literature and art for over 50 years and his latest collection attests to how his abilities have continued to burgeon, while his unusually ectoplasmic and metamorphic phantasmagorias of rhythm and image remain powerfully consistent. The most potent part of this book, The Bird in the Stillness:Forest Devotionals (elegantly emblazoned with one of Rosenblatt’s bird paintings, while the textured interior pages spackle with the flit and gnarl of his pen & ink sketches), are indeed his sonnets in homage to the Green Man and his eternal and fragile woods. Rosenblatt, as attested by many collections including Brides of the Stream, The Sleeping Lady and DOG (co-composed with myself), is the supreme squire of the sonnet form, and this sequence is no exception, with the sonnets that don’t commence with a rhyming triplet being the strongest formally-speaking. Capable of containing a wide range of emotion, these paeans to aging, trees, contemplation, loss, copulation and divinity ring with fear, sorrow, trepidation, melancholia and yes, sexy little spurts of titillating humour. Sonnets such as “A Naked Waving Hand” and “My Face” truly enter the realm of Poe-tinged horror where “sunlight had seeped away as though absorbed into a blotter” and “We each had donned a death mask, yet we were still alive.” The Green Man is his faithful Virgil, a mocking presence, a reminder of mortality, an echo of the erotic. “Gilding the Sadness,” “Greener” and “Obesity of Gloom” are some of the most moving pieces on depression and transformation I’ve ever read while “Camouflage,” “The Rapture” and “Photosynthesis Motel” are both tender and silly tributes to uncommon desire. I hear Dickinson, George Herbert, and even Shakespeare in lines like “I’m in camouflage my dear, search beneath my skin for me,” evoking Sonnet 73’s bare withered boughs, and an old man still questing for love in his life’s now-winter.
As much as I enjoyed later pieces in this book like the numbered repartee of “A Conversation between a Mountain and a Lake” and “Their Masterpieces” where a voice in the poet’s head cries hauntingly, “Your warranty on breathing is nearly up,” I still wished the collection had solely been composed of the Green Man sonnets as the whole creates a reverberatory intensity, allowing the reader to enlarge their imaginative empathy for the wild, which is all around us, and to further develop a comprehension of the state of embodied aging and consciously-imminent mortality. In Godard’s film “Pierrot le Fou” from 1965, a girl asks a man, “Is poetry an embellishment of life or is it instructive?” and he responds, “everything that embellishes life is instructive.” Rosenblatt’s poems are fiercely and determinedly this, embellished to the hilt, unabashedly, and in their willingness to let the inhuman world in and have it speak to the human in shameless anthropomorphism, they are indeed, at their absurd and wise core, utterly instructive. Let us honour how he continues, in all his exquisite multiplicitousness, to create.