We are all, in some essence, perverted crime-gazers. We are shadows of observation, investigating from a cloud-like posse of spectators. Going Down Swinging is the extended voice of such scrutiny, a family affair. But it’s a family that likes to stand on top of a house that’s earmarked for demolition, only to be re-built, occupied, knocked down again. Work in progress.
As a past GDS contributor, Ivy Alvarez is part of that family; and her new book Disturbance successfully knocks our gaze sideways and allows alternative versions of what it means to really be in a family. This book highlights the nuclear unit in a distressed state, the story of a suburban murder suicide, a narrative told through a multi-voice verse poem.
Going Down Swinging is known for its proletarian support of poets, writers and artists from nearly every room of that house. It publishes poems and stories that grow into books. With my old GDS editor hat on, for months Ivy Alvarez’s poem ‘Jane’s To Do List’ (GDS No. 29) was swimming around in my head, gaining momentum. A ‘stunning projection of internal thought processes onto domestic surroundings’ was my self-indulgent editorial response at the time. But it was and it still is.
Too open-faced. Plain as a plate, a napkin.
Somebody else. A pinprick self.
A silver that melts. Thinned to a splinter.
In the dark.
A needle spinner.
Now, she picks up the yarn and knits us Disturbance, a novel in verse that’s not only in homage to Dorothy Porter’s writerly brilliance but also a legacy of the seething undercurrents of the mundane environment that is suburbanity. The patterns that emerge, like all good homemade fabric, is not apparent until we see the crafted item in its entirety. Alvarez blurs the public and the private realm by turning onlookers into characters with an almost co-star quality. The ‘we’ and the ‘I’; they have important roles to play – the neighbours, the police, the priest, the real estate agent, the extended family. A mixed bag of ordinary and authority. She brings forth the murdered and the murderer and they too tell their story.
Through the use of the multi-voice narrative based on fact Disturbance tells an acute story of love and loss, veering into the darkest subterrane of domestic violence. It speaks to us about its double-sided nature and those who are emotionally displaced from the ideas of home and family. Conservative and homely traditions come into play here, a sober observation where horror lives and sleeps and brings home the bacon for us:
hidden in a cupboard
a jar of glacé cherries
The intrigue is intensified by the author’s ability to entice the reader into the everyday: those little annoying things we sense that add layered dimension and a constantly shifting complexity. Ivy Alvarez uses precisely structured moments in her poetry to amplify fear, zoning in on ideas of control with stark brevity and an impeccably timed manner:
the bathroom tiles stared back
The pulsing quality of some poems and the loosely paced, ambiguous structure of others help to formulate the distinctive poetic colour of each voice. The embodiment of objects builds even more panic and the objectification of the body flips us backwards in its utter contempt for our privileged suburban cultural experience. Body parts are distorted:
I doubt and finger
her bullet-holes –
that speak for her
There is a renovation of memory, a relocating of perception, poetic forms evocative of the festering and calculated event of murder suicide. Facts become a performance, a reverberation of happening. Extended sounds and varying timbre generate this myriad of perspective, a wall of sound and language that falls back on itself again and again and each time it does it leaves a slight remnant behind, repeating and duplicating unease and pain.
I am the small panic button
that’s pressed and pressed again
Disturbance is a cacophony of everyday sound and when I finish reading I can’t sleep. Then suddenly I am dreaming and someone passes me a drink. The drink is crowded with ice cubes, misshapen and yet they fit together in unison. There are words scratched into the surface of each piece of ice, different words, and same words in different order. The cold clinking of text invades me. The ice is melting and little by little the words become deeper, more frightening. It’s a bi-product of mark making and fluidity and it scares the crap out of me.
And yet I drink eagerly.
I drink because it’s about all of us. When you know somebody so well, the unspoken tension needs no explanation. Elements of mind reading are present here and this makes for an even deeper nuance of pain. Somehow, familiarity hurts more: it cannot be explained away so easily. None of my senses are left untapped:
Her fear is salty
Tension rises as sentences juxtapose:
There were no signs anywhere. Everywhere there were signs.
The strange acceptance is prominent: the wife as object, as image, the framing of the family construct within a portrait. Seeing environment through glass, the transparent is pure trickery. These slight alterations and repetitive use of imagery gives us feelings of apprehension. A quiet anxiety.
Words are well chosen, thoughtful, poignant; snapshot memories. There is space shaped beautifully within each poem, room for the big questions that haunt us when crime is reported, remodelled within the media. How do we survive? What is truth? This book has no final resolve, and these unanswered questions leave us with feelings of insecurity and the intense desire to stay awake.
I cannot understand
how cows know
to chew in unison
And finally the concrete crumbles with the exposure of the murderer’s mind:
something in my heart does not work
Stories told through the eyes of a poet are so very important and Ivy Alvarez has crafted something so dark and strangely beautiful that it melts our certainty of what it means to be part of the suburban family, conjuring up it’s evil twin, far away from the utopian alternative it was expected to be.
In some ways, Going Down Swinging will always be family to me because it continues to applaud the beauty within these spaces of contemplation, of trauma and love and loss. And we will adapt to our environment and we will always be at home, wherever that may be.
Disturbance by Ivy Alvarez is out through Seren Books and launches in Cardiff on December 5, 2013, and London in January, 2014.
Klare Lanson is a writer, poet, performance maker, sound artist, radio presenter, data consultant, arts worker and a past editor (No. 27-No. 29) and contributor of Going Down Swinging.