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Snake City by Joe Rosenblatt
reviewed by Linda Rogers

Snake City
Joe Rosenblatt
Exile Editions


Even in the walled swamp, “paradise” from Farsi, predators lurk. Joe Rosenblatt, saved once by his parent’s narrow escape from the reptilian jaws of National Socialism, has perfected a repertoire of transformation, costume and camouflage. Disguised as an amphibian, the “I” in his poems, drawings and prose, he has been navigating the garden of good and evil and creating a unique voice in Canadian Literature.

Snake City is a prose ramble in familiar terrain, the sound walk and slough splash of a poet who has been over the same map again and again. This time he walks into a wet corridor of light, but like his Biblical predecessor, he “will fear no evil,” because his suitcase, full of magical distraction, blinks.

The poet keeps running away from home in search of the true goddess and this book is the map of his travels. Yessie (Yossl /Joe in Yiddish) leaves his earth mother behind in a fug of unambiguous insult.

Her invective reverberated in Yessie’s ears, turning him into the emotional equivalent of a putrefying swamp otter swarmed by a cloud of obese flies in bombilation.

But bombilation is sweet music, percussive, steps to paradise and the rain that erases everything but rhythm. Human prints turn into manus and pes, amphibian prints, patter. In an instinctual behaviour known as dermaphogy, amphibians shed and eat their own skin. This is the unholy communion of toads, who leave no evidence.

The poet’s invisible locus is wandering song lines that become a web for the vulnerable. The toad laughs last as we fall into the seductive legato of music and baroque language, more distraction from the awful and awesome reality of sex and death in the micro cosmos where his febrile intelligence flares like flashlights and fireflies in the damp dark night.

Snake City is a reprise of themes that began in Rosenblatt’s early Toronto walkabouts, peek-a-boos in boudoir windows, light and shadow in urban gardens and, in recent years, the Rainforest, where his oeuvre has been thriving in real exhalations of nature: wind in evergreen branches, water flowing in the Qualicum River, seabirds, the cats who stalk them, and humans walking into the great tableaux of birth, copulation and expiry. This music transposes easily to Gorgonia, his mythological swamp city.

His own stale date getting closer, the poet voices a nurse log, could be an alligator, lying in the muck, waiting for regeneration. Not an observant Jew, he nevertheless lives within the gestalt that defines orthodoxy, his ancestral rhythms. His reptiles speak in tongues and moaning Jezebels keep the garden hipping and hopping as he composes new liturgies for ancient rituals.

Even if the crowd, in the main, were non-believers, and didn’t have a clue as to what Cottonmouth was actually vocalising, it making no linguistic sense, except possibly to some backwater sect, the multitude would still be enthralled.

The wisdom of those who lead as opposed to those who follow is that what you say doesn’t matter as much as how you say it. The human brain has no real infrastructure for de-coding language. We improvise with words, but music speaks to a deeper resonance, which is non-verbal. Rosenblatt, the possessor of a powerful voice, has the cantor’s understanding of the synergy of musical gestalt and spiritual epiphany. His baroque syntax has the oratorical magnetism of the counter-reformist Savonarola, the mystic Baal Shem Tov and the evangelists and snake oil salesmen of the Old South. The medium is still the message, or the massage as the snake would say, promoting his own oil.

As always, there is humour in the fallible behaviour that links creation and destruction as we reproduce to make our successors/usurpers, Long live the king! Sex is a pathetic joke, albeit pleasurable, and discovery of the little death that opens up the third eye is cosmic awareness.

The “phenomenal discovery: a barely detectable incandescence issued from what he discerned to be some ophthalmic seedling directly embedded in the centre of Yessie’s forehead.

“Had Yessie noticed he was in possession of a third eye, he may well have decided it was a sinful eye, generally transmitted by Satan to absorb the sight of relentless fornication.

“Yessie’s excessive Biblical ingurgitation would have immediately red-flagged Matthew 18:9…”

Could be this third eye, linked to the threesome in the poet’s feral dream, is the portal to enlightenment.

Rosenblatt’s linguistic excesses release laughter, which opens receptivity to the greater mysteries. It is the trickster language of Mozart, the haha that leads to the aha and ultimately the sublime. His compulsive creativity is the energy that keeps his images evolving, line-to-line, shape-to-shape, until it becomes the divine storm, the Judeo-Christian revelation: raw meat, apples and wafers floating in surreal visions.

The poet voyeur/voyageur, P.K. Page’s “Little Minotaur,” takes dictation from the Gorgonian swamp, a perfect milieu for morphing mythological creatures, but it could be his anywhere because Snake City is the place where body and spirit converge.

This is Rosenblatt’s hello Book of Genesis and his Goodbye Book of Revelations, the end and/or the beginning, erection and resurrection; cautionary tales falling like fruit from the tree of knowledge into the Everyswamp, which is eventually returned to its creature guardians.

And for us humans, it’s the slippery-walled rabbit hole. We are invited to enjoy the ride, which could end at the light or between the thighs of the wrong woman.

Linda Rogers, a fellow traveller of the snake and the toad, shares her crow’s eye view of Rosenblatt’s garden. Her own modest and discretely sexual story of the walled garden is related in The Empress Trilogy from Ekstasis Editions.

This review originally appeared in Pacific Rim Review of Books 21.