Wednesday, February 3, 2016



Disturbance by Ivy Alvarez
(Seren Books, Wales, 2013)
Birds are supposed to fall silent. Clocks are supposed to stop, their second hands frozen at the exact time the trigger was pulled. Anyone who has watched someone die knows this. Anyone who has lost a loved one to a violent death has felt the same thing. Why does the world carry on? Why doesn’t it even flinch? Doesn’t it know? 

Disturbance focuses on a scene of triple deaththe result of a bloody domestic incident. Far from standing still, the world actually moves up a gear. Police cars arrive, then a newspaper reporter. In time, the local priest, coroner and estate agent all play their parts. These are the professionals who, to a greater or lesser extent, deal with death as part of their working lives. Then there are the family members and the neighbours. This may be the only violent death that personally affects them. For them, life will never be the same again. 

With a handful of main characters and a dozen lesser ones, the book should be a full-length novel. And in a way, it is. We see the characters’ inner torment; we learn about what happened from different points of view. By the end of the book, the reader has a well-rounded picture of the aftermath of a tragedy as well as an insight into the ways different people behave in extreme conditions. But the story of Disturbance is told in only 78 pages. Alvarez has condensed all the insight and character development of a novel into 44 poems. The way they are arranged, including repeat appearances of the main characters, provides all the narrative we need. The fact that most of the poems are written from an individual character’s viewpoint means that perspective can shift with a refreshing frequency which would be irritating in the narrative flow of a novel. We are accustomed to riding with authors as they tell the story. We are in the passenger seat as they accelerate, swerve, brake and switch lanes. Whatever twists and turns the storyteller makes, it’s still a linear experience and the author is in driving seat.

Telling a story in poems releases the reader from the author’s control. Instead of a line that we follow from start to finish, we have a series of gems. Each one can be held up to the light and contemplated, appreciated in its own right. We might spend five minutes on one gem before moving on. And we might spend the rest of the evening on the next one. Most of them work as stand-alone poems in which Alvarez dodges clich├ęs and stereotypes to find something new and often disturbing. In “A Priest thinks on his future,” we catch the clergyman in a private moment before the well-attended funeral service.

If I handle this right
this might make my name:
a double murder-suicide
does not happen every day
- not among my parishioners, anyway.

Should I say,
‘This is a testing time
For me as a priest …’ ?

Alvarez examines each character with the same penetrating and uncritical gaze, revealing the flaws and virtues of ordinary people caught up in something terrible.  She is calm and unflinching in her description of horror—blown-out brains are ‘a blood halo’ and the body of a dead boy, lying outside, is found:

his arm by his side
the frost on his skin disappearing
his frozen look of surprise

Nothing escapes, not even mundanity. The estate agents put the house—the crime sceneup for sale. It’s 15,000 below the usual guide price. Five thousand for each dead body.

But 5,000 what? In a story with poetic attention to detail, the sense of place is strangely absent. It’s somewhere in the western world, somewhere with BMWs and coroners’ courts. But we’re not told much else. There are pine trees so perhaps it’s Scotland. A shotgun is 12-gauge, not 12-bore, which suggests America. But then there’s petrol rather than gasoline so we’re back in Britain again. Then the boot of a car is called a ‘trunk’, so we don’t know where we are. 

In a 400-page novel, we know there will be inconsistencies and much of the text will be there for little more than narrative thrust. But in a poem, we assume that every word has been carefully chosen and we read each word with due care and attention. So we assume these inconsistencies are there for a reason, perhaps to indicate that the action takes place in Australia, where Alvarez used to live. But if that’s the idea, why avoid the use of dollars for prices? Why refer to the ‘emergency number’ instead of 000, the actual Australian number? One might expect the absence of any sense of place to make the aftermath of the tragedy more universal. But in poetry, we see the world in a grain of sand, humanity in a tear. Vagueness doesn’t help. We need the specifics to get that universal connection. 

In every other respect, that detail is there, doing its job. Details resonate with our memories and strike chords in our hearts. In the opening poem, we are right there in the coroner’s court. 

Members of the family wept
as the coroner read out
her pleas for help.

Nothing softened as they cried.
The wood in the room stayed hard
and square.

The window clear.
The stenographer impassive.
The spider under the bench
intent on its fly.

And there’s the universal truth. The unthinkable has happened; waves of shock and grief are blasting out from you at full volume. But the wooden panels don’t creak; the clocks don’t miss a beat; trains continue on their tracks. How is anyone to bring these experiences together? For each person who faces it, the challenge is both unique and universal. It is this aspect of the human condition that Alvarez reveals in Disturbance—the struggle to reconcile the devastating with the mundane. 


Nicholas Whitehead is a former crime reporter who now works as a mediator in conflict resolution. He is also a performance poet.

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