JOHN BLOOMBERG-RISSMAN Reviews
Disturbance by Ivy Alvarez
(Seren Books, Bridgend, 2013)
“Death is not an event in life: … What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.”
-Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus
Disturbance is an almost novel-like book. Rashomon-like, it tells the story of what has become known as a “domestic tragedy”: a man kills most of his family then turns the gun on himself. My “It tells the story” is actually a misleading locution. Because that is exactly what Disturbance doesn’t do. Because it can’t be done. All that can be done is to talk around it. So, it tells a story. About the attempt to speak what cannot be spoken. It tells all that can be known, which in the end is nothing. See Wittgenstein, above.
That doesn’t mean we don’t learn a lot about the surrounding circumstances. We have statements from many people, which range from witness accounts to the thoughts of the surviving daughter to shopping lists to the (imagined?) thoughts of the husband. We learn that the husband murderer gave his mother the creeps (his unending neediness), abused his wife (abused? What a euphemism, he beat the shit out of her), we learn that the wife had her own set of problems, we learn many things. But what we mainly learn, what I mainly learned, that in the end this event (which is itself, as well as a stand-in for so many others) contains a core of incomprehensibility, and that tho we can’t stop talking about it, we can’t get near that core.
One of the signs that we can’t get near the core is how cliché-ridden the various speakers are. In “A Neighbouring Farmer”: “I don’t know what could have set him off.” This is the farmer, clearly, and not Alvarez; her deployment of cliché is evidence of her art (proved, perhaps by the fact that this line is followed by “then again / I cannon understand / how cows know / to chew in unison”). I don’t blame any of the speakers for resorting to cliché; who hasn’t been there, who hasn’t said to some bereaved or other, “I don’t know what to say … but …”?
One speaker strikes me as slightly different from the others: the journalist. For a reason I can’t put my finger on, I am convinced that (in some respects, at least) the journalist stands in for Alvarez herself, and that she knows that whatever she provides her readers, it will only be to “mar the glass / jar the faces”, to tell a tale (“a fictitious or true narrative or story, especially one that is imaginatively recounted”). It is no coincidence, I think, that when the journalist comes to tell the story, it is titled “The Journalist’s tale” (nor do I think it is coincidence that this is the only poem in the book set in two columns, the way that certain editions of The Canterbury Tales are set …)
None of these considerations, that add up to what “really” happened can’t be spoken, in any way lessen the horror. The book is suffused with pathos and horror.
I am reminded of two other books here, Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, but that’s more a formal matter than a significant one, and, more importantly, Vanessa Place’s Tragoedia. I like the way the Place and the Alvarez work together, and tell things about each other. Tragoedia is made up of legal documents, which allow us the fiction of believing that what can’t be spoken, can. Disturbance reveals that fiction, that the legal form is really make-believe. Contrarily, Tragoedia shows how, without that formal make-believe, all we are left to fall back are who-knows-how-relevant details, e.g. the wife Jane’s “re-stock fridge”. Who know’s how relevant is not meant to say irrelevant, it’s meant to say we don’t know what we need to know when an event such as that recounted here occurs, so all we can do is fall back on what comes to hand. It is possible that all these who-knows are the only life-raft we have, outside the fiction of forms such as the justice system and the documents it produces.
Leaving all the above aside, for a moment, I do want to add that these Alvarez’s considerable skills are on display here, so that there is some pleasure amid the, well, the everything else. I mentioned “re-stock fridge”, above. That reads in whole:
raspberry ripple ice-cream
blood on skin
dried grape juice
an older bruise
the door’s sharp edge
fed to my face
you deserve it
It strikes me as remarkable that such ugliness can co-exist with “the dance of the syllables.”
John Bloomberg-Rissman has about a year and a half to go on In the House of the Hangman, the third section of his maybe life project called Zeitgeist Spam. The first two volumes have been published: No Sounds of My Own Making (Leafe Press, 2007), and Flux, Clot & Froth (Meritage Press 2010). In addition to his Zeitgeist Spam project, the main other thing on his plate right now is an anthology which he is editing with Jerome Rothenberg, titled Barbaric Vast & Wild: An Anthology of Outside & Subterranean Poetry, due out from Black Widow Press, Autumn 014. He's also learning to play the viola and he blogs at www.johnbr.com (Zeitgeist Spam).