The Next Country by Idra Novey
There are books that make us want to go out and howl at the moon. There are books that make us—newly flushed with the possibility of enterprise—want to rush to our desks and write, write, write. There are books that make us humble and self-conscious of our talents; for a moment we consider laying down our pencils or powering down our laptops . . . and never attempting wringing our poetics out into the universe again.
And in a fashion of hyper-modern and hyper-post modern gymnastics, there are amazingly other books. Books that do not howl. Books that do not pursue louder music, brighter lights, more flash. More Hopkin’s compression; springier sprung rhythm. Books that have—dare one say it—old world manners . . . perhaps manners absorb in another country. After reading Idra Novey’s first book, The Next Country, one recognizes influences from a domain other than North America. Yet, those of an American, moving in foreign domains. (Novey is a translator of Brazilian poetry.)
Novey is gentler . . . but not less poetically tenacious in her observations.
Here the young speaker and her companion are working their way through customs:
And the purpose of your travel
Claret flowers in the desert, sir, and the dunes, of course, their muted shifting being the real history of loyalties
two people in a line, one suitcase between them
though only you
are a citizen here —
Your hand warm in my pocket in search of secrets, your credo:
we are what we carry undeclared.
Novey’s observations are genuine, artful, and inhabited. She is mindful of geographic realms; shifts in natural terrain, plants, and animals. She is keenly aware of culture and customs. She is equally mindful of her own center of gravity, i.e., the English language and a slightly shy North American point of vantage. It serves Novey’s poem’s well.
Many of the poems touch on intimacy. They are often in observed gestures of others. And in one poem, “Postcard of Two Birds, Scattered Feathers,” the intimacy is couched in that of feathered creatures. Interesting that in the poem Novey uses gender assignment and the false exactitude of numbers the way Elizabeth Bishop uses them:
One bird hyphens between branches, all instinct
and wing, while the other smaller one (we’ll call her she) remains
motionless, passing for tree trunk, the ochre of bark. But the larger (our he)
has already seen her, and glides eagerly to her bough. Their shadows merge,
a blur of wings, then separate as swiftly — six wispy feathers
spin to the ground, the upholstery of mercy. For a second, only the tree,
a green quiet. Then above: two birds again in slower flight.
Novey is not racing around. Indeed, her poems slow the reader down to her own careful tempo of unfolding. Nor is she inhibited. These are not poems to be rushed over. Their joy—rather than in being in the flash of clarifying lightning—is in the flash of “official blue” Saran Wrap or a green quiet.