- Joe Rosenblatt (Author) and Michel Christensen (Illustrator)
Parrot Fever. Exile Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Joe Rosenblatt (Author)
The Lunatic Muse. Exile Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Catherine Owen
The Dogfather, former or current aliases Muttsy, Red Canoe, Moishe, Puggsy, Mandril Blue-Butt, The Loser, Padre Gregorious Luminoso and other devilishly apropos monikers, resists lengthy (and sometimes any) repartees on Canadian poets and their shrinking aquiferous habitat.
O Shaddap, he is wont to harrumph, pre-martini, if pressed on the subject of granting systems, writing departments, or the shenanigans of the once oft-soused Al Purdy.
He lets loose in The Lunatic Muse, however, a collection of tributes, recriminations, confessions, and poetic theories all shaped by a piranha-fierce preoccupation: to laud the role that a non-economically motivated, deliriously outré insanity plays in the creation of poems, and especially throughout the oeuvres of such wildly vagabond bards as Milton Acorn, Brian Brett, Anne Szumigalski, and Gwendolyn McEwen, their Canadian brand of madness haunted, as is Rosenblatt’s, by such loopy predecessors as Emily Dickinson, John Clare, and Christopher Smart.
The impetus for the project came partially from a series of lectures Rosenblatt gave in Italy, the culmination of which was a paper on poetic lunacy delivered at the University of Bologna in 1999. Yet the roots of Rosenblatt’s obsession with the
demons fluttering about from neuron branch to branch can be found at the naissance of his poetic vocation when he realized, much to Acorn’s and even Purdy’s disappointment, that his poetry could not emerge from a rational politic and would not thus exist to lend a
poetic voice to public
grievances, whether of the Marxist-Leninist or the common garden anti-imperialist variety.
The Lunatic Muse is full of gripy echoes against the deliriously wily imperatives of Rosenblatt’s poetics, in opposition to his forty years of poems from the cells of undersea asylums, the boudoirs of feline brothels, the squawks of feathered sociopaths and the growls of canine matricides. Purdy grouses about Rosenblatt’s seeming indifference to the Cuban revolution, an audience member questions the connection between Jewish identity and his bumblebee pieces, Acorn chides him about his lack of ambition to become a People’s Poet, especially in the light of the prole experiences he gained in slaving as a freight handler for the CPR, and Seymour Levitan expresses bewilderment that Rosenblatt can’t just pretend that the feral creatures populating his imaginative visions are
stunningly beautiful women instead, to placate conventional expectations and thereby garner a larger readership. Rosenblatt, however, seems to respond to all these jibes with a hefty shrug of his mammalian shoulders as if to say,
Why limit the dementia that ferments in my mind’s nitrogeneous climate?
Why indeed? In poetry, of all the arts, a vocation for the most part unconstrained by economic reins, an art that exists, or should, beyond the puerile dictates of the marketplace and the mercantilistic boxings of brute saleability, why should lunacy not serve as a shaping force? Rosenblatt describes the lunatic impulse variously as a stubborn inaccessibility, an obsession with mysticism or the supernatural, a persistent predilection for escapism, a glee in the unadulterated oxygen of inspiration and freedom, a unique greenhouse, his zoo muse, the gift of a heightened state of awareness, the poet’s dark side, an idiosyncratic cross-pollination, a sacred labour, psychic ecstasy, an induction by hauntingly alien voices, the creation of a private language, one ambiguous yet never obfuscating, spirochetes of delusion and, more conventionally, demonic possession.
memorable poetry cannot be created by an individual who is so
subjectively mad that their roller-coaster psyches rise to mania and plummet to the
black dog of depression within the span of a sonnet, Rosenblatt nonetheless glories in such poems of insane proportions as Acorn’s
A Natural History of Elephants, Smart’s
To my Cat, Jeoffrey, and McEwen’s shorter but still tipsy
A Breakfast for Barbarians. Emphasizing the spiritual nimbus that accrues around such seminal poems (and especially the elephant-semen-riddled Acorn piece), Rosenblatt refuses to shrink from words like soul, beauty, mystical, inspiration, death, truth and eternity in his appraisal of these wacky opuses.
In a society riddled with a combination of New Age psychobabble, media blips, and academe’s dry deconstructions, Rosenblatt relishes these words as syllabic anchors, mystical mouthfuls, their essence capitalized in his cortex as were all those words Emily Dickinson marked as significant, primary. Like the sand in the ill-fated chowder Rosenblatt once concocted for Anne Szumigalski on one of her visits to his curmudgeonly idyll in Qualicum Beach, the poets he extols are made of equally gritty and inextricable signatures. Beneath the slick bikini bottoms our society slides us, however yieldingly or convulsively into, is that sand, wedged uncomfortably in one’s crevices, in the manner of all moon-addled poets, its presence somehow rendering us more alive, more connected, even if to the not always amenable aspects of existence.
Rosenblatt’s latest long poem, Parrot Fever, makes this analogy especially vivid. Its book length invective against Brett’s parrot Tuco, whose strident whistle turned the dozy bard’s double malt into a missile for tragic tipplers, becomes, in the fermentative muck of the poet’s own lingua franca, a tribute to the musefying potency of such discordant, discombobulating elements as avian screeches. The parrot’s
canticle from Hell turns Virgil on the initially irate Rosenblatt, leading him in a
sacred dance of language towards essential, if rupturous questions of death, parentage, and the machinations of a world gone commerce-mad.
And herein lies the sacrality of the insane artist. They attend to incidents that others, outside of the lunatic realm, would dismiss, reduce, or expel with the emotion of the instant—
Damn that impertinent bird! Rosenblatt, however, as Milt did with the elephants, or Mr. Christopher with his humble feline, elevates the moment into a spur, a catalyst, an inner hounding to match sound and texture to what transcends mere sense, thereby catching the shimmer of life beyond that of the narrowly human.
The poet says
yes, then listens, watches at a depth nearly killed by distractions, ownerships, speed, says
yes, again, then writes down the mysterious shapes of these joyous and difficult affirmatives. This holy pace, this epiphanic act, when achieved, albeit rarely, is perhaps the most sane dwelling one can inhabit. A
nobility of soul (how arcane and naïve both crucial words sound!), in Theodore Roethke’s formulation, is considered mad when it is
at odds with circumstance. Certainly such is the case with the poets that Rosenblatt commemorates in The Lunatic Muse, including his own flat-footed, daubing, lumpbacked, martini-quaffing, cleft-chinned, kitty adoring, persistently anti-party poetry-of-the-deeps scribbling persona.
Rosenblatt’s first poetic mentor, the New York matron of the 1950s salon, Marguerite Harris, counseled him, after ensuring he could clearly distinguish between the neurotic excretions of the truly insane and the patterned caca of the artist, to remember to
put a little moon into what you do in your poems. Joe has certainly pledged fidelity to this dicta, linguistically, imaginatively, mystically. In his daily life too, I might add, he’s been known to inject a little beam of lunacy into the most potentially mundane affairs.
Three spots of time rise from the murk of memory. In 1996, when I went on my first
boating excursion with, as he was then dubbed, Moishe Redcanoe, he soberly dropped his line into the depths before suddenly, on feeling a wee tug, bursting out with a raucous guffaw and the invitation,
That’s right my little League of Canadian Poets’ members, come to papa. Still young enough to venerate the institution, I was pleasurably appalled. Long after this, on a Day of the Dead boat cruise with photographer Karen Moe and I in 2002, Rosenblatt disrupted the other party-goers by slumping on his duff in one corner of the dance floor, sporting a garish monster mask, deliberately positioned upside down—a gleefully humorless Caliban amid the frivolous sprites and sylphs. And one December, a year or two ago, there was the Dogfather, spryly clad in yarmulke and a fisherman’s sweater, a faux-jeweled clip-on earring in his snout, responding to the perplexed Torontonian visual artist Don Jon Louis, who had arrived for dinner, only to be met by a poker-faced yet bespangled bard with,
What? Don Jon. Is there something wrong? What?
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MLA: Owen, Catherine. Ectoplasmic Insanities. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 24 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #212 (Spring 2012), General Issue. (pg. 178 - 180)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.