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Joe Rosenblatt: a celebration of life

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Joe Rosenblatt (Faye Smith Rosenblatt photo)

In his efforts to make sense of the world, the poet and artist Joe Rosenblatt, who died on March 11 at 85, left behind a wondrous legacy of insightful poems, prose, drawings and paintings, his unique artistic visions of tikun olam.

As Canada’s post-biblical Noah, Rosenblatt explored the actions and survival tactics of a wide variety of animals, insects, trees and flowers in both natural and urban settings interweaving their behaviour with that of humankind.

Rosenblatt, the eldest son of Polish Jewish parents, was born in Toronto on Dec. 26, 1933. He attended Lansdowne Public School and Central Tech, but dropped out at age 16 to work as a labourer and political activist before he became an active contributor to the Toronto poetry scene, which included Margaret Atwood, Gwendolyn MacEwan, Milton Acorn and Al Purdy.

LSD Leacock, Rosenblatt’s first book of poems, appeared in 1966. He went on to publish countless volumes, including Top Soil, which won the 1976 Governor General’s Award for poetry when the award meant as much as the Griffin Prize of the 21st century.

“There can be no doubting Rosenblatt’s pioneering influence on modern Canadian literature; he will be remembered for years to come,” wrote Alana Wilcox, current editor of Coach House Books.LSD Leacock stands out as one of our more important publications.”

In the CanLit heydays of the 1960s and ’70s, when Rosenblatt read his work – especially his suite of bee poems –  his sustained lyrical voice reminded this writer of synagogue davening. In a preamble to reading Rosenblatt’s bee suite at the Free Times Cafe once, author Timothy Findlay said that Rosenblatt’s bees were endowed with cosmic energy.

From 1972 through 1983, Rosenblatt was senior editor of Canada’s first Jewish literary quarterly, Jewish Dial’og, an eclectic, Toronto-based magazine that published essays, book reviews, fiction and poetry by Jewish Canadian writers from across the country, many already established, and others at the beginning of their careers. The list includes Adele Wiseman, Helen Weinzweig, Shirley Faessler, Phyllis Gotlieb, Miriam Waddington, Tom Wayman, Irving Layton, Eli Mandel, Leonard Cohen, Jason Sherman, Seymour Mayne, Abraham Boyarsky, Barnett Singer, J.J. Steinfeld and myself.

Jewish Dial’og paid its writers and had a very savvy owner, Murray Barrett, who knew how to get lots of advertising. Rosenblatt was doing at Jewish Dial’og what A. M. Klein was also doing during his editorial stint at the Canadian Jewish Chronicle, when he published his own poems and short stories and those of fellow writers, mostly from Montreal.

Rosenblatt’s politics were similar to Klein’s. Both were left wing, but their creative trajectories were disparate. Klein fell silent following a mental breakdown in the early 1950s from which he never recovered, while Rosenblatt had projects on the go up to a few days before he died. 

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Two critically acclaimed limited editions of Rosenblatt’s drawings appeared in 1978: Dr. Anaconda’s Solar Fun Club, 1978 and Snake Oil. In a 1983 solo exhibition at Ottawa’s Den-Art Gallery, Nancy Baele, art critic for the Ottawa Citizen wrote, “Following the tradition of Robert Searle, the satirist, Rosenblatt pokes fun at society, at the vanities we indulge in, and draws a world that is a web of human-animal connections.”

In 1980, Rosenblatt moved to Vancouver Island, B.C., where his eccentric imagination continued to flourish. A crowning achievement came in 2016 with The Bird in the Stillness (Porcupine’s Quill), a spiritual feast of sonnet/devotionals inspired by Rosenblatt’s appreciation of the Qualicum Beach Heritage Forest’s ancient Douglas firs.

Rosenblatt died in Qualicum Beach two days after a review of his final book of poetry and illustrations, Bite Me: Musings on Monsters and Mahem (Porcupine’s Quill) appeared in the Vancouver Sun.