on Exit, Civilian, poems by Idra Novey (University of Georgia Press)

Recently, U.S. attorney-general Eric Holder declared there is an “unnecessarily large prison population” in America. He added, “Too many Americans go to too many prisons for far too long, and for no truly good law enforcement reason.” More than half of the country’s 6,000,000 prisoners are in jail for drug convictions, with 80% of those charged with possession. A predictable debate erupted on the talk shows.

NoveyPrison.jpegIn her poem “Riding By on a Sunday,” Idra Novey writes, “I tell myself prisons are inevitable and inevitably awful. / Tell myself this thought is just another way of looking away.” These prosaic lines toy with our most banal responses to the penal system. They come early in her second book, Exit, Civilian, a collection driven by a determination to use the materials of one’s experience without being overmastered by the common concepts and sentiments attached to them. Nevertheless, she begins with such familiar notions but only in order to depart from them, establishing strictures as well as apertures.

Novey has taught in the Bard College Prison Initiative, but will neither exploit us nor flatter herself by spiffing up conclusions she may have reached (deservedly) before the writing of poems began. Her modes vary from flashes of anecdote to surreal narrative, from prose to brief lyrics to long-lined poems. The effect is one of an extended reach toward concretions, routines and environments that won’t yield to mere wishes to understand or change them.

NoveyCover.jpegThe book’s lobby poem, “The Little Prison,” borrowing from the quasi-folkloric diminutives of Vasko Popa and Charles Simic, shrinks her subject into a snug tale as if a prison, made tiny in imagination, is manipulable and contained. The opposite is silently and perhaps fearfully revealed. Similarly, Novey ’s pieces seem to condense many reactions into small spaces -- cool playfulness, outrage, disorientation, discomfiture, wonderment. At the core, one encounters both curiosity and repulsion, and a query of all motives including her own. Both reader and speaker must submit to inspection.


A woman kept clicking her pen and saying she was going to kill
someone. What she really meant was she wanted a cigarette,
the way I said I’m dying of hunger. All morning, we said yes,
indict everyone. Others who were not us would deal with the
jumbled twine of intent. Outside, the blossoms were popping
pinkly in the trees and you could tell the sky must be fair the
way we wanted our country. It was a little like hunting to sit this
long and listen for something we wouldn’t do. The footsteps in
a dark scene are not unlike the sound of leaves.

NoveyBW.jpegThat “something we wouldn’t do” is the crime, of course, and it appears earlier in Novey’s piece “Civilian Exiting the Facilities” where her mind “stays in the elevator considering the kind of crime it might be capable of. Would I have to be hungry. Could it happen over nothing. Could it happen nightly.” The implacable entrenchment of the justice system is countered by the darting lightness of speech – but Novey’s perspective has gathered weight through a profound tutelage. Last year, New Directions published her translation of Clarice Lispector’s 1964 novel The Passion According to G.H in which a Brazilian sculptor who has “lived well … on the uppermost layer of the sands of the world” is agitated by the sudden departure of her maid. The disruption of G.H.’s “happy jailhouse routine” leads to violence – she kills a roach:

“A wholly controlled rapacity had overwhelmed me, and since it was controlled it was all power. Up till then I’d never mastered my own powers … Brazenly, stirred by my surrender to what is evil, brazenly, stirred, grateful, for the first time I was being the unknown person I was …”

A tumultuous self-probing ensues. But G.H.’s discovery of a second self, an opposing pole, turns out to be something other than a new-age liberation. She critiques her art: “My old constructions had consisted in continually trying to transform the atonal into tonal, in dividing the infinte into a series of finites, and without noticing that finite is not a quantity, it is a quality.” And earlier: “But I am the one who must stop myself from giving a name to the thing.”

In Exit, Civilian, the thing is the prison, intractably present – and freedom, more than simply a life outside jail, comprises an infinite speculation on the meaning of itself. The tonal gives way to the atonal, the fuzzy.


On the radio I hear something about the wrongly imprisoned and
unplug the vacuum. But it’s just two men discussing vodka and
and I’m in one of those rubbed-out, figurative hours when
it’s best to exit the house without my glasses to see the street I think I
know nearly. Only more clearly now, blurred.

Novey.jpegNever losing sight of the proximate cause of her meditation, Novey creates occasions for reshuffling its references. Her speeches become unhinged tropes for freedom itself. In “The Lava Game,” memory is freedom – recalling a children’s game: “We invented a volcano so it would chase us and erase the backyard empire we called The Land. As the lava got closer, whoever was emperor had to race around the tomato plants and toss the plastic tiara we called The Crown.” It ends, “We all died as robbers sometimes; I don’t know why the emperor always lived. Just before the lava spilled, invisible and everywhere, whoever had The Crown got to describe it. // And whoever couldn’t describe it, died too.”

The thing itself shows up throughout Exit, Civilian, but in between its swift appearances Novey installs moments of long pause. The voice of the civilian teacher morphs into other personae. There is also variation of material – poems about contemporary prison give way to pieces on travel, ekphrasis, an imaginary arrest of Vallejo in New York City, and the prisons of dictatorial South America. The prose poem “A Maça no Escuro” is titled after Lispector’s novel (The Apple in the Dark, translated by Gregory Rabassa).

Before the final section of poems on Brazil and Argentina, there is “Parole Hearing, After Mahmoud Darwish.” “Parole” iis a term with resonant suggestions in this book.

And they searched her voice, heard the lurch of a bus into the
deep muck of a field.

And they searched the bus, saw the guts of vinyl seats.

And they searched the guts, smelled the steel springs rusting.

And they searched the rust, tasted nothing but the tips of their

And touching their thumbs to their lips they said well in another
three years.

“With few exceptions, the individuals who volunteer to sit on parole boards are contemptible human beings,” writes the art thief Myles Conner in his memoir The Art of the Heist. “They are small men who relish wielding their modicum of power … The hearing process is an exercise in humiliation. You’re expected to offer up repentance and to swear off your friends, and the best all this bowing and scraping can get you is another year or two under the thumb of the system.”

Idra Novey invites us to sit on the parole board and consider the complicated joys of freedom.

[Published April 15, 2012. 61 pages, $16.95.]

On Unhinged Tropes: I Shall Be Released

Your opening para is spot-on. More prisons built, more prisoners in them. A true growth industry, to be sure. But many thanks for another terrific review, and for the generous excerpts of La Novey's poems. While "Exit, Civilian" isn't available yet in Shangers, I shall petition the local authorities to reconsider the complicated joys of freedom. To ponder each of the 61 pages, a sound investment, every cent well-spent. This collection sounds pretty special alright.

Hello from Frankfurt and

Hello from Frankfurt and thank you for directing me to such poetry. My wife and I have been reading US poets this summer who are Eleni Sikelianos, Mary Ruefle, Anthony Hecht and Thomas Lux. We would like to attend a poetry festival in the States next year. Thank you.