This debut book of poems by Idra Novey — The Next Country (Alice James Books, $14.95) — opens with the surreal “Aubade for Vinã del Mar,” where a violin suddenly and magically grows in the pocket of the speaker’s coat. An aubade is traditionally a poem about lovers separating at dawn, and Vinã del Mar — the love-subject of this piece — is a Chilean coastal city. Part Isabel Allende, and part Marc Chagall, this poem serves as a pitch-perfect invocation for a lyric collection that is ultimately as much about love as it is about geography — both the particular geography of Chile, and the more abstract backdrops of unspecified countries and cities. These unnamed place-poems, like “East of Here,” speak in a sure and ghostly voice about vague locations where simultaneously hopeless and magical things happen:
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.
Novey’s collection deftly navigates complex ideas about politics, history, and memory by creating timeless allegories in poems like “At Some Point After We Sealed the Windows,” “The Experiment,” and “A History in Six Couplets,” that offer her readers glimpses of slightly apocalyptic future-pasts filled with hungry children and circling dogs, where “Gradually / we stopped calling out // to each other in the dark.”
Novey doesn’t stop calling out to her reader, however. In these poems, the political and historical is also entwined with the deeply personal. Many address her biracial family, mother-daughter relationships, and the often-overlooked landscape of Appalachia, where Novey was raised — “the row / of weathered tobacco shacks” in “Maddox Road” where “pickups shudder past, invisible after nightfall,/ and between them the call of an owl.” The vivid, melancholic imagery in this collection speaks of a certain sense of dislocation; Novey seems equally as alienated from her rural hometown landscape as she does from her husband’s native Chile — and she wonders “whose country is more forgiving” in “Second Snow.”
In the first of a series of poems — one in each of the four sections of the book — entitled “Scenes From Moving Vehicles,” we open with a dark-haired girl riding in a car; “the border guards mistook her / for an immigrant, sneaking in / with this swell American family,” so the girl escapes, leaves her family behind, but realizes in the poem’s last line that she’s made a mistake. There is a deep feeling of un-belonging in these poems — of being loosed from every landscape, of being a perpetual émigré — and this gives Novey’s collection a Jewish flavor, whether intentional or not. The Next Country is a quiet beauty of a book.
Erika Meitner is author of Inventory at the All-Night Drugstore, and an assistant professor of English at Virginia Tech.