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Monday, June 15, 2009

Idra Novey's _ The Next Country _, reviewed by Joshua Neely

The Next Country

Idra Novey
ISBN 9781882295715
Alice James Books, 2008

Reviewed by Joshua Neely

The map of places passes.
The reality of paper tears.

Holes in maps look through to nowhere
– Laura Riding

You wouldnt think that a man would run plumb out of country out here, would ye?
– Cormac McCarthy

In Idra Novey’s The Next Country, we find poems that occupy borderlands, poems that invoke a kind of wanderlust and ask us to examine where we have placed our demarcations, both personal and cultural, and why. As the title of the collection suggests, these poems are about a country that is not the one we currently occupy – that we are about to enter dislocated territories, the white spaces on our maps. The terrain varies widely, appearing otherworldly in “Aubade for Viña Del Mar” and “East of Here” and more conventional and literal in poems like “The Bartering” and “Maddox Road.” Novey also delves into questions of poetics in the self-referential regions of “The Experiment” and “At Some Point After We Sealed the Windows.” In this way, Novey’s poems jump ahead and circle back on themselves. Each poem is a country and as we read we move from country to country, between regions of human experience, through the territory of the imagination.

The collection begins with the otherworldly. “Aubade for Viña Del Mar” prefaces the collection with a song of parting and an invocation of creation or the creative process. As the speaker bids farewell to her lover, the Vineyard of the Sea, she engenders a new line of thought. This line of thought becomes a “stray dog” that the speaker follows so that it will “stop following” her. But before the speaker can exert complete control, “a violin begins forming/in the pocket of [her] coat” and she “will soon be the owner/of a complete instrument.” In this short space (the poem is 13 lines), we are given a glimpse of how the rest of the collection will grow, if you will, from this notion of poem/poet as a sort of harbinger of whatever else may come. What comes next is the poem “East of Here”:
In the next country over, the lotus
is chocolate-brown and grows tall

as maize. The sole religion seems
to be bread, any kind, including

one similar to rye, but made of lotus.
and if someone you’ve doted on

dies there defending
the nation, seven emissaries

for the president come by
all wearing stethoscopes,

and listen to your heart. Afterward,
they offer artichoke sandwiches

in official blue Saran Wrap and hand you
a list of either answers

or questions, but never both.
There’s a road if you want to go.
We find ourselves “In the next country over” and it appears to be a land more exotic than ours, or one with rites and traditions that are unfamiliar and strange. A hallucinated land fueled by cakes of lotus that makes us begin to wonder if we, like Tennyson’s Lotos-Eaters, are “deep-asleep […] yet all awake.” To choose to follow the road offered in the final line is hardly a choice at all. Novey’s appeal to our natural (irresistible) curiosity about where we are, where we are going, and what’s over the next hill, will win every time. And so we read on.

Novey’s choice to lead-off with magical realism is interesting, considering the very real – both tragic and poignant – events she depicts later in the collection in poems like “The Bartering” and “Maddox Road”. In the former, Novey circles back to a country of the past. In post-Pinochet Chile a father buys another copy of a book his daughter burned to save his life. The poem skillfully asks us to consider the cost of things we normally take for granted. In this poem, the book, for which the father pays “the cost of an/ice cream, a small box of mints” could have cost him his life while others did pay with theirs in Chile during this time. In “Maddox Road” Novey’s speaker and her sister (a half-sister who appears in other poems in the book) experience a very real, very touching moment in a country of “weathered tobacco shacks” and “plantation land.” The word “plantation” echoes in the reader’s mind and again ideas about the true costs of things haunt the poem’s subtext.

Elsewhere in the book, Novey delves into poetics and the nature of poetry and writing, and even language as an icon of civilization in poems like “The Experiment” and “At Some Point After We Sealed the Windows.” In “The Experiment” Novey seems to reference a kind of inevitable end of civilization we find in Shelley’s “Ozymandias” or Yeats’ “The Second Coming,” wherein our works and our words form a figurative country that we hope will somehow outlast us, a basis for our “wild faith that someone will want to see/what we have made.” Novey questions whether our “dictionaries with our best words” are enough. In the post-apocalyptic piece “At Some Point After We Sealed the Windows,” Novey continues to question the role of language and what happens if the semiotics we thought we knew lose their validity.

A border is also a threshold and Novey never lets us forget this as we visit each poem. In each poem we feel we are on the verge of so much human experience – what it is to create, what it means to live through injustice, what it means to be on the brink of something. Underneath the shifting territories of Novey’s collection, we find a searching subtext that ultimately recalls an image from the first poem “East of Here.” We begin to see that in The Next Country, Novey has given us a “list of either answers/or questions, but never both.”


Joshua Neely lives and works in Sacramento, and recently completed his MA in English at CSU Sacramento. He is an editorial assistant for Flatmancrooked Publishing and an assistant poetry editor for Narrative. Some of his poems have appeared in The Suisun Valley Review and Eclipse Literary Journal.