Benjamin Dodds (an Australian poet I know here through WordPress and Twitter) and I once discussed how we never read poetry before going to bed. Usually I adhere to that no-poetry-before-bed rule pretty religiously; as a person who suffers frequent insomnia, the last thing I need to be doing is riling up my mind when I should be winding down for sleep. But last night I broke that rule and read Ivy Alvarez’s verse novel Disturbance (Seren Books, 2013), which had come in the mail earlier in the day, a book he had recommended to me (along with The Monkey’s Mask by another Australian poet, Dorothy Porter) when I was bemoaning the fact that nobody likes narrative poetry any more.
Is Disturbance ever aptly named. It is a deeply disturbing book, because it is so familiar: abusers who keep upping the ante against their victims; a police force unwilling to intervene; victims who constantly adjust and modify their behavior to satisfy the whims of their abusers; neighbors who notice nothing. This is the story, in spare, chilling, poetic detail of a man who, after abusing his wife for years and creating a household of terror for his wife and children, decides to kill her and the kids once she files for divorce. And he succeeds (although, spoilers: he dies too, though the daughter, who is elsewhere on the fateful night, survives).
What is interesting about this book, and I what I respond to, is the number of voices present here, many of them “after the fact.” It’s almost like noise—so many voices weighing in that Alvarez means us as readers to lose sight, temporarily, of the people at the heart of this tragedy. Once the wife, the son, and the husband are dead, they are just bodies, and all these other voices are giving testimony about their compartmentalized knowledge of the tragedy. It’s a barrage at the reader from the very first poem, “Inquest,” and it’s devastatingly effective.
Jane, Tony, and Tom become figuratively “buried” under all of the other people brought together because of the crime. And because this is a “tragedy,” a “crime,” we see how quickly dehumanized the murdered people become—they are just a “job” for others to deal with—the police, the coroner, the journalists, etc. The poem “The estate agents” demonstrates, for example, this dehumanization, when they discuss the price for the sale of the house. They explain that the house will be sold for $985,000, a $15,000 discount, because it’s “five thousand per dead body/ but we don’t look at it/ that way” (p. 14). When of course that’s exactly what they’re doing.
Abusive relationships flourish in silence—we don’t even really hear anything from the wife Jane’s perspective until a 9 line poem, “Happy Sunday: Jane” on page 47 (whereas we get a three-page poem from the Mistress on p. 29, “The Mistress Speaks”). There is so much silence leading up to murders—then this interesting and horrible proliferation of people commenting on the unseemly details occurs. Emergency operators, estate agents, journalists, neighbors, grandparents, police, coroners all relate their stories in individual poems—witnesses after the fact. (Where were many of these people when Tony was terrorizing his family?) We have to wade through all of their reports until Jane and Tom and Tony are “animated” again, through poems in their voices.
And speaking of Tony, he is a chilling character. His eponymous poem, in twelve sections, lets us see how meticulous and really just disgusting he is. In the fourth section, he describes Jane’s expression as “Her look of kick me/ bruise me/ hit me” (p. 64)—an expression, of course, that he’s made her wear. Later in the eighth section, he says, “I’m only electric when she’s close to death.” In other words, he feels “electric” (we can read this as “energized” or “aroused”) when he has cornered her like an animal and brought her to the brink of her life being extinguished. Who gets aroused like that? Tony’s just the proverbial sick bastard (or in psychological parlance, a narcissistic sociopath). And he would be easy to write off, in some ways, except that the sixth section seems to want to complicate him. I wonder if the poet wants us to evaluate his murderous rampage through the possibility that he’s insane—that it is his insanity that “…is the dark/ I know/ chasing me/ down the road” (66).
I don’t know if I believe this though. I think as a society, we have a tendency to assume that people who do horrible things and exhibit extreme antisocial behavior are necessarily crazy. But I think that’s too facile a reading of Tony. It could be, rather, that’s he’s trying to justify his behavior–that this “darkness” is merely an excuse he uses to allow himself to be evil. And sociopaths are masters of lying (“Sometimes I tell the truth/ but really crave the lie” he says on p. 63). But Alvarez shows us the real truth in the ninth section , and I want to quote half the poem so we can see how twisted Tony is (p. 69). As she writes,
When I hunt, I am more myself
No longer an unsuitable man.
I am my own best version then.
No longer an ordinary sort.
Ordinary sweat of an ordinary man.
Better to be a brute
than be far less.
I realise myself
when I hunt.
In other words, when he abuses his family, he is his “best” self. He is “realized” which means, among other things, that he is his most “real,” that he “grasps” or “understands” himself with absolute clarity. I don’t think he’s insane at all—Alvarez makes it very obvious that in Tony’s mind, he’s in his right mind. Tony is the hunter; Jane is the prey. That is the way of things. “Better to be a brute/ than far less.” In that line, we see Tony “realized” most fully. Because anything less than brutality (such as just being an ok guy and ok husband) he perceives as weakness, as untenable, as “ordinary.” The lines are condemnatory and a watershed for the poem. Insane? Not a chance.
Of course, we can argue that insane people often don’t recognize their insanity, but I suggest that despite his blood-soaked dreams (p. 68), he is too clear-headed in his serial, ritualized abuse, too pragmatic in his approach to pre-meditation (“Notes to self, p. 72), and much too dedicated to hurting others as a way of life. You don’t have to be “crazy” to flout the social contract and cultural script—you just have to choose to ignore it because you don’t see any direct benefit in it for you. His narcissism and his sociopathy do not recognize that others don’t exist to please him; he believes in his heart that Jane, Tom, and Hannah are his property, and he can do with them as he will.
Reading about domestic violence, is, of course, excruciating (it brings up a lot of painful memories in my own past—though my experience was never to the extent that Jane’s is), but it’s more powerful when it’s written about with such economy of language. To read about this marriage, these murders, these experts’ testimony in just the barest few words absolutely levels me as a reader.
Many of these poems don’t take up much space on the page at all—they are thin or short, or they show big breaks in the lines—many of them are written in fragments. Which is, of course, a brilliant rhetorical and visual strategy that Alvarez employs, because it indicates the insignificance of family (if they only take up a few words) as well as highlights the constant disruptions that exist in such a dysfunctional relationship (when words are spread over the page with large gaps between them, we read the poems differently).
How do I say this? It seems as if the white space in the book is a metaphor for a million dollar mansion that only houses four people. Each page is a room. The lack of verbiage on the pages reminds me of the way Tony wants his life to be—clean, orderly, tightly run without fanfare—like he doesn’t want his family to take up much space in his life—he wants nothing to detract from himself being the most important person—so the words on the pages don’t take up much space. I could probably describe what I’m trying to say more articulately—but let me put it another way. Alvarez’s choice to use so few words in her poetry partly demonstrates her poetic aesthetic, but it also refuses to allow the story to be obscured. Poems with longer lines and more text on the page would serve only to conceal the horror. In their nakedness, we see the truth.
A last note about Disturbance—I wish, somehow, Alvarez would have written more about Hannah, the daughter who escaped the violent end that the rest of her family suffered. There are two poems about her, “Hannah’s statement” and “The surviving Daughter,” and while they give us some information about how it happened she wasn’t there (she is away at school: “So I left/ as soon as I could/ the black cloud/ of home” p. 84), I kind of wish we knew more about her. Of course, perhaps there is a sequel to Disturbance somewhere in Ivy Alvarez’s future… perhaps Hannah’s story will be explored yet.
(In case all my rambling did not make things clear, this was an amazing book. Please go buy it. Support Ivy Alvarez and narrative poetry and verse novels… It’s so worth it. It’s painful but powerful. Thank you, Ivy, for writing it, and thank you Benjamin for suggesting it!)