current issue

the next country by idra novey

Alice James Books
  November 2008
  80 pages

Idra Novey’s first book of poems attempts the daunting task of remapping the world. Her geographical sleights-of-hand place distant countries side by side, removing inconvenient boundaries like oceans or the dozen other countries lodged in between. In her created topography, an American can travel to Byzantium by train, or, “when the water recedes,” can cross “to the continent,/ [her] belongings/ in a wheelbarrow./ Over the sand,/ over the bones/ of pirates/ clattering like plates.” She stitches countries together as if such magic were everyday occurrence, as if geological shifts like this happened daily instead of over millennia.
In the territory of her mind, Chile is “the next country over,” its landscape and life so vivid, even from the distance of Appalachia or New York, that it almost becomes a palimpsest to the American backdrop. Or vice versa. Novey’s speaker feels equally comfortable in both countries—and, perhaps more accurately, equally alien in both. The fourth poem in the collection, “Stranger,” describes, in list form, all the ways in which one can be a stranger: “Person not a member/ of a group. A visitor,/ guest, or the breast/ that brushes your arm/ on the subway.” Novey’s poems play on this feeling of separation and solitariness throughout The Next Country, but there is also a profound sense of simultaneous togetherness from this alienation, as in the “[p]erson logging online/ at the same second/ from the Home Depot in Lima” or the “[p]erson not privy or party/ to a decision, edict, etcetera,/ but who’s eaten/ from the same fork/ at the pizzeria/ and kissed your wilder sister/ on New Year’s.” She positions herself as a child “given to staring,” mistaken by border guards for a Mexican girl sneaking across the U.S. border with an American family. Later, as an adult, she intentionally and necessarily straddles borders when she marries a Chilean man.
This position of simultaneously belonging and not belonging is a favorite province of poets, but Novey enacts and explores its complications beautifully. She speaks of the literal—dual passports, customs officers’ questioning, the lack of resemblance between herself and her half-sister—but also the imagined and figurative. In “A Maça No Oscuro,” a title borrowed from Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector, she tells a fairytale-like story of two sisters who fall in love with a stranger who comes to their farm. First the speaker is “the sister who slips/ into that unsteady dark, finds her way// through the stink of animals,/ past the bales of hay to the stranger.” But then, in the next breath, she begins, “Or it happens I am the one who stays/ in bed, must listen to the other// crossing the yard.” There is a sense, throughout the collection, that there is no inevitability to our places as citizens of particular countries, as lucky or unlucky. We could have had different parents, could have been “disappeared” by the dictator, could have returned to the scene just a moment too late. This is the real mysterious heart of The Next Country, a dreamlike quality that creates, from concrete experience, a shifting and untethered self. And, seen through that most elemental dislocation, all objects become fresh and strange.
Carolyn Forché’s monumental early book The Country Between Us seems a clear influence and necessary predecessor of Novey’s work. (Fittingly, Forché chose Novey’s chapbook, a section of this larger work, as the winner of the PSA’s chapbook contest in 2005.) But where Forché’s attention remained largely on her outsider status in Guatemala, Novey’s perceptions of her position are more complexly embodied. She is, at times, an outsider even where she most belongs, and an insider even in places she has never been. She ends “A Maça No Oscuro” with this simple understanding: “Either way, I wake/ and do not recognize my life.”
Borges said, in an interview for the Paris Review in 1967, “When I was a young man, I was always hunting for new metaphors. Then I found out that good metaphors are always the same. I mean you compare time to a road, death to sleeping, life to dreaming, and those are the great metaphors in literature because they correspond to something essential.” Idra Novey’s central metaphor throughout The Next Country is certainly the road, with both time and experience moving along it, though not in a clear linear path. Sometimes the roads go nowhere, or curve, or disappear. In Novey’s landscape, they are as likely to take us into a dream state as into a new physical location or era. She allows the logic of memory and desire to be the engine. Her poetry borrows much from the Latin American trope of magical realism, turning women into parchment and bottles, creating a violin in the speaker’s pocket, and receding the tides of oceans so far as to make their beds walkable.
For the most part, these magical qualities bestow a quiet, breathy feel to the poems. The world feels unfamiliar, ripe for exploration and wonder. Novey’s linguistic skill is evident in her precise and graceful evocation of this atmosphere. She is also adept at handling the intimacies of the interpersonal, and through her poems we come to understand a strong sense of family and spousal relationships without the language ever feeling overly confessional or self-involved. At times, however, I wished for some counterpart to these qualities—a gritty, loud, more public sort of poem. She is, after all, writing about Chile during and after Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorial rule, and her settings are often Santiago and New York, two major international cities. Yet the poems are almost always quiet and clipped. Only the occasional siren’s wail enters the background, or the mention of a stadium in which people were tortured. Novey’s poem “The End of Augusto” refers more directly to a public event—Pinochet’s death in 2006—and yet it ends up becoming almost a still life, with French toast and a bowl of fruit at the center of the poem. The book’s heart is not politics, and I would not argue that it should be. But tonal variation, through an allowance of a bit more of the outside world, in all its conflict and chaos, might make an interesting counterpoint to the speaker’s quietude, adding a further dimension to the collection.
On the other hand, in a dictatorship, silence is often the rule. What happens underneath, without words, tells much more of the story. In an early poem, “Into the Atacama,” Novey uses the refrain, “When I said _______, I meant _______,” making the case both for the difficulty of translating inner thoughts to communicated words as well as the necessities of coding for privacy and safety. Poetry’s compact and restricted form has always been appealing to writers as a vehicle through which to describe repression, to say the unsayable. Governmental language in particular comes charged with claims to power. In Novey’s poem, “Customs,” describing the experience of government processing to enter another country, the word “declare” takes on double meanings. What can a traveler take with her? What will she admit to carrying? And what can such a poetry declare outright? At the end of the poem, she concludes, “we are what we carry undeclared.”
This is a poetry of the unsaid and the cautiously translated, of loss and fragmented memories. Novey’s act of remapping the world is also an act of gathering up the pieces. While on the surface we are charmed by her placing distant countries side by side, this is also a strategy of restricting losses, of charting what remains before it too disappears. In a country like the United States, which prizes newness and innovation above all, this is a difficult task. In Chile, it may be a dangerous one. Pinochet, when asked whether he was the head of Chile’s secret service during his Presidency, gave an answer that no doubt Novey would find appropriate: “I don’t remember, but it’s not true. And if it were true, I don’t remember.” Certainly, in a dictator’s wake, it is difficult to begin to speak openly again. The Next Country is an invitation—still quiet, but assured—for new language, memory, new maps.

rachel richardson is the author of Copperhead (Carnegie Mellon, 2011). Her poems have appeared in such journals as the Southern Review, Slate, Blackbird, and Memorious, and her essays and reviews can be found at the Poetry Foundation website, Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. She has taught at several prisons and universities, and is currently the Kenan Visiting Writer at UNC-Chapel Hill.

photo credit: Sandra Neumann