Rainbow Stage-Manchuria by Steve Noyes
This fall, The Malahat Review and The Fiddlehead are showcasing the writing of each other’s regions, with the Malahat publishing an East Coast issue and the Fiddlehead a West Coast issue. In curating these special issues, the editors John Barton and Ross Leckie hope to start a conversation about the extent to which our reading is shaped by the region in which we live – even in the current hyper-cosmopolitan age of the Internet. Barton and Leckie also hope to expose readers to writers they may not have read or heard of before.
In the spirit of the Malahat and Fiddlehead’s bicoastal exchange, I’d like to recommend a new book from BC poet and novelist Steve Noyes. I first encountered Noyes’ writing at Thin Air, the Winnipeg International Writers Festival in 2006 when he read from Ghost Country (Brick Books 2006), a collection of lyric narrative poems in which east meets west in contemporary China. Since then, my admiration for his work has grown with each new collection.
Noyes followed Ghost Country with Morbidity and Ornament (Oolichan Books, 2009), a book of poems that is more formally diverse and free-wheeling in its subject matter and themes. A sampling of poem titles gives you an idea of the collection’s range: “Poutine with Comet,” “An Introduction to Chaucer” (written partly in faux Middle English), “Cigarette Humours,” “Canzone for Foreign Experts” and “A Poem for Ramadan.” Here, free verse cozies up to the sonnet and poems originally written in Chinese converse with their English translations.
Fresh off the press, Noyes’ latest poetry collection is Rainbow Stage-Manchuria (Oolichan, 2012). Rainbow Stage-Manchuria is bookended by two extraordinary long poems. “Rainbow Stage,” exuberantly evokes the 1960s and 70s, telling the story of fictional prairie rock band The Next and its larger-than-life lead singer. In this poem, at once elegy and send-up, Noyes manages a deft balancing act between genuine tenderness and acerbic irony. Even readers too young to remember banana seats and cassette clubs will find this a richly rewarding nostalgia trip into a mythical era that is “Gone-gone-ka-chong” and maybe never was.
“Manchuria,” is a fascinating portrayal of a young Chinese woman and political dissident. This poem considers timely questions of identity and individuality, what it means to be “one of a billion-some” and reminds us that, despite our differences, “We are all Chinese.”
In the book’s middle section, shorter poems examine our growing distance from one another and from nature. Testing machines “jerk the / artificial hips through theoretical / lifetimes of load” and fourth-graders encounter the indifference of nature and its “pretty killers” on a trip to the Raptor Centre. In these poems, which bring to mind the poetry of D.H. Lawrence, Noyes exposes the absurdities and grotesqueries of our modern way of living and shows us that the natural world, too, is a foreign country.
Noyes aims poetry’s finely calibrated instruments into “the drifting ether” of cultures (“We learn to lie, and a map / Is a great teacher…”) and the migratory patterns of whole populations, investigating what is real and how to be human in a world that is increasingly dehumanizing in its influences. Rainbow Stage-Manchuria is one of the most engaging books of poetry I’ve read this year