Poetry is not an expression of the party line,” according to Allen Ginsberg. “It’s that time of night, lying in bed, thinking what you really think, making the private world public, that’s what the poet does.” In his latest book, What Can I Say?, veteran Alberta poet and retired farmer Charles Noble follows Ginsberg’s advice: The reader accompanies the poet to his local sports bar, grocery store and weight gym. Writing about everything from getting his car’s oil changed to getting his hair cut, Noble does indeed make his private world public.
What Can I Say?, however, is quite long for a poetry book, and a little inaccessible. An introduction or critical essay could have provided the reader with necessary context. This book would have also benefited from more intensive editing. Some repetitive elements, for example the repeated criticisms of media mogul Conrad Black and his misguided admiration for American president Donald Trump, could probably have been removed without harming the book.
On the other hand, Noble’s conversational, often rambling writing style (an aesthetic he has described as “digression upon digression”) requires wide open spaces. His poems engage with a broad assortment of philosophers and thinkers, including Plato, Kant, Lacan, Pound, Peirce and Sontag. Noble’s poems converse with various Canadian writers too, some of whom he knows or knew personally: Earle Birney, Andrew Suknaski, Sid Marty.
These poems also betray some degree of self consciousness and perhaps defensiveness as the aging poet critiques and struggles with the younger generation and a changing society. Noble imagines confrontations with youthful rivals in a sports bar, at one point admitting he is “a post jock” and later that “I can’t decide / whether I’m / a horny competitor / or a den mother.” Tourist towns, he claims, are well-oiled contraptions, and he is “the sand / in the machine.”
Noble’s poetry relies heavily on wordplay, mixing puns with political and literary allusions. One of the aforementioned Trump references has the president, “the ego / that walks like a man,” leaping into Joseph Conrad’s “heart of dorkness”; another political commentary ends with the suggestion that we get “down to brass taxes.” Passages like “poetry makes nothing happen / just watch it / an old Trudeau snapped” expect a certain level of literacy from the reader.
If you’re unfamiliar with Noble’s writing, this might be a difficult place to begin. Then again, if you’re looking for a book that combines dry humour with lengthy pontifications and cleverly mixed metaphors, well, What Can I Say?
—Kelly Shepherd is the author of Insomnia Bird (Thistledown).