My rating: 4 of 5 stars
“Dear stranger, dear anger, dear fantasies of justice, please ferry us to
the lake where the stories are clear.”
-from the poem ‘Fist and After, El Cinzano’
Dostoevsky has provided the enduring idea that it is by observing a society’s prisons that one can most richly decide on that society’s progress; many admirable riffs on the moral notion of ‘What you do unto the least…’ appear in some form or another in most cultures.
The most striking effect of Idra Novey’s newest collection is the collage of voices and emotions she collects so austerely, creating what feels like a very considered mode that reflects the prisons she’s contemplating — ‘critiquing’ seems too simplistic a term. The vocabulary of impressions is detached, observational (one might say the speaker here is in an oscillating place of micro-detail as well as macro-culture surveillance). But, also like prisons, very human, personal, charged with memory, and often subdued to an unsettling extent, aware as we are privy to being of just how much emotional blast and ruin must go on beneath surface appearances.
These small but immensely uncomfortable poems overlay reality with Novey’s inward-facing (face against the wall, citizen) imagination; like Bentham’s Panopticon, she seems to always be looking even when not wanting to, trying to. They manage to work at deconstructing the illusions around how we treat one another (and even think about how we treat one another), the circuitous perimeters we all use.
The unadorned tone throughout the book works against the trappings that can sometimes plague more overt social and political critique; the honest core of this to my mind is Novey’s sense of something like guilt or shame, rooted in a complicity any thoughtful citizen must encounter, hopefully often. Along this line the book is always rooted in the speaker’s own memory and emotion; there are brilliant bits of journalistic artifact and even an occasional dip into something like parable, but these to me seem like working extensions rather than the center.
The words ‘spare’ and ‘stark’ repeat often in conversations about this book, and they are apt, but enough emphasis cannot be given to the quiet but vibrant resonance of these poems. Novey has a touch for imagery that feels gracefully violent — like the polished steel curves of a weapon, her tonal gestures feel so fluid and natural they rarely betray the abrupt effects they will often cause — I’m tempted to describe this frequent encounter in the book, ironically, as disarming.
Novey opens the book with a short series titled ‘The Little Prison’, an inspired taking from Vasko Popa’s ‘The Little Box’, in which she jarringly writes:
“Wind a ribbon around the little prison
And pretend you made a gift
Give it to your neighbors
Or your cousins
Clasp your hands
I cannot help but end with Popa’s ending, from ‘Last News About the Little Box’, which feels remarkably appropriate here:
“But not one of the little boxes
Inside the little box in love with herself
Is the last one
Let’s see you find the world now”
‘Exit, Civilian’ is available now from The University of Georgia Press.