On Reading Ivy Alvarez’s Disturbance

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.

ivy alvarez book

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
than ever.
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!)

Sometimes, You Just Need New Eyes

It’s amazing how freeing not writing with your writing-group-as-your-audience-in-mind can be.

My writing group hasn’t been the most productively space lately for me–and for the rest of us, meetings intervene, people are too busy blah blah blah–and I think all of us are struggling with the Zodiac as a writing prompt.  I know it’s killing me–I just can’t think of anything good to say about the constellations or what they stand for.  Bless them, the other three in my group have rallied, and have done some interesting things with the various Signs, but so far, I really haven’t liked what I’ve produced.  (Well, to be fair, I liked my Pisces poem, but the others not so much.)  I’m not sure why I don’t find the Zodiac as inspirational or compelling as it could be–except that (and I’ve mentioned this in previous posts) that I feel like I need something connective to write about–in other words, I need a theme.  The Zodiac could be a good theme, but so far, I’m not moved.

Which brings me back to the first line of this post.  Because I’m not writing with my writing group as my audience, I’m writing some interesting stuff.  Not poems–I think I’m not in a poetic mood lately–but creative nonfiction.  Maybe I’m feeling a little confessional lately–and I feel like I can be that way in nonfiction because I know that the three other people in my writing group are only interested in poetry so they’re not going to be reading these nonfiction pieces.  Somehow I am shy about writing about personal (emotional) things in my poems because they are the first audience who sees what I write–and when I’ve brought them poems about relationships or “my inner self” (gag me, that sounds so pretentious) in the past, I’ve felt like they haven’t responded well.  I may be too invested in pleasing my writing group to be real with them.

But my nonfiction–which so far has an audience of one (me)–is about pleasing me.  I  just completed  a 20 page essay about a previous (and for the most part secret) relationship in my grad school past.  In the class that I’m teaching this semester, about women’s contemporary spiritual memoir, one of the assignments my students have to complete is a spiritual memoir of their own.  And in reading the books with students, wherein these women express their “real” selves, and explore their relationship with their Deities of choice as it impacts on their lives as women, I felt inspired to write a kind of spiritual memoir of my own–one that looks at a relationship about two people whose different religious backgrounds wind up driving them apart.

I know that I need some outside eyes to read it, and to offer me some direction, because I’m aware of some narrative flaws and have concerns about how I represent the religion of one of the characters in the memoir. But those outside eyes, whomever they may belong to, won’t be my writing group. My writing group knows me–or thinks it does–too well, and I need interested but personally uninvested critique.  I’m not sure where I will find a new audience–but there is someone I know, though not well, a writer, whom I’ve approached to give me some insight into how I might develop this essay more fully.  He is going out-of-town, but has agreed to meet with me when he gets back.  And in the interim, I’ll continue to work on it, and shape it.  I think it can be publishable at some future date, and I’m at a point in my life where maybe I’m ok with sharing more of my true self with others.  We’ll see.

I also just wrote another essay, though a shorter one, in which I discuss how my manuscript came to be (the one that I’ve sent to 21 publishers and have so far received 3 rejections for) in relation to a book I’ve just read, Theresa Senato Edwards’ Voices Through Skin, which among other things examines an extremely abusive marriage.  Of course you can never say that the author is definitively the speaker of the poems, but I feel there is certainly an element of autobiography in what Edwards is writing.  In writing my essay, I recognize something about where my manuscript comes from–I really don’t think I had put it together before now, though:  the relationship violence and rape that one of my characters experiences is really a reflection of the relationship violence and rape that I suffered in my own past.  And the way in which the character deals with her sister’s rapist is all about empowerment and justice–the same empowerment and justice that can only come from surviving something horrible.

I’ve never really discussed the abusive relationship I experienced.  I spent years in depression and self-loathing for it; I took cocktails upon cocktails of prescription drugs to dull the pain and more therapy than any three people put together.  Coupled with the depression one endures just from being in grad school, it’s a damn wonder I’m still alive.  I’ve told a few people that I was in this relationship, but always with minimal detail, and it’s not something that you can easily drop into conversation.  In fact, I lost a few friends because they couldn’t understand why I couldn’t just “get over” that relationship.  I’m sure they needed to protect themselves–but I’m also just as sure that they wanted to silence my pain.  Because if I, a reasonably intelligent and educated woman, could fall into a relationship like this, so could they.  And who wants to admit that they are just as vulnerable to being belittled and hit and raped, merely because they are women?

Anyhow in some way, although my book is nothing about me, JC, I think it probably evolved as an imaginative response to the very real horrors of my life.  I’ve written this book years later after that abusive relationship, of course, but you can never escape your past.  Writing this essay where I look at relationship violence and Edwards’ book and my own is really kind of freeing.  At some point in my life, I might write some creative nonfiction about that abusive relationship exclusively.  Or I might not.  Ten-ish years ago is a long time, and sometimes ghosts need to remain ghosts.  But we’ll see.  It helps that if I choose to write about that relationship in detail I don’t have to rely on my writing group for critique or affirmation.  They are just not interested in that kind of writing.

And there are others–out there, somewhere–who are.  And I will find them, and maybe find a new writing group to help me explore the creative non-fiction me as it emerges.

Why Having Your Mom Read Your Work Is a Bad Idea

So last night, my Mom tells me that she finished reading my manuscript. Here I’m thinking that she’s about to launch into a litany of Mom-like praise.  No.  This is how the conversation went (and apologies for any spoilers… please don’t let that stop you from buying my book when it eventually comes out):

Mom:  I couldn’t believe that ending.  I kept reading and saying Oh, my God!  Oh, my God!

JC:  What do you mean?

Mom:  I had no idea!  I didn’t see it coming! Oh, my God!

JC:  What do you mean, you didn’t see it coming?  She talks about revenge!  She’s plotting!

Mom:  But killing him, for breaking her sister’s heart?

JC:  No, Mom, she kills him because he raped her sister!  That’s why she’s getting revenge!  And he killed her other sister!  He ran her over in his car!

Mom:  He did?  He raped her sister?  I didn’t see that.  And he killed the other sister?  I mean I knew she died…

JC:  Did you read this book?  The rape is not explicit–it happens “off stage,” but he admits it to his friend…

Mom:  I guess I’m just too pedestrian. [Whatever the hell that means.]  Guess I’ll have to read it again and look for the clues.

JC [trying to sound gentle]:  I’m sorry it upset you. [Look for the clues???  How could you miss them?]

Mom:  Of course I’m upset!  She cut him open!  She chopped him up!  I had no idea!  You should have given me a synopsis before I read this book.  It was too graphic!

JC [a little petulantly]:  But you knew she was going to get revenge…

Mom:  Yes, but I thought it was going to be a spell.

JC:  Well, it was a spell.   She poisons him after she does a spell.  And anyway, he was dead before she chopped him up.

Mom:  I just don’t read things like this… I mean you know these things happen, but I don’t read about them!…Before I share it with [a mutual friend] I’m going to have to warn her. She won’t expect it–it will upset her.

JC:  [Good grief.]  Ok, Mom.

I am somewhat bemused by this conversation–it’s kind of funny, but it’s also a little hard to take.  I mean, if you pay attention at all, there are plenty of signs that the main character is just biding her time (à la Hamlet) until she’s ready to exact revenge on the bad guy.  Ok, so maybe the dismemberment was a little over the top, but at the same time, I tried to write it bloodless–that is to say, very matter-of-fact, very much like reporting what was happening (as opposed to poetic editorializing) to demonstrate how clear-headed she was in carrying out her revenge.  Like I could have been gruesomely graphic, but I tried to be restrained. (As an aside, let me say, one of my writing group members thought I should rewrite this section to make it more trance-like, as if she were doing this murder in a dreamlike state.  But that would never have worked, a) because I don’t write in fragments, and b) that is not how this character acts.  She’s completely within her faculties–which I think makes the scene more chilling, because she’s perfectly clear-headed in the process.  She’s not some kind of psycho-killer.  But I digress.)

The point is, of course, that audience matters.  Clearly, some Moms aren’t the audience for books that examine instances of violence.  My Mom despises violence–she runs out of the room, for example, when something scary or possibly bloody is about to happen on the TV.  And while I think that’s an extreme reaction, I suppose, knowing this about her, I should have expected a reaction like this one.  I should have expected it, but I didn’t–so I didn’t think to “warn” her about the murder–although, I also think if she had been reading more carefully, she would have realized what was going to happen.  For heaven’s sakes, that particular part is called “Blood Will Have Blood.”  Like duh, what did you think was going to happen in something that quotes from Macbeth??

Mom was also upset, I think, because there are no repercussions (at least, in this book–and no, that’s an oblique comment promising a sequel, by the way) for the murder.  The character does, in fact, “get away with it.”  And I’m ok with that.  I think my Mom’s sense of justice doesn’t like that she escapes her actions with no downfall, or at least, no real commentary about it.

But I’m not interested in the main character’s punishment–I don’t think she’s unjustified in her actions–and human “justice” is not what this book is about, anyway.  It’s about supernatural justice–not divine justice, make no mistake–she does invoke the Sign of the Goat/ the Dark Mother, after all.  And also, this is not a Greek tragedy.  Apologies to Aristotle, but it’s not hamartia for her to kill him who needs killing.  And anyway, if you kill without your soul, you can kill in “good conscience,” because in fact, no soul equals no conscience to be damaged.

Poor Mom.  She said, “I never knew I’d have a daughter who could write like something like that.”  Oh, if you only knew.

Paging Dr. Reilly…’s Poems

I have been neglecting you, my Faithful Five blog readers.  I’m so sorry about that.

Writing-wise, I’m in a good space these days, busy working on this collection about the Sibley sisters that I’ve set at the turn of the 20th Century.  I don’t have many poems yet, and a few of the ones I have are struggling with problematic last stanzas or are trying to do too much on a single page–which is to say, sometimes you can be too ambitious for one poor piece of paper, and you can’t fit it all.  Neither of these issues is keeping me down though, and it’s not like I’m up against a deadline–though I’d be pretty happy if I was near-to-done by the end of the year, so I could enter it in the 2011 contest cycle.

Now while I’ve just said I’m not down about the “too much poem for one page” bit, I realize that’s totally disingenuous.   The fact is, it is difficult sometimes to write narrative poetry because you have a lot of the issues that you’d have in writing a novel–I mean, you have to have scene, character, setting, plot, and Aristotelian dramatic structure–but you need to do it in a confined space.  This ain’t easy.  I’m sure I’m taking liberties here, but Blake Leland (who, frankly, knows more about poetry than God) has a theory that if you have to turn the page to continue reading a poem, anything on the second page is doomed and/ or no damn good, and I tend to agree with him.  I gotta love a poem a whole lot if I have to turn the page to continue reading it–otherwise the “tldr phenomenon” response kicks in.  So, with that caveat in mind, I’ve been trying to keep each poem on a single manuscript page.

The truth is, though, an 8×11 sheet of paper is not the same as a book page–so probably most of these poems are going to take up more than one page anyway, if only by a few lines, which is unfortunate–there’s nothing worse to me, aesthetically, than a page in a book with only 2 lines on it.  Which brings up another point–is this artificial one-page requirement serving the best interest of the poems overall?  Can the demands of narrative poetry be served by the single page, or does that curtail creativity and the full exploration of what the poem wants to present?  In other words, is fitting everything into one page unnecesarily acrobatic?

I have no doubt that I will, at some point, have to write a multi-page poem–possibly, a very long central poem, and maybe the titular one (though I don’t have a title yet)–so I don’t want to lessen the impact of that poem by having a lot of longish other poems in the collection.  I don’t want people–especially the Pulitzer Prize committee ;-)–tossing my book across the room in disgust because their eyes are tired of long poems, and they want a damn lyric already, you know?

It’s a weird tension, because at the core of this issue really is the reader’s attention span.  I’ll you what, when we were reading Brightwood in class, I did get a little irritated with how long some of R.T. Smith’s poems were.  I like shortness–that’s why I’m a poet and not a novelist–and I tend to think most readers’ expectation is that they’ll get in and out of a poem pretty fast.  That’s part of the pleasure of poetry–it’s that crystallized moment of literary purity–and then it’s done.

I don’t know that I can resolve this concern about ideal page length and reader’s aesthetics, other than to remind myself that it is my book, and I can kind of do what I want (as long as the DYPS think the poems are working at whatever length the poems turn out to be).  It’s early yet in the collection–who’s to say I won’t write a lot of short ones in the upcoming months?

I suppose I’ve been dithering over something less important than what actually IS the main concern–and that is, I don’t really have an arc yet.  I don’t really know where these poems are going, other than a kind of nebulous pseudo Southern Gothic end in mind.  I’m not writing the poems in chronological order–which is quite liberating in some ways, and troublesome in others.  And the main characters haven’t totally revealed themselves to me; I’m sort of learning about them as I write poems about their lives.

But, it’s breakfast time, and I’m too hungry to worry about the Grand Scheme of Things, at least as they pertain to the Sibley sisters, right now.