Journal of Canadian Poetry reviews Rainbow Stage Manchuria

By Jordan Berard

The title of British Columbia poet Steve Noyes's fifth collection of poetry, Rainbow Stage-Manchuria, serves as a remarkably astute textual emblem of the collection's contents. Divided into three distinct sections, the book is framed by two extraordinarily ambitious long poems: "Rainbow Stage" and "Manchuria." Both centre on around questions of youth and rebellion, regionalism and identity, and both are filled with wry social criticism, witty puns, and an extensive network of cultural and historical allusions. In between these two outstanding long works lies a series of fourteen shorter, fragmented poems collectively entitled "The Marais." Although there is much to praise in a handful of poems that make up the middle section of the book, these lyrical fragments lack the substance, energy and unity of the two book-ending poems. Indeed, like the hyphen in the collection's title, "The Marais" as a whole ultimately functions as little more than a short lyrical – and physical – bridge between the longer works.

"Rainbow Stage," the brilliantly inventive showpiece of the collection, consists of a series of vignettes that tell the story of a fictional prairie rock band called The Next. Noyes cleverly experiments with style and form throughout this section, combining passages of prose with free verse, interview transcripts with song lyrics. The result of this playful pastiche is an energetic textual rendering of the psychedelic experimentation (in all its varied forms) that one normally associates with "those goddamn hippies" of 1960s America. Of course, this is an unabashedly Canadian poem, and Noyes generates a great deal of satirical humour from the fact that, as a speaker explains in the first section of the poem, the sixties ultimately arrived "ten years late" in Canada. That the poem is set in the far from groovy landscape of Manitoba only enhances the poem's wit and charm.

In the opening section of the poem, Noyes presents the reader with a hilarious and (stereo)typically Canadian version of free-loving hippy culture. The conventional "bongs and hookahs," "wife swap[ping]," and "righteousness / Over Vietman," are cleverly (mis)matched with "road-hockey frustrations," and "hippies driving front-end loaders." Indeed, only a Canadian could sympathize with the speaker's unique brand of complaints:

You have no idea, you have no idea, how miserable
We were, how picked upon, how small and shoveling
The gritty snow away we were, how macramé and
Tie-died sick and tired we were.

When the psychedelic attraction of never-ending fields of "wheat electric in spun sun" reaches its limits, Manitoba's "unjustly imprisoned," "buffalo-board," and "deeply rural ... tripping in soy bean / Solidarity" hippy community turns to music for release, "so much so that the sixties culminated in North Winnipeg in 1973 with a concert by The Next in Kildonan Park."

The name of Noyes' fictional rock band – The Next – functions as a clever representation of the band's constantly deferred potential. As the poem's multiple voices inform the reader, The Next "were gods, / North Winnipeg their ambit." They are idolized by the community's "countless teenage boys, skinny and hormonal," and have the uncanny ability to both "summon swarms of sweet-sixteen" and make older women strip off their bikini-tops, "spilling, willing, jubliand in pulchritude." If all of this sounds familiar (and it should), the Noyes has certainly hit his mark. The poet's clear desire to celebrate the music of the era alongside his almost encyclopedic knowledge of rock 'n' roll history, is exhibited in fine form as the remarkable celebrity status that The Next has achieved (at least in Northern Winnipeg) is constantly, and ironically, compared to that of real bands, particularly The Beatles. This is a remarkably intertextual poem that plants both recognizable and obscure lyrics from may classic rock songs alongside the lyrics pf many of The Next's fictional hits. Similarly, the poem draws analogies between members of The Next and rock legends such as Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, David Bowie, "Robert Fucking Plant," and Paul McCartney. Indeed, the intertextual analogies that are scattered throughout the poem constantly invite the reader to complete the dangling modifier that is the band's rather open-ended names: are they The Next ... Rolling Stones? The Next ... Led Zeppelin? That Ransom Ryder, Raptor, and Raft are nicknamed "the Sad Four" suggests that their closest real-world counterparts are the members of The Beatles (aka The Fab Four), and Noyes develops this analogy in the way they dress ("in their striped bell-bottoms, Monkee hairdos, / Turtlenecks and Nehru jackets"), and in the way they make music and are adored by their fans. Of course, clichés abound and the eventual destruction of the band that the poem documents – brought about by drug use, conflicting personalities, and a descent into an unhip variety of cultural "passé" – itself a cliché. Thus in addition to its satire of a rather belated and weakened brand of Canadian hippyish, the poem also offers a (loving) wink towards the conventions of sixties rock 'n' roll culture.

The poem's satirical tone is not enitrely rooted in humour and loving parody. Indeed, the band's permanently incomplete name is a strong gesture towards the difficulty that many Canadian artists (writers, musicians, actors, poets, etc.) have had in obtaining international success and celebrity without having to sacrifice their regional connections. What prevents The Next from becoming The Next ... Beatles or The Next ... anything, really, is their desire to remain rooted in the Manitoban community that created them. In one of the interviews with the band that appears in the poem, frontman Terry Ransom confesses to a host from a local radio station that The Next decided to stay in Winnipeg because one of the band members, Greg Raptor, "is afraid of Toronto, and he's afraid of LA, and the States in general. Besides, we like it here." There is a paradox here, of course: the band's refusal to move to a big)ger) city, or to the States, as so many real Canadian artists have chosen to do, is what prevents them from obtaining international success and recognition – that is what ultimately prevents them from becoming "the next" anything. Yet at home in Manitoba, they have achieved a level of success that makes them akin to The Beatles. So what is the Canadian artist to do? The poem suggests that, perhaps, it is far more rewarding (at least at a personal level) to be a well-known regional and local success than it is to be a nobody on the international stage.

After the experimental energy and playful enthusiasm of "Rainbow Stage," the short, often personal lyrics that comprise the middle section of the book, collectively entitles "The Marais," come across as somewhat conservative, banal and lacking. To be clear, there are many moments of genuine poetic ingenuity and lyrical beauty in these poe,s; however, they are simply not given a chance to shine as a result of the physical location in the book. These poems would be better served in a collection of shorter poems where they could be appreciated amongst other works of similar length and scope. Similarly, with the help of a new cover, a few photographs, and some extended song lyrics, there is an argument to be made that "Rainbow Stage" could potentially excel as a book on its own. As it stands, however, the middle section of Rainbow Stage-Manchuria suffers and is easily under-appreciated, even though it contains a few of Noyes's best short poems.

The most memorable poems from this section are those that explore the indifference of death and question the rationality of of natural order. In "At the Raptor Centre," a group of fourth-graders is introduced to "the pretty killers" of the aviary world – vultures, falcons, and other birds of prey. The birds are perceived to be nothing more than "benign specks" in the sky – they're even given rather banal names like "Raymond" – until they "come rushing from the sun / To pierce a million running spines," and are subsequently redefined as "indifferent / Engines of death." Similarly, "Serifs," the fifth poem of the section, is a remarkably profound examination of memory, identity, trauma, and the Holocaust. Told from the point-of-view of a "callow census hack," the poem details a Holocaust survivor's refusal to complete a census form out of a poignant and tragic fear of being counted: "I know what happens when they know / about you, when they count / you up." What affects the mathematically inclined speaker even more than the man's refusal to be counted is his glance of "the numbers, Arabic, / on his wrist," and the orderly, "rational" nature and appearance of those numbers that, paradoxically, represent the irrational and disorderly conduct of mankind: "Precise, barbed serifs where the 7 / starts, and the 2 ends." Poems that explore the impact of the Holocaust on both the survivor and the outsider are few and far between in Canadian poetry, and "Serifs" is a welcome addition to this canon. It is a poem that, through its examination of an outsider's reaction to a survivor's tattoo, reminds the reader of a number of Irving Layton's Holocaust poems as well as the under-appreciated short stories of J.J. Steinfeld.

Like "Rainbow Stage," "Manchuria" is an ambitious long poem that experiments with style and form to create an Eliotesque web of intertextual allusion and cultural criticism. Indeed, there are many echoes of T.S. Eliot's works in the poem: from the incorporation of multiple languages and the use of partially ironic marginal glosses, to the main character's indentification as "one of a mass, and a gloss on loss." Not surprisingly, the complexity of the poem's experimental form and technique also occasionally prevent its meaning and purpose from being entirely apparent. The poem offers a fascinating portrayal of a young female political dissident, her sarcastic attitudes towards her oppressors, and the anxiety and alienation that are created by her transience and her refusal to conform to the dehumanizing forces of the world around her.

From her current status and position as a waitress in Manchuria, the speaker reflects upon her childhood and asks "what have I done?" She recalls her development from a "young girl / Looking out lecture-hall windows / Over colonnades of scholar-trees, / ...past the Wall ..." to becoming an "angry / Young political" running "like salmon thrusting upstream" to escape "the flashing badges / ... / Of angry faces." Interestingly, one of the questions the The Next ask in the lyrics to one of their songs in "Rainbow Stage" is "When does childhood end?" In "Manchuria," Noyes answers this question through his depiction of a growing radicalism that ultimately alienates the speaker from her family, and destroys her youthful innocence.

Despite the fact that the speaker tells the story of her revolutionary days with increasing nostalgic fondness ("we were so strong, you have no idea. / ... / We had one idea and a livid will"), she is haunted bu a growing awareness of "another feeling / More frightening than change– / Submission." A profound melancholy pervades the poem as the woman becomes increasingly aware of how much she has changed since her days of youthful activism: "I am no longer Min Qin, you know, / On the run." One of the bittersweet results of her movement away from her activist past is that she is reconnected with her family, and the poem ends with a profound image of the girl and her father burning paper money at her mother's tomb. For the first time, she finds herself able to understand and appreciate her father's love for her mother, and she also understands that her father's act of burning money is his act of defiance: "the face on the bill is gaped by flame, / The eyes, the background factories, a flare / Of printed numbers; he drops the ash."

The blurb on the back of the book summarizes the remarkably eclectic nature of Rainbow Stage-Manchuria quite succinctly when it calls the book "nothing short of a world." There is much truth to this. Indeed, if this book is "a world," then it is the kind of world that Noyes portrays in "Manchuria" – a world where people can paradoxically live in a city with billions of people in it yet still feel isolated and alone. To appreciate the world that Noyes has created in this book, then, one needs to resist the temptation to try to find connections between the poems. There are themes that link the poems together, certainly, and one gets a kick out of wondering whether the "random / Blast of rock and roll, old North America" that the speaker in "Manchuria" overhears might be coming from The Next, yet the poems are best appreciated if they are read on their own terms, particularly the shorter lyrics that make up "The Marais." Ultimately, it is a hindrance to the rest of the poems in the collection that they fall under the shadow of the excellent "Rainbow Stage" – a remarkable long poem that stands as a separate, unique, and immensely enjoyable world of its own.