Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Idra Novey and the art of the brief lyric

Longing, nostalgia and the long view are the themes Robert Pinsky has given us the last two weeks, with Frank Bidart’s two fine and artfully jump cut melancholy in his two offerings last time with “Candidate” and “Valentine”, and this week, with Idra Novey’s sweetly indirect case study in coincidence and memory, “Definition of Stranger”. The style differences are key; Bidart’s poems were a direct address of a narrator’s thinking in reflection, something of a slide show with a clipped narration barely hanging the images and instances together, yet uniting them with a consistent tone he could build on.

Novay’s poem comes to a related theme, the connection between dissimilar things and the at times the artificial barriers one might use to maintain a distance between themselves and others outside their sphere. Surely, it begins pedantically enough, with a clear and cold definition of what a stranger is, a reading from a dictionary :” Person not a member of a group.” But there is more, and the sort of examples a dictionary provides, usually faceless and inert, comes alive with images that seem the sort of things one gets a glimpse from peripheral vision and then turns for a full view.

A dry explanation of a word we all use and whose meaning we take for granted acquires her unexpected degrees of implied ambiguity, and it is this element of surprise that underscores Novey’s assumption that we’re not separate and fully autonomous .

It is a function of personality that there are some matters that cut deeper than others,nescitating a distancing device so a person can make their way through their daily affairs and obligations without being overwhelmed and immobilized. Novey's poem, as I read it, is in one of those moments when distinctions, differences and distances are for a moment dissolved as memory is stirred. As I read it, this is needed since equilibrium is something that personalities require ; all is not finally settled and in place and all is not resolved like a story one has finished writing, but the occasional island of calm and feeling connected to things outside one's immediate embrace is a strong undercurrent I pick up from Novey's writings. Even as real life accelerates and becomes more complicated, there is a respite. She gets a moment with a skeletal accuracy. It is the effect of reading something or flipping through old photographs and having the scenarios flash by you once again, along with the attending emotions.

We are linked, and our actions have an effect in the larger community. The poem does run the risk of being viewed solely as list, but Novey is a smart enough poet to know when to end the stream of examples. List making is a vice of the poet who cannot stop writing, a setting up of odd things set up against one another that aims for the kind of Brechtian Alienation Effect , where we have an intense observation of the things in one’s material surroundings become odd and perceptually malformed and from which one can realize the layers of false consciousness they’ve coated their lifeless objects with. The sheer accumulation of quizzically poised detritus is supposed to fire up the synapses and make us realize that there’s too much spent accumulating consumer goods solely on the advertised promise that one becomes a better and more fulfilled citizen. In smaller doses, it works, as in Ginsberg’s early work, or in the genius that is A.R.Ammons ‘ to write long and inclusive while maintaining a running theme in his lines. But those were poets who could develop ideas and have them change, evolve, and finish up with resolution you didn’t expect to come seeing, not an easy task at all. Too often list making is merely a trick of the trade that just overwhelms a premise or hides the fact that there wasn’t one to begin with. The goal seems to be to fill the page, to view writing poetry as mere process.

It’s not mere process to Novey, and her poem has the grace and dignity of a small , polished gem, a bright stone of a perception set in a casing that’s elegant for it’s simplicity. The things around the narrator—I assume it is one who reads the lifeless definition of stranger and then rolls off the tight string of associations—are closer and more related than not, from the casual brush on the shoulder in a crowded city, to the fact that someone else’s trash can become another person’s comfort, in the image of the discarded becoming a napping place for a destitute man. She is also delightfully aware of the sounds of words and the rolling, accelerated sensation they can give

Person not privy or party
to a decision, edict, et cetera,
but who's eaten
from the same fork
at the pizzeria
and kissed your wilder sister
on New Year's.

The dual alliterations, with the p’s popping and the e’s easing their way to the finish, gives us city sounds, the vivid feel of conversations occurring at once, radio stations tuned to different stations, thoughts colliding with one another and reviving a memory, an image, formerly lost, now recalled:

Person assigned
to feed the tiger at the zoo
where you slipped your hand
into the palm
of somebody else's father

These are wonderful connections, minor, banal on the surface, but all the same demonstrating our inter-relations through what we buy, discard, what we touch and eat. Novey’s poems is seamless in how it brings together the associations between pizzeria forks, a person feeding a tiger and the lone hand a small girl trustingly held onto.But it’s not about any of those things, in themselves; what the poet gives us is a concise and sweetly evoked demonstration of the human need to order their existence, past , present, future. We crave continuity even in the things that drive us crazy with their randomness; Novey’s poem is a graceful example of how one can make their world at least settle into place, to become coherent for a period before the next flurry.


  1. Idra Novey is an amazing human being. I watched her grow up - grew up with her. I believe that she holds a rare insight into beauty and truth that commands a global relevance. She is only just beginning to come into her own.

  2. No doubt she is as amazing as you say; after all, she gets effusions from faraway San Diego. She is the Executive Director, I read, of a Center for Literary Translation at Columbia. Oh, and she's had grants and prizes and accolades -- How smooth is made the way for Some.

    I will only attest to one thing. She is a pedestrian and often mistaken translator of Lascano Tegui (Dalkey). Now the Vizconde was a genuine genius and she has no business in His league.

  3. I think it more accurate to say that Novey made a choice to be a poet and in doing utilized the options that are available for those interested. Having made those choices, she doubtlessly worked hard to achieve the reputation she has. Nothing was given to her, which what it seems like you're saying.

    She might well a mediocre translator as you claim. That, however, is not an issue I was addressing.


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