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Into the Atacama

by Idra Novey

When I said I wished this trip, I meant the rush of song as we left the city. I meant the bus. I meant the woman who played her flip-flops like drumsticks against the window. For singing with strangers in a desert is like getting closer to the moon. And the glow of a moment is like a moon, caught behind clouds and then visible and then hidden again.

And when I said here, I meant elsewhere—I meant moving.

Out of the brush and nothing: a clutch of homes, a grove of papaya trees. For every leaning tin roof, eleven graves. And why else do people stay, if not the orchard, if not to garden around the losses that outnumber us? For what place after this much history isn't pinned to the ground with gravestones?

When I said the girl selling papaya out of her apron brought a certain movie to mind, I really meant my life—the way she tilted into the roadside, the wind blowing her skirt between her legs.

At dusk, more wind and a plummeting blue: the million dunes beyond us grew fainter and loomed larger. When the bus stalled, I thought: justice. Who did we think we were to cross the desert in a matter of hours?

Later, we would say it was forty years.

As long as the bus moved, we knew what it was. But in stillness it could be anything, and there we were—trapped in the anything. Tumbleweed spun against rocks, into the arms of cacti, into each other, and emptiness.

We left the bus and became presidents. We became lovers and got plucky and sucked the earth dry. Thirsty, we turned back to the slower work of trust and papaya trees, the only water a hundred miles down.

After what might have been forty years, the bus remembered it was a bus. It hummed and carried us on—our worn shoes a thinner music against the window.


Idra Novey’s first book of poems received the Kinereth Gensler Award from Alice James Books and will be published in fall 2008. Recent poems appear in Slate, The Paris Review, and Ploughshares. She received a PEN Translation Fund Award for her book of translations of Brazilian poet Paulo Henriques Britto, The Clean Shirt of It (BOA Editions, 2007). She currently teaches at Columbia University and in the Bard College Prison Initiative. (5/2008)

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