REBECCA LOUDON Reviews
DISTURBANCE by Ivy Alvarez
(Seren Press, Wales, 2013)
When I first read Alvarez’s book I was in my bed late at night during a typical Seattle thunderstorm. I got about halfway through then said Oh Ivy out loud to my walls and had to close the book. The monsters inside were crawling about my bedclothes. I am susceptible to nightmares. Especially those that feel true.
DISTURBANCE is the story of a double murder suicide in which the husband and father guns down the family then kills himself. The book begins with the inquest then works its way into the middle of the family with voices speaking everyone from nosy neighbors police officers journalists estate agents grandparents maternal and paternal a priest detectives and even the diseased who are given their time to explain to examine their own lives their choices. One daughter Hannah is left to carry the horror on and guilt with her throughout her life.
This book of poems is written as a finely detailed forensics report. Alvarez digs deeper and deeper into the crime until the reader wants surcease but there is always more to uncover more rocks to move more cupboards to be opened more blood to be identified. There will always be the presence of blood in this book. It is never finished. Alvarez turns the art of forensics on its head turns the most minute secrets inside out of the skin shows us the truth we are not witness to in television crime dramas. She invites in all the ghosts that inhabit such a crime. Take for instance this section of the poem about a farmer comparing the slaughter of the family to his business:
A neighboring farmer
how to prepare
for the slaughter of lambs
the stunning of cows
the blood as it pools on the floor
disappears down a hole
the news of three people
divested of their animal hides
their animate lives
the white flesh of pigs
the chambered heart
something written in the blood
I’ve watched a body
of bolt bullet knife
I don’t know what could have set him off
I cannot understand
how cows know
to chew in unison
Even the cover of DISTURBANCE a doll’s house furnished then set on fire and photographed by Matthew Albanese correlates to the book as the crimes committed shrink as each participant neighbor friend or family member circles in and reports how everything shrinks once it is out on paper once the grisly details have been examined.
The first time the murderer speaks I was caught off guard expecting a story perhaps of repentance or sorrow or panic or despair. I would have wished for a stronger title than Husband, interrupted since that brings to mind other works but no matter the poem is so strong and viscous and visceral that one cannot help but shrink before the cold calculation of this man:
spoon of my self
I am convex
the tarnish and rub
gunshots in the dark
my wife knifes the ribs
as a doe
venison on plates
gravy in a boat
my nerves sing of tines and forks
I lick my lips of supper sauce
I am stained
cars wait to be chased
peas in my concavity
calm and digestible
the thin pitch of cutlery
outside my door
my security light
as if I had a clue
the night is full of singing stars
out of tune
my wife cries
at supper’s ruin
there’s too much shouting
when the cops come marching in
There are such great sounds in the above poem the almost robotic tallying of a boring evening except for the chilling feeling of desensitization of disconnect. There is a strong sense he is not himself he is a spoon of himself he is either convex or concave he is different his is tarnished. There are gunshots in the dark. His wife knifes the ribs the innocent doe is present the deer as venison the gravy in a boat like blood. His focus on meat on nerves and tissue and tines and forks and the thin pitch of cutlery then sirens is a song of danger of something about to explode or tripwires surrounding an ordinary supper table and suddenly we are on fire with it our own nerves singing by the time the martial last line shows itself like a freaking jolly Marine parade when the cops come marching in.
The next poem in the book is titled Paternal Grandfather and the same cadence is found in repetition as in Husband, Interrupted.
my skin, my bones, my eyes, my lips
this tongue, my words, my tears, my spit
I say nothing is definite
this gravity, this soil, those trees,
this wind, my son’s gun, his wife’s blood
their son’s blood, their shouts echo, fade
my blood, my veins, your tongue, your words
these questions, all of it – nothing
Is the grandfather confessing to something in his shut-mouth get out of my face cranky old man nothing way? Did the husband mirror the grandfather in his behavior was the husband abused by his father? The maternal grandmother – the mother of the murderer (usually the first to be blamed when a child grown or otherwise goes wrong) speaks of hiding things of covering bloodstains. She admits that she really didn’t like her son in this poem full of gorgeous slant rhyme and breathtaking brutality. Here is the first stanza:
Worn surfaces reveal too much –
an open wound, a patch of earth,
the cavity in one’s mouth – don’t
you find? Get a rug; hides bloodstains,
my neighbor said. Yes, I loved him,
my son, but liked? No. As a child,
he’d cling to my thighs, dig right in.
Oh, his love just wore me right out.
On page 29 the poem The Mistress Speaks shows up. We crawl deeper and deeper into the wound instead of being able to back out of it like a savvy cat. The mistress seems fairly comfortable with everything that happened. It was her gun that was used in the murders. She is overly worried about people saying bad things about her. How could she have known he was going to snap? She says / There were no signs anywhere / and / Who pays attention to everything ? / She tells us / He liked to stun butterflies / with formaldehyde. / Any bigger and I’d / kill them, too. / She refuses to speak of his crime and instead speaks in a sideways tongue / like he did / when he did what he did. / In the end of this poem the mistress admits that she knows the law and then / The oven dings. / It’s time. /
In the poem A Priest thinks on his future we are given a wee bit of comic relief a place to breathe inside the hammering intensity of these poems. At the beginning of the poem he thinks to himself / If I handle this right / this might make my name: / a double murder-suicide / does not happen everyday / – not among my parishioners, anyway. / Then ends with / My voice will soar like that holy bird. / How they’ll swallow my every word. /
Let me add here that Alvarez’s voice while gentle on the page packs a wallop and is deceiving. Before you know it you to will be pulling the covers over your head not wanting to know about what humans are capable of but unwilling to look away even from under your blanket.
In the poem The Detective Inspector II we begin to realize that there were hints of the tragedy to come:
We knew about his threats
We did what he could.
We did not know the situation.
We did not want to lose our men.
It was hard to find the in the dark.
In the poem The Police Surgeon’s Tale as the surgeon goes on to describe wounds decay flesh chaos checklists his white and pure lab coat bodily fluids we suddenly find the most horrifying kind of everyday fact that the mother was:
hidden in a cupboard
a jar of glacè cherries
half in, half out
and how true is it that when we were in shock it is something like a jar of glacè cherries that is going to stay with us. Alvarez uses these small domestic items stacked against pools of blood not in order to stay her hand but to bring ever closer to home how people react when in shock when faced with something so terrible we cannot help but look away even if we are surgeons.
I’d like to end with the first section of a poem innocently titled Jane’s to-do list:
1. spring clean
I have been told to eliminate dust.
Keep a clean house. Bite down my tongue. Air, blood,
chemicals in my lungs. Bleached perfection.
Shrill ammonia. Add soap and water.
Every flat surface glares into my eyes.
Feel dumb; stunned; half-blind. Go around by touch,
inward as a pulse, the walls plumb and true.
Who am I in these rooms? – Bed, bath and pantry.
living, dining, and conservatory,
kitchen, sewing, basement, reception, den.
Prefer the interstitial life: wait out
in corridors, hallways, passages, stairs.
Who else would notice the black bread burning
Who else would notice the black bread burning
in the toaster? An indelible smell
seeps into the walls. There’s no end. And all
my careful cakes and pastries, my averted
gazes, my shadow industry won’t stop
him from hitting me, even killing me,
and I know he’ll do it eventually.
There are more stories in this book more voices more accounts taken. A small domestic scene tells us of the abuse that has been happening over and over and over for years. Of course there were warnings. Of course all the witnesses to this crime turned their eyes away from what they did not want to see and in the end DISTURBANCE is about just that. Giving witness. Looking at what is real without turning away or pulling a rug over it or scrubbing out an unsettling stain. Ivy Alvarez peels apart the real world without flinching but my nightmares will never be quite the same. I have been true and authentically Disturbed.
Rebecca Loudon has written several poetry books, for which information is available at her blog.