Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be a tree? To be inside a tree, to have branches for arms, leaves for hair, bugs and birds scurrying up and down one’s trunk? Far too often we walk straight past these magical giants without giving them a second thought. Their quiet immobility gives one the impression that they are without consciousness, will or memory, and yet we know that is not so. But as far as truly getting inside a tree’s consciousness, that is an extremely difficult thing to do. What poet has been able to do it? In Joe Rosenblatt’s most recent volume of poetry, The Bird in the Stillness, we find a most commendable and convincing attempt to do just that. Or so it seemed to me upon first reading his book. Later, it occurred to me the book is not so much about the consciousness of trees as it is about the consciousness of human beings, and more specifically, about the consciousness of a human poet.
Rosenblatt initiates speculation into the roots of the mysterious double life of the poet by appropriating the identity of the Green Man symbol. In “Osmosis,” Rosenblatt writes: “Adorned in leaves and brambles, we’re quite a sight to see / as neck to neck, the Green Man and I reside inside a tree… / It was there I sought to find the Stygian darkness in myself.”
Rosenblatt searches deep into his arboreal roots and brings the reader on an existential voyage into the consciousness of the Green Man, through a collection of 69 mainly unrhymed sonnets, and more than a dozen imaginative black and white drawings of trees with semi-human, half-hidden faces and expressive eye-covered leaves, frolicking butterflies, and birds perched or hidden within their thick foliage. Eyes are everywhere peering outwards, revealing the interactive life within the tree: that is, the interactive life within the tree within the man. In “Motes of Night,” Rosenblatt writes: “Their eyes suddenly appear each time I paint a tree. / They have a chilly look as they gaze defiantly at me / yet I’m beaming back at them to bend their hostility.” Here the poet refers quite explicitly to the self-reflective act of poetry. The tree allows the poet to see himself.
In “Viewing a Midday Lunch,” he writes: “In these woods even dreams are eaten by a slim garter snake. / I and the Green Man know: Life makes a meal of the living.”
While the trees’ faces continually remind us of the self-reflective nature of the poetic act, Rosenblatt’s meditation reaches far deeper into the cavernous earth. And while the scrupulous reader can plainly observe the poet’s preoccupation with old age and death, the very idea and fact of death is envisioned as Mother Nature’s regenerative force. Above all, Roseneblatt’s obsession with the life of trees is focused on their eventual demise and renewal. While symbols of rebirth and metaphors of transformation are present throughout Rosenblatt’s collection, they are handled with a surprising lack of subtlety. In “Mycelium Motels,” for example, Rosenblatt writes: “A sapling from a soggy bed is nourished by decay. / Mouldering into soil, that tree trunk is with child! / Living or dead, mothers are providers in many guises …”
What keeps this text interesting is the personality of the writer himself and his commitment to continuously redevelop his identity through the Green Man’s eyes. Above all else, Rosenblatt’s collection is a living portrait of the artist as a tree.
Originally from Toronto, Ontario, David Swartz currently resides by a small river outside the city of Lisbon in Portugal, where he works as an English teacher.
WHERE TREE AND HUMAN POET MEET: ARC!