The Next Country is a travel book of poems, but it is not the typical kind of travel fare. It travels in two directions simultaneously. It chronicles the observations and experiences of a speaker moving through post-Pinochet Chile as it runs a parallel journey into the interior of the speaker, sorting out past relationships and one’s emotional landscape.
As journeys go, they are both rather sedate journeys, marked by close attention, painstakingly deliberate. This is why I initially had trouble entering into the book. I guess I expect most journeys to be madcap, footloose adventures — one of those buddy pictures into the turbulent soul. But these journeys employ careful steps. They attempt to be less wild American than chronicler of a foreign culture where it pays to be careful of what you say for fear you don’t become one of the desaparecido the next time you visit. My expectation for such a journey might be to plumb the depths of the language and cultural idiosyncrasy to produce a kind of Oswald de Andrade-like Pau-Brasil, but Novey’s speaker is content to watch and calibrate the people that she sees moving through their lives. It’s a trip with a sociologist and spiritual seeker more than it is a philologist’s whirlwind tour of the libraries. Novey’s speaker seems to be watching, watching . . . ever vigilant. I imagine sitting next to her in a bus on its way to the Pantanal and saying, “Jesus Christ, would you say something?” as she continues to study the faces.
When I first picked up the book, I was in the middle of a very busy month, but now that I have slowed down for the summer months, I have come back to The Next Country and have begun to tease out the subtleties.
The book begins with “East of Here” and beckons the reader to travel with its last line: “there is a road if you want to go.” So, we hop on. The rest of the first section sets off poems like “The Wailers in Estadio Nacional” where the speaker is watching Ziggy Marley’s band play in Santiago’s largest soccer stadium against poems that detail relationships with family members — mothers, fathers, sisters. The one theme of travel to a foreign country is matched with the theme of traveling to the unexplored land of the familial. In the following piece, one gets a taste of Novey’s world of relationships:
For My Sister, Driving Away
From a picture, no one guesses
the relation until I explain
about our fathers: one black
and one white. Then everyone finds
a resemblance: your cheekbones,
they say. No. it’s your jawline.
Or maybe the eyebrows.
When I think story, I start
with the mother, but maybe
I’ve been telling it backward.
Where the water streamed
swiftest over the rocks, our mother
rolled up her pants, waded in.
Swaying, bell-like, almost willing
her fall, she called for us
and we laughed at her.
Is it possible to have a mother
pitching toward the water,
and alongside that falling
a margin of happiness?
Outside a Cineplex, I spotted a woman
in an ill-fitting dress. She was in line,
but only half-so. People milled
around her, her face like a town
along the Hudson — a mix of prison
and wilderness. I wondered
if she had children, if when they spoke
it was like unstitching
that ill-fitting dress
covering her body, if even then
their talk was a whisper, a sort of scissor
scraping the skin.
“her face like a town along the Hudson — a mix of prison and wilderness”? Wow. I’ve known quite a few people like that, but my empathy has never risen up to provide that level of description. Novey’s speaker is a superior empath. The sister is also briefly mentioned in “Stranger” (“Definition of a Stranger” here) as wilder, so we get the sense that the sister invoked is an actual sister.
Later on in the first section Novey uses a piece called “Trans-“ to suggest a kind of crossing over. The poem uses various different suffixes (-late, -gress, -mogrify, -form, -scend) as section headings. At the end, Novey writes: the whole of a life fits in a coconut / and you can whittle out the slivers / of its immaculate inner meat.
She begins to do just this in the wonderful “Into the Atacama” where once again the reader is placed in the foreign country. The speaker melds with all the personages on the bus — “We . . . became presidents. We became lovers” — and one gets the sense that the speaker’s empathy is spilling out onto everyone, rendering in full her desire to be an everywoman.
There is more traveling in section II, a brief stop in Tikal. Then as the section ensues, there is a shift back to the familial again. There is a delicious piece entitled “The Candidate” which explores the consequences of a woman’s honesty being challenged.
Section III begins with a tribute to Brazilian fiction writer Clarice Lispector with “A Maça No Escuro[The Apple in the Dark]” also the title of one of Lispector’s books. In this poem we begin to see the transformation of the “sister”. One careful sister stays home and is forced to listen to the libertine sister’s untamed ways. In this piece, though, is where I finally got the sense that the “sister” is the stand-in for “the other” in the foreign culture, and this sent a ripple effect throughout the first two sections, all the way back to “Definition of a Stranger.” For me, this piece acts as the pivot in the book for the reader to understand the symbolic significance of the sister/daughter, and it establishes the basic architecture of the book.
A strange little prose-like piece follows that maps the sister/sister dyad onto the mother/daughter relationship. I believe it is Novey’s intention here to reiterate the similarity of female experience, the sisterhood that connects one woman to another despite background and cultural baggage.
Two Women in a Barn
It happens that a mother becomes parchment
and rolls up gradually around the fictions
of her children. That she becomes an almond
softening in the pockets of cotton garments.
Sleeps with her glasses on in her daughter’s house
and vanishes in the morning. That she’s coerced
her grown child into feeding her blind horse, watching it
list oddly in the small paddock. It happens
that a daughter becomes a bottle, filling with twigs
and crinkled bits of leaves. That she likes to glint
in the water the way a glass bottle will.
With the sisterhood comes a disfigurement as well, a turning into glass bottle full of throwaway items . . . yet that glass bottle is given to moments of brilliance as well if we are quick enough to catch it glinting on the surface of the water.
Section IV, the final section, builds on the mother/daughter relationship at the end of section III and starts with several pieces that invoke the theme of dissociated children whose roots have been cut away from them, leaving them to become unmoored.
These lost children become Pinochet’s desaparecidos in “The End of Augusto” where the speaker, removed from Chile, notes the general’s death as a kind of siren echoing on the inside and ready to be uttered.
Moving further into section IV, an octopus , “washed up and gull-pecked,” arrives next, cast out from the brutality of the sea. A painted gourd turns up as a symbol of everything and suggests a certain sense of laissez-faire. A field serves as the metaphor for what one moves through, a country, its history, a family, a marriage, a life.
We see the restless associative movement in this last section where the subjects of the poem are crab-walking into each other. Everything is moving sideways and conflating until distinguishing lines can no longer be drawn. We arrive at the all-encompassing. This is the magnanimous heart, Whitman’s leftover pulse, traveling as it were over Latin America. One almost immediately asks whether Neruda can be very far off.
Many of Novey’s poems find their objective correlative in objects that are removed from the actual subject she wants to broach. Several of the poems in the final section work this way. Moreover, quite a few over the course of the book use this strategy of the slant, the glancing. If one is not set to the proper tempo, one might miss the the glints, the connections. Yet, what is most assuredly the case is that Novey’s associative movement does provide the reader with a deep image effect. As she herself puts it in “Scenes from Moving Vehicles, IV”:
The sun sinks, its pink rim
dims tangerine — storied light,
where the reckoning comes in.
In The Next Country Idra Novey exemplifies a quiet identification with the everyman, not an exclamatory one. For those of you who come to Novey after Whitman, you might have difficulty understanding her notion of the group hug and how it differs from Whitman’s smothering exuberance. Novey’s embrace is more of short, firm, passionate clasp (or perhaps a very subtle goose), one that provides bursts of that storied light.