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  • Joe Rosenblatt: Essays on his Works
  • David Reibetanz
Linda Rogers . Joe Rosenblatt: Essays on His Works. Guernica. 158. $15.00

Joe Rosenblatt: Essays on His Works is a book of eclectically diverse essays, an appropriate match for the eclectic diversity of its subject. Rosenblatt is both an artist and a poet, and though his work has attracted greater critical interest in Europe than in Canada, his poetic acclaim includes winning the Governor General's Award in 1976 and the British Columbia Book Prize in 1986. Born in Toronto in 1933, he has become known for painting – both with words and through graphic art – a surreal world that mirrors our world while simultaneously inhabiting it. In over thirty books, Rosenblatt has focused his prodigious energy on everything under the sun; as Linda Rogers puts it in the introduction to the book, 'desecrated temples, nuisance grounds, cat brothels, fish markets, polluted streams, neon lights, and cheap hotels' form merely a brief sample of the variety of Rosenblatt's subjects. This poetic landscape is, Rogers tells us, 'always visited on foot,' and her book unfolds as an excellent map that catalogues his travels through wild landscapes and human environments (equally wild). Yet, although Rosenblatt often appears as a troubadour of the animal world's uninhibited, instinctive vitality, his art involves far more than cataloguing, and most of the essays bear witness as well to the intricacy of his verbal artistry. Thus, Susan Musgrave writes that after reading Rosenblatt, no one will 'be able to look a simple pond in the eye again without wondering what lurks beneath the surface,' but she also observes shrewdly that 'ponds are metaphorical lenses for Rosenblatt, through which he views all the bittersweet, raunchy mysteries of existence.' Indeed, a mere couple of lines from his poem 'Another Time Zone' reveal a characteristic deftness at what Crane called the 'logic of metaphor': 'The Fishing Master snares a speckled woman / spinning like a conscience outside a mortuary.' [End Page 447]

Diane Keating's 'The Larval Clothes of Joe Rosenblatt' offers a complementary insight into his focus – that it is directed outwards. Eschewing the confessional stance in vogue when he started writing, Rosenblatt finds more value in looking at the world through what Keating terms a 'side-view mirror,' producing what she calls a 'poetry by deflection.' This self-effacing stance seems to reflect perfectly the sensibility behind it. As David Berry comments in the more personally based 'Getting to Know Joe,' 'If he has an ego, he hides it well.' However, Rosenblatt's modesty should not be mistaken for a lack of commitment, and Allan Safarik's 'Joe' casts the Canadian poet in yet another light, bringing his political activism to the fore as well as displaying how Rosenblatt's passionate and prolific interests have made him 'a veritable banquet of exotic dishes' for the eager critic. Ada Donati even calls Rosenblatt a 'Canadian I-Ching,' explaining that opening Rosenblatt's poems is 'much like opening the Chinese inspiration book, in the sense that whatever page turns up, you always find a meaningful clue, a road sign, an input to enlarge your vision and a fuse to trigger the imagination.' Certainly an aspect that all of the essays highlight clearly – including the four candid, informative, and delightful ones by Rosenblatt himself – is how Rosenblatt's work, even if it arises from a place of desolation and sorrow, teems with life. As Safarik puts it, '[T]here is everything you might want to know about love and sex and debauchery in the fantastic carnivorous world. The great horny lumpy bull frog leaning over a bath tub, the free standing love lamp, domestic chaos, the playful sexual buzz in his line drawings remain' with the reader long after she has looked up from the page or the painting. So too with Joe Rosenblatt: Essays on His Works; its varied essays and their eclectic angles are like cross-sections of a vast, fascinating terrain, inviting exploration by seasoned traveller and amateur alike.

David Reibetanz
Department of English, University of Toronto


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pp. 447-448
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