Ghost Country (Brick Books, 2006) is Steve Noyes’s third book and his first in 10 years, a revelatory collection of narrative poems that explore boundaries — both cultural and domestic — and the ensuing tensions that exist on either side of the borders. Noyes, a policy analyst with the provincial Ministry of Health in Victoria, wrote the collection about a year teaching in Bejing in the mid-1990s.
His poetry is unique for its prickly vulnerability that rubs against a startling penchant for reviving words and language assumed long lost or segregated to another more structured, non-poetic world. In “Desire,” he writes of a “daffily serious young woman” and the “re-educative labour” that comes with examination of failure. In “Outsider” he notes Chinese workers “chonking chisels prying at the road wall and the trucks wallowing their shocks with unseemly loads.” In “Lottery” he is offended by a young innkeeper’s offer of his sister as a xiaojie, then pauses “only to wriggle in the thought, Well, do I want a xiaojie?” He dismisses the idea not from any moral stance but because a fan placed dangerously close to the bed might trim his thrashing toes.
It’s that kind of rough edge that likely prompted Al Purdy to remark that Noyes was “a damn good poet” after Noyes connected with the grand old man of Canadian poetry, establishing a relationship that lasted until Purdy’s death.
Noyes grew up in Winnipeg’s north end, left his troubled home at 15, finished a journalism undergraduate degree and fine arts master degree and taught creative writing at the University of Victoria. He has also worked as a millworker and parking lot attendant. Recently he married Victoria poet Catherine Greenwood.
A fascination with language and culture (he’s studied Turkish, Hebrew and Mandarin), is what took him to Bejing for a year to teach at a university and college. He fell in love with a student he met on a bus but for a variety of reasons came back to Canada without her. That student is the catalyst for many of Ghost Country’s poems.
His multi-faceted life informs his writing. In “The Old Professor” Noyes recalls a former teacher “dead now certainly” who tried to shepherd him into psychology and in the present of the poem he wonders if life doesn’t provide enough tangible evidence of inner angst. In “Prayer for My Wife” he writes about the sweet textures life provides, like when watching his wife choose rocks and shells at the beach and feeling the items placed in his palm: “I shivered, felt immeasurably/rich. I love your small attentions/the light blue veins at your temples/three moles on your slender wrist,/the comfort of your kiss, your hair/as it swishes cross my chest. They fill/me with this hope:/that my love for you’s my best.”
Ghost Country is a settling, incandescent book that should be placed gently near the one you wake beside as a reminder of love’s constant ebb and flow.