It’s anything but hogwash: an intellectual and artistic engagement between two CanLit titans entitled Hoggwash, because Joe Rosenblatt’s letters are addressed to James Hogg, Barry Callaghan’s alter ego and poetic protagonist. The release of the book, published by Exile Editions and subtitled The Callaghan and Rosenblatt Epistolary Convergence, is accompanied by an exhibition of Callaghan’s and Rosenblatt’s drawings and paintings on at the GN Studio in Oakville until May 11.
The works displayed on two walls at GN Studio are all new. (Those pieces reproduced in the book are no longer in the artists’ possession.)These pictures seem to converse across the room. Callaghan’s surrealistic, Dali-esque beings, all feet and lips and teeth, address Rosenblatt’s birds, cats, fish, dogs and other half-human creatures with much on their minds, and not all of it philosophic.
Hoggwash began with a proposal from Rosenblatt. “Ten years ago I suggested to Barry that I would like to write to the leading protagonist in his epic poem, James Hogg and ask him a series of philosophical questions, pointed questions, as to the birth, or reincarnation of Hogg who emerges on an ice floe in Toronto Harbour and is set upon by thugs and crucified. Barry as Hogg would answer my questions, referring to our mutual friend Barry Callaghan.”
The epistles would also serve as a forum for the two authors’ thoughts on religion, philosophy, poetry and literature in general. The result (full disclosure; I acted as copy editor) is a unique Canadian literary document and a lively entertainment.
Callaghan sets the pace for Hoggwash in an opening Q&A with Rosenblatt, quoting liberally from Rosenblatt’s poetry. “You seem to me to be a blue angel, always in a delirium of poems and in this delirium you are, over and over again, born like death, with burning branches growing . . . .”
Rosenblatt describes himself as a “disillusioned romantic” and admits to a strange kind of voyeurism, the study of bees and their pollinating ways. Hogg is captured in a poem as a man living through “an endless winter of endless / nights, . . . sitting / squat hour after hour by a seal hole in the ice, / waiting for the snout of the seal . . . .” Hogg is in some ways the straight man to Rosenblatt’s remarks on Hogg’s musings about Martin Heidegger, God, the Virgin Mary and his Toronto subway Stations of the Cross. As for Callaghan, Hogg remarks, he “can be a bit of a gadabout and a rounder.”
This is not the first time either poet has emerged as a visual artist to be reckoned with. Writing about Callaghan’s Hogg works for an Ottawa exhibition, artist Vera Frenkel identified him as “a naturally skilled draughtsman.” Drawing and painting were something he did from an early age, prompting a poet visiting the Morley Callaghan household to ask what his son was to be, “poet or painter?” But like Rosenblatt, Callaghan needs a theme and Hogg (the actual James Hogg immigrated to Upper Canada in 1824 from Glasgow) has provided him with lots of inspiration.
Among the Callaghan watercolours on display at GN, a large picture of limbs and lips locking, called “Hogg Remembers the All of their Love,” is a tender depiction of two lovers. Other paintings are more in-your-face, even sinister, such as “Hogg in Purgatory” or “Hogg Pursued by Devils in Hell.” These Hogg paintings are expressive in their jumble of body extremities and Janus-like visages of the earthly/heavenly polarities in Hogg’s thinking.
Drawing and painting is more of a constant pursuit for Rosenblatt, who has a solo show concurrently running at Yumart Gallery in Toronto. Making his artist’s statement, the poet says, “In my drawings personalities grow exactly like limbs . . . . Those creatures in my landscape carry my genetic material. . . . The drawing paper demands its form. It wants to be fed and craves for limbs. And perhaps a spiritual envelope called the soul.” At GN you can see in Rosenblatt’s black-and-white drawings accentuated with bright splotches of paint that the hand that draws the lines is the same one whence Rosenblatt’s thoughts proceed on paper. “Stomachs Unite” is a good illustration of the Stoma principle under discussion in Hoggwash. Other works, such as “Chow Down” and “Eat or Be Eaten” could be visual equivalents of his ripostes to Hogg.
There’s plenty of food for thought in Hoggwash, both the book and the art works; readers and viewers might well demand a sequel.
“Hoggwash: The Exhibition,” April 16 to May 11, gnstudio / contemporary art, 123 Lakeshore Road West, Oakville, ON
“Angels, Demons and Spirits,” works by Joe Rosenblatt, May 7 to 28 at Yumart Gallery, 401 Richmond St. West, Suite B20, Toronto, ON
Hoggwash: The Callaghan and Rosenblatt Epistolary Convergence, Exile Editions, 118 pages, $17.95 pbk.
Art work courtesy of the artists, from top: “Stomachs Unite”; “Compared to What,” Drawing #11; “Chow Down”; “Compared to What” Drawing #18