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Animal People

Carol Rumens
ISBN-13: 
9781781723180
Publication Date: 
Wednesday, May 25, 2016
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‘The most striking thing about the collection is its range, its adventurousness, its willingness to go almost anywhere in the quest for a different slant on poetry’ – The North

‘This is a confronting collection, offering many challenges and no easy comforts, but it's all the better for that. Rumens's voice gets ever stronger, ever more arresting, and we'd do well to listen.’ – The Poetry Review

Animal People is a striking and powerful collection which should appeal to anyone who loves thoughtful, well-crafted poetry.’ – Orbis

 

Animal People is the new book of poetry from the renowned writer Carol Rumens. As the author says in her brief introduction, ‘the vertebrae of this collection are the seasons of a sometimes Welsh and sometimes English year.’ Her poems are frequently inspired by places, either wild landscapes as in ‘Fire, Stone, Snowdonia’ or urban scenes as in ‘March Morning, Pearson Park’. But just as often a setting will be a pretext for a theme that has a political, sociological, aesthetic, philosophical or even metaphysical focus.

The author is unafraid to introduce potentially controversial topics and is intrigued as much by science as history. Rumens can also effectively reach back into the past and recall vivid moments from childhood, such as ‘Austerity, 1949’. She can also produce character portraits as in ‘Happy Christmas, Sister Dympna’ and her lively ballad to Bob Dylan, ‘Happy 70th Birthday Blues, Mr Zimmerman’. Other poems start with a mythological premise and turn out to be modern morality (or immorality) tales as in ‘Her to Apollo’. Translations and/or versions inspired by other famous authors also abound as in her ‘translator’s note’ from Dante’s Divine Comedy,  ‘The Red-ish Wheel-Barrow’, a borrowing from William Carlos Williams and ‘A Marshalsea Quadrille for Mr. Dickens’. 

The striking final sequence, ‘On the Spectrum’, explores some of the effects and affects of Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD), focusing particularly on Asperger’s Syndrome and how it may be experienced by young women. Rumens opens up this topic with all her characteristic energy, empathy and curiosity. From recent research which suggests that some of these ‘autistic’ qualities may have come from the Neanderthal culture to the debatable hypothesis that AS individuals have unusual affinities with animals, there is much here that is provocative as well as lyrical. ‘We’re all animal people in the broader sense’, says the author. This beautifully intelligent collection of poetry will delight and inspire the reader.

REVIEWS

Review by Chris Kinsey, Planet

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Carol Rumens' eclectic collection is lively, inventive and accomplished. The poems are varied in form and rich in their breadth of subject matter, encompassing wise reflections on growing-up and growing older in a culture which emphasises youth, 'We're only ever twenty, we're only ever..../ peddling that iconic parabolic start.' ('Happy Seventieth Birthday Blues, Mr Zimmerman').

Rumens considers social changes like the impact of post-industrialism in 'Song of the Obsolete', which evokes the physical nature of traditional work and banter. It ends with the plaintive, 'What are our hours, now it's time that maims and mills us?'

She considers the power of pencils, the Big Bang, and the aftermath of the Olympic Games where the nation goes back to 'shopping'. A clutch of inter-textual poems acknowledge a library of writers as various as Dickens and Dante but, given the book's title, surprisingly few poems about animals and humans. The long final poem is an exploration of what it is to be female 'On the [autistic] Spectrum' - 'No more the one-letter pronoun  no more the tricks of your verb-trade / all is intransitive only.'

The poet is a virtuoso at 'sound-sense': 'Much to mix, mash, mould, much to split, splice, spoil, much to catch, much to carry...' She is playful with puns, homonyms, and echoes which subvert catch phrases. Poems are voiced by different personae though it's not always clear who a speaker is. My favourites are the more obviously autobiographical, experiential, ones like 'Home Thoughts from the Cow Shed' which is dedicated to her late partner:

The hawkweed will be sowing
new stars, and harebell sky will frame our
        riches
a little longer.

Rumens describes herself and her partner as 'blow-ins' - the poem charts the way they exchanged English names for Welsh names in the process of making a home in the Gwynedd landscape.

Review by Alison Brackenbury, Artemis poetry

Monday, May 1, 2017

Animal People is dedicated to her Russian Partner, Yurij Georgievich Drobyshev, who died in 2015. 

The poems' sources are cosmopolitan, as in The Ship of State, a version of Brodsky (and Horace) made with her partner. Her work is sharpened by political reference: "an emigrant, detained" (The Homeless Ship). Its pithy summaries are rooted in daily life, as in The Big Bang Year: "we crossed out 'empire' and continued shopping".

The spaces in Rumens' lines can weave grief (in Welsh and English) into an airy garland: "willow    herb    roses     jasmine    convolvulus   pray for us / ac yn aur ein hangeu (now and at the hour of our death)" (Praying with the Imam at Summerfade). Her poems preserve a tender respect for the natural and for the future. When "Yura" picks fungi: "with what care you'd delve your pen-knife, / so that the spores might fruit another day" (Home Thought from the Cow Shed).

One of the most fruitful poems in this collection is A Christmas Stocking. Stanzas of quick, variable rhyme catch a child's excitement and the reality of her post-war world:

I knew no sleigh careered

down the pink London sky

answering every cry

for bikes or kittens.

The times were tough. And cold,

I'd have to wear those mittens!

Rumens is precise about her city's light-polluted sky, frank about unrealised hopes. This poem, in the most direct of language, in bold declarations, speaks to us: "nothing could cancel / the hope renewed in each / strangely shaped parcel". Skilful rhymes ring the chime of hope and reality, which, however briefly, can still be recalled, to free the poet from time, grief and cynicism: "I catch / some sharp, sweet Christmas smell - / and there's the tangerine!" I can testify how effective this poem is, read aloud. I have taken it to every local Christmas poetry reading. Hint: in public, brandish a real tangerine. In private, there is no need. Carol Rumens' words alone will set your imagination free. 

Review by Ross Cogan, Orbis

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Isobel Armstrong, writing in the TLS, described Carol Rumens as ‘a European poet whose imagination goes beyond Europe, a poet of borders and transit, and of movement across frontiers’. I can see why someone would think that. Rumens has taught in many places, including Belfast, Cork and Stockholm, and her poems are alive to trends in European poetry. Here, in her 16th full length collection, you will find poems inspired by, or loose versions of work by, Attila József, Pasternak, Brodsky, Catalan poet Joan Margarit and Portuguese Fado; others range freely across European history.

However, I think this is only part of the story, for there is also something very British about Rumens’ verse. It isn’t just that many of the best poems describe the landscape of Wales: ‘Fire, Stone, Snowdonia’: ‘The field has fallen castles // of dry stone wall, dim mines, / velodromes, auditoria / slate-veined, fluvial, plosive // with fern drips.’, but she also seems most at home in the small, slightly shabby, passed over places; the suburban lounges of ‘All Souls Saturday Night’ or the faded municipal grandeur of ‘March Morning, Pearson Park’ where

In early spring the trees’ wrung hands implore
winter to stop it; the forsythia’s tiny
oilskins drip, and the bedding-plants are sat
in rows in railed-off, graveyard rectangles,
dim-eyed as board school children.

Where Rumens really reveals herself as outstanding and original is when she melds these influences into something new, strange and subtle. Take, for example, ‘A Few Study-Notes’, which for my money, is the best poem in the whole collection. If you had told me that these lines:

The Prefecture, some four li north of here
has pizzerias and happy hours and nail-bars,

and stacks of broiler-boxes. New translators
work on the tongue of this year’s press release.

The Prefect-Scribbler writes, You will enjoy the mountains.
Here, we feel free
. His eloquence delights him.

came from a new translation of some compatriot of Holub, Milosz or Enzensberger, I would not have turned a hair. Yet this clever meditation on freedom takes its cue from Lovelace’s ‘To Althea, from Prison’, and its bureaucratic setting (‘I couldn’t sleep. I’d got back late from the Ministry, / bruised by linen-board and letterpress’) is unmistakably British.

Rumen also makes skilled and thoughtful use of traditional verse forms, for example, her free translation of Pasternak’s 16 line ‘Hamlet’ into a sonnet. She works with such dexterity that the original’s ‘O Abba Father’ almost becomes a wry reference to the rhyme scheme – and through it the process of creating art:

The deepening dusk’s thousand binoculars
Take aim at me, point-blank along the one
Axis. Not a blink. If it can be done,
Father, Abba, I beg – let my cup pass.

Animal People is a striking and powerful collection which should appeal to anyone who loves thoughtful, well-crafted poetry. 

Review by Jon Sayers, Magma

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

"To be an obsessional," wrote Lacan, "means to find oneself caught in a mechanism, in a trap increasingly demanding and endless." All three of these authors seem to be caught in a different  kind of trap as they look at the world through the  lens of their  respective obsessions: language, birds, and numbers.

Carol Rumens's Animal People draws its title from the theory that people on the autistic spectrum have an unusual affinity with animals. 'Judging from the behaviour of my family and friends "on the spectrum,"' Rumens writes in a note, 'I find this credible.'

Her inspiration for the book was her own grandson's autism diagnosis, which she describes in a blog: '[it was] as if a stone had been hurled into a quiet pool. The ripples spread through his immediate family...' On learning that autistic spectrum condition is genetic, Rumens and her daughter both felt implicated: 'At first I was very uncomfortable with the idea that I had Asperger's Syndrome.'

And so the ripples seem to spread on through the pages of Rumens's sixteenth col lection, as she explores this often misunderstood condition - particularly in the extended sequence On the Spectrum. She argues that 'personal testimony - even a poet's - has a place in enlarging the view.'

Animal People is not an easy collection - not because of its difficult subject matter (aside from autism and Asperger's, it tackles, variousl y, schizophrenia, homelessness, war, ageing, loss and death). The real challenge for the reader is linguistic.

On her website, Rumens muses: "Am I a poet? I'm not sure. I am someone who loves language." Elsewhere, she quotes Brodsky's description of a poet as a person who "falls into dependency, the way others fall into dependency on drugs or alcohol." There is such a quantity of almost compulsive delight in splashing about in language that it almost becomes a barrier to communication.  I felt as excluded at times as a teetotaller at a booze-up.

There are poems in every kind of form and register. There are words and expressions borrowed from Yorkshire dialect, Welsh, Greek, Ukrainian and Russian (including Slavic owl hoots). The tone varies from intimate to wry, direct to circumlocutory. The whole gamut of language is run, from the demotic to the obscure, homely slang to the lexicon of vertiginously educated erudition. It requires much Googling by the reader despite much glossing by the writer.

But what of all this obsessive linguistic variety and effervescence? Could it be we are seeing a dramatisation of Asperger's , conscious or unconscious, not just in On the Spectrum but throughout  the collection? When the language-fest gives way to plainer fare, there is plenty of simple beauty and clarity to be enjoyed. Take, for example, the touching Laundry Blue, in which a line of poetic prose comes singing out of the poetic: "That's how poor women love - / with pegged lips and an ounce of indigo". Or "Coastline of caravans, neat as graves, but quieter" (The Homeless Ship).

Review by Noel Williams, The North

Friday, February 10, 2017

In Carol Rumens’ collection there are testing poems, too. This is her sixteenth collection, and one would imagine that she was perhaps beginning to run out of ideas by now. Not so. The most striking thing about the collection is its range, its adventurousness, its willingness to go almost anywhere in the quest for a different slant on poetry, whether it’s to stretch in form or concept, in language or feeling, in tone or physical arrangement.
This results in some poems whose approach is ideational, others whose grounds are obscure. It means that sometimes she stretches well beyond English in several instances (‘Owls of the Ukraine’ contains transliterated Russian and Ukrainian; ‘Remote Bermudas’ employs Yorkshire dialect; ‘Spring Forward, Fall Back – a Gwynedd Skein’ is built around Welsh vocabulary; ‘The Reddish Wheel-Barrow’ uses Greek and Russian) which results in footnoted poems, which are not everyone’s cup of tea.
Almost every one of the forty-two poems and short sequences explores a different form. In ‘Easter Snow’ she relies on a simple ABAB scheme of single syllable masculine rhymes, which she them breaks down towards the end of the poem in line with the ‘smoke-haze of a dream’ which becomes the poem’s topic. In ‘The Big Bang Year’ she uses couplet rhyming on the final syllable, but varies between strong (stressed) rhymes and unstressed ones, using full rhymes or pararhymes, sometimes rhyming within the couplet, sometimes across adjacent couplets, to create a sort of ‘rhythm of rhyming’. In ‘Her to Apollo’ octets are used with varying rhyme schemes. ‘Happy Seventieth Birthday Blues, Mr Zimmerman’ uses rhyming tercets in which she’s happy to use full or royal rhymes. I could fill the whole review simply with descriptions of the formal variations Rumens employs throughout the book.
Does this mean that the book is uneven or disjointed? I guess there’s a sense in which I began to read it wondering ‘what will she try next?’ And this, of course, means that I was increasingly paying less attention to what was being said, or why, and more to the manner of its saying, her consummate manipulation of the craft, her superb control and subtlety of inflexion. This is like enjoying the brushstrokes of Van Gogh and failing to notice the sunflowers. So one might consider this volume a collection of brilliance whose dazzle obscures reading somewhat. But this would only apply in reading the collection as a whole thing, which perhaps it isn’t to be read that way. Rather, it’s a bringing together of many different things – collected together but not unified –  and if one takes the individual poems on their own, or in samples, they seem to me more effective than in trying to come to judgement about the totality of the collection. Individual poems are doing different jobs, coming from different directions and whilst a literary analysis might unearth common threads and themes, this seems to me a misreading of what’s on offer here.
Which also perhaps means that different readers will appreciate different things in this collection. Some poems seemed to me interesting experiments, but perhaps not that powerful in their effects – a poem like ‘Pyramid Text’, for example, which adopts an archaic, gnomic tone for its device and thereby distances itself from the reader: ‘When the king wants the war, / The soldier wants the war.’ It’s unlikely a reader will be powerfully affected by such a poem but instead nod sagely in passive agreement. Other poems seem intensely personal, driven by emotional need – perhaps they’re simply well imagined, but, if so, their emotional content feels authentic.
I’ll finish with an example that particularly struck me: ‘All Souls’ Saturday Night’. It’s an interesting comparison to McKie’s ‘The Second Coming’ as it uses the mundanity of Strictly Come Dancing to evoke a poignant personal visitation, which might be ghost or perhaps merely the resonance of powerful memory in a similar way:

and in my living-room, her quick-step quickens,
lightest among them, and the glance
over her shoulder knows I’m watching her
somewhere, on television.

Here’s the strongest of contrasts with work like Wainwright’s: the language is simple, everyday, and the syntax, though a little complex is easily read. What is said is precisely said, yet at least three interpretations are available, and the delicacy with which no explanation is offered creates a space for the reader to enter and feel their own emotional frisson.

Review by Chloe Stopa-Hunt, The Poetry Review

Monday, September 26, 2016

Animal People, the new collection from Carol Rumens, takes its title from the hypothesis that autistic people have a hightened affinity with animals. The collection's defining poem is 'On the Spectrum', a meditation on autism which is both exceptionally lyrical and in places, wrenchingly painful. Rumens's new work deserves to take a foremost place in the literature of neurodivergance: too little has been written about the experience of autistic women, which 'On the Spectrum' investigates through a charged lyricism that is by turns sparse, sprawling and fractured. With dark and economic wit, Rumens observes, "If we had money / there'd be days we'd blow the lot on party selves". But later the speaker turns to self-criticism, even self-erasure: 

There could never have been a lover-
my love is not fitting.

Nor a child for my Poundland cradle-
my love is not fitting. 

Nor a mother-and-father for my Judas kiss. 

They had True Love. My love was never fitting. 

The poem is full of love, full of the precise, luminous tenderness that characterises Rumens's mature poetry, yet here the echoing anxiety about 'fitting' jangles through each couplet and creates a rhythm that feels unsettled and distressful. 'On the Spectrum', achieves a masterly balance between charting such alienation and exploring the richness of a neurodivergent life. This poem is no tragedy. Rumens has scoured the English word-hoard and successfully fused multiple lyric forms into a single creation in order to evolve this exuberant tribute to both intense sensory responsiveness and linguistic elation. It should be required reading for all who still hold reductionist medicalised perspectives on autism. 
      The rest of Animal People is also outstanding, presenting us with a telescoped view of time in which Rumens's speakers acknowledge that in some ways "We're only ever twenty, we're only ever at the start " ('Happy Seventieth Birthday Blues, Mr Zimmerman'), but also grieve lost chances, opportunities missed, and above all, the dead. One of the finest poems is 'Home Thoughts from the Cow-Shed', a dazzling and intelligent elegy which takes on Robert Browning's version of 'home' and reforges it. Rumens is more interested in grief, foreignness, and racination: "Both of us were blow-ins / but you, by dying here, became a native". This is a confronting collection, offering many challenges and no easy comforts, but it's all the better for that. Rumens's voice gets ever stronger, ever more arresting, and we'd do well to listen.

Review by Diana Reed, Wite Out Loud

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The cover of Animal People saysthe key to the collection is the sequence ‘On the Spectrum’, which explores what it is to be ‘on the autistic spectrum’…”. This sequence is intended by the poet to be “vignettes of a woman’s life, partly based on my own, as poetic documentary”.

‘On the Spectrum’ is a deliberately fragmented piece of work. Some sections accord with a popular understanding of what “autism” means: “A kids party is foreign languages / screamed at you as she as you as he as you run about the little island / no boats are visiting for a thousand years.”

Other sections may relate more directly to the protagonist’s own life, where in a “winter night, clear skied” one metaphorical constellation “figures bright”, as the “articulation of the best of what you were”, until the poet finds “one twisted-metal star-collision mirroring your mind”.

Finally there are sections that draw on aspects of science or religion to relate to the condition of being ‘On the Spectrum’: “But when I pray is there nothing … unseeing enough, enough / away to want no small talk?”

‘On the Spectrum’ is placed at the end of the collection. A page of discussion about it follows, but is headed “About Animal People”. Rumens puts forward some very speculative ideas about autism. She suggests that both autism and an affinity with animals “may be associated with genes which have been passed down through the intermarriage of Homo Sapiens and Neanderthal Man”, while acknowledging “we’re all animal people in a broader sense, of course.”

This is the first reference to the title ‘Animal People’. Combined with cover art showing chimeric people with animals’ heads, it gives an almost literally back-to-front impression, as if inviting the reader to start at the end of the book and work backwards. Yet if you did that, reading the rest of the collection in the light of the title and final poem, nothing is obviously directed towards the experience of autism. The poems are on a wide range of subjects, rarely developing a theme from one to the next. They are complex, sometimes playful, and often full of cultural allusions.

In ‘House Clearance’ Carol Rumens enjoys the absurdity of answering the question “Won’t it be fun to turn into our possessions! / Let’s practise.”  Word-play is the game in ‘It’s Time for the Weather’, as “Blizzle lightens to waterbud before strengthening  to pluvoria”.

‘Figurine’, starting “Heart of a calf, composed/of two mini-humans,” became approachable when I Googled “the Ain Sakhri cave, c 8000 BC.” The figurine is an ancient carved pebble, now in the British Museum and featured in the BBC Radio 4’s History of the World in 100 Objects. I had to work hard to reach the point where I was beginning to understand this poem, but when I got there it felt worthwhile.

By contrast, ‘A Few Study-Notes’ had me beaten; searching for ‘Richard Lovelace’ and ‘Carol Rumens’ took me to her Guardian Poem of the Week column on  ‘To Althea, in Prison’, which explained some elements of the poem, including why “I sleepily revolved the aesthetic question / but couldn’t solve it: is it ‘gods’ or ‘birds’ ”. Beyond this, I saw no way into her British/Oriental civil service scenario, though I did note the TS Eliot reference in “The Prefect /Scribbler writes, You will enjoy the mountains. / Here we feel free. His eloquence delights him.”

In a posting on the Seren books blog, headed “Aspie chromatics/ Carol Rumens on Asbergers [sic] ASC, and Poetry”, Rumens identifies herself as experiencing Aspergers Syndrome, one of the conditions on the Autistic Spectrum. She says: “I want to speak for a greater understanding of autism, and I choose to do it through the medium I’m best able to employ. … Rather than use poetry as propaganda, I would simply ask it to report back sometimes from the field, like a travel correspondent in the complex, many-coloured terrain of a newly discovered country.”

This seems to be authorising us to look for a relationship to Asperger’s Syndrome in the poems in this collection. It took close reading and internet research to bring me anywhere close to understanding some of these complex and individual poems. Was this amount of effort necessary because the poet was expressing her own ideas and understanding as fully as possible, without considering the reader? Could this be an indication of being “On the Spectrum?”  Does this make her an “Aspie” poet?

Psychological speculation makes me uneasy. Many highly regarded poets usher the reader into the world of their own individual cultural knowledge and experience just as uncompromisingly as Carol Rumens. Don’t read Animal People for the psychology, read it for the poetry.

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Review by New Welsh Review

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Disturbance is a precisely constructed, unflinchingly observant, heartbreaking and terrifying novel of poems, a powerfully delivered and devastating firestorm of words. It portrays the build-up to and fallout from the murderous and suicidal conclusion to family life. This family has been bruised by domestic abuse, broken by divorce and ultimately obliterated by the words ‘you can’t keep my children from me... they’re mine’.

Beginning at the inquest into these tragic central events, Ivy Alvarez presents a story told in non-chronological kaleidoscopic fragments of minute detail and raw emotion. These include an emergency services operator helplessly hearing screams and shotgun blasts down the telephone line; a grandmother thinking of buying a carpet to cover bloodstains; the mistress of the murderer suffering scapegoat-hungry media coverage; Jane, scrabbling in vain to hide from a long feared fate, and Tony, a violent control freak, blaming his victims for his actions.

Over the course of forty-four poems, the reader is taken forwards and backwards in time, each poem helping to construct the wider story and often simultaneously offering a snapshot portrait of the principal character in their own words. This results in a provocative array of stylistic approaches, including a dark appropriation of the Ladybird Readers: 'See Jane run. Watch Dick run. Watch Dick chase Jane. Watch Dick chase / Jane through their house. Dick has a gun. Run Jane run.'

Within this 'verse novel', Alvarez shows admirable artistic control and a remarkable capacity for empathy. She has crafted a range of voices that, even in the briefest of appearances, reveal another facet of the wider narrative and another example of just how far the hurtful consequences of terrible acts can travel. Telling the story in verse form creates just enough distance to prevent Disturbance becoming too emotionally overwhelming to read. This method also reveals a terrible beauty within the blackest shadows of human experience.

Disturbance is a fully ‘adult’ book which may require some readers to look themselves in the eye and ask if they would have acted differently from the neighbour who didn’t want to get involved or the policemen who didn’t rush towards the sound of a shot. So authentically self-protective are some of the characters that a childlike feeling can descend on the reader seeking the need for a hero.

Among the visceral responses Disturbance provokes is a sense of helplessness. In this harsh reality, apparently definitive signs of a tragedy waiting to happen become visible only in hindsight. Wisely, then, Alvarez does not seek the moral high ground of pointing out what people should have done or said. Rather, we are offered authentically painted human responses to the kind of events most of us will be lucky enough never to be caught up in. Alvarez does not seek to suggest how to prevent these kind of horrors. As comforting as it might be to tell ourselves otherwise, such terrible acts occur because one person chooses to commit them. Tony’s choice is his alone, whatever means he uses to justifying himself:

Better to be a brute
than be far less.

So common is the real-life scenario of a divorced father saying ‘You can’t keep my children from me’ that Disturbance could be justified solely as a humane parable and warning about the dark places such a statement may lead. But the skill and imagination with which Alvarez approaches her subject matter from so many perspectives also makes the book an adventure for the mind. This is achieved without ever engendering the feeling that it is exploitative of suffering, and Alvarez leaves plenty of room for readers to bring their own imaginations into play.

Each reader will have their own individual response, just as Alvarez’ characters react individually to these terrible events. The timeless value of storytelling is that it can transport us into the lives, experiences and minds of others, and hold up a mirror to our assumptions and moral certainties. Alvarez has taken a long, courageous look into such a mirror. The reflection we see may bring us close to weeping for humanity. But not to giving up on it.

– Will Ford, New Welsh Review
See the full article here: http://www.newwelshreview.com/article.php?id=662

09/12/2013 - 13:53
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Review from Cordite

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Disturbance is Ivy Alvarez’s second collection of poetry. Its dedication to Dorothy Porter, Ai and Gwen Harwood is not at all surprising given that, Alvarez’s poems are comparably unflinching, unsettling and precise, exposing the horrors of family violence with an artistry that is always in the service of its compassion. Furthering the link with Porter’s work, it is also a verse novel, but a relatively unconventional one. Rather than following a linear progression, Disturbance throws us immediately into atrocity and its aftermath – the murder of a mother and a son by the father, who takes his own life, leaving a daughter alive. Each poem that follows is a fragment, retrospective and prospective, accumulating a picture of what we want to know but feel disturbed to approach – how did this happen?

When I began reading it, I assumed that the story at the heart of the book was fictional, a composite of many cases synthesised from research. Subsequently, I began to wonder how ‘real’ the poems were; in a way, attempting to measure the gap between poem and reality, I was reaching for the real, yearning for it. But Alvarez notes that Disturbance is ‘an imaginative retelling of and a response to actual events’. Like an exhibition of documentary photography, it presents framed yet incomplete impressions from particular perspectives, which confront us with the existence of the real while acknowledging the gap between an account and its source.

The book is both kaleidoscopic and choral. We are presented with the thoughts and memories of the mother, Jane; the police officers, in their enculturated impotence; the journalists, with their condensations and abstraction; and the son and daughter, with their confusion, bravery and cornered-ness. While the poet’s own aesthetic temperament gives them a certain consistency, each of these character voices is distinct and convincing. The grammar, vocabulary, emotional tone, punctuation and lineation, are all finely attuned to reflect their individual posture and energy. Yet the music of the poems is subtle and unobtrusive; Alvarez doesn’t want anything to overshadow what is being exposed and examined. Sentences are generally complete and naturalistic, a fusion of the mundane and the metaphoric, of the composed and the chaotic, which is quietly chilling:

My dinner rests warm in my belly.
I’ve just come in for my shift.
Familiar smell of old coffee,
stale sweat accumulates,
hovers near the ceiling.

‘What is the nature
of your emergency?’
Weariness
wears my voice.

But then she speaks.
I type quickly. I press buttons.

‘What is your address?’
The pads of my fingers prickle,
become slick. Keys slip beneath my skin. (‘Operator’)

Appropriately, there are also occasions where the language itself breaks down or fragments. Here, the poetry draws on an almost risky knowingness and wit, but it never loses its focus and visceral impact, as in ‘The Detective Inspector II’, which begins ‘ – eyes make/in/cre/mental/adjustments/in the dark’. Or, in ‘Hannah’s Statement’, where the breath catches and is held in white space:

once after my brother ran
he placed my hand on his heart

Alvarez’s language is most chaotic and unmoored when we hear from Tony, the father, whose ‘own hands must do something’. His confusion and possessiveness seem fuelled by a profound detachment – of his self from his body and from others. If there is any summary of his motivation to be found, Alvarez provides it negatively, as Tony states: ‘there is no explanation for me’; ‘Real things seem untouchable to me’; ‘I pass for someone ordinary/someone who looks like me’ (‘Tony’). Near the end of the book, we spend quite some time in his mind, which is populated by familiar and archetypal metaphors of ‘red’, ‘hunting’ and ‘dark’, yet also with surreal and unexpected images, such as ‘dust that skims/across your eyeballs’, ‘the subdermal itch’, ‘rank/bin juice’, and an account of the aerodynamics of golf balls. These bring us closer to a kind of visceral intimacy, rather than understanding.

The one poem which I am still ambivalent about is ‘See Jane Run’. Here, the central murderous event of the book is depicted through the truncated sentences and simple language of the iconic children’s characters, Dick and Jane. While only two-thirds of a page and in short paragraphs, this prose-poem seems to be Alvarez’s way of conveying, through parody, the unconveyable horror. It’s an undeniably affecting poem, but one that I am not drawn to read again.

By contrast, ‘Disturbance’ compellingly revolves around a black hole at its core – the mundanity of evil and the seeming inevitability of violence. And the short poem that opens the book, ‘Inquest’ signals silence as a response to inexplicability:

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

I say ‘seeming inevitability’, because while there is an echo of a kind of ‘natural’ hunter and prey in the poem’s chilling conclusion, and while the wood stays ‘hard/and square’, the reader is constantly drawn into a state of empathy and resistance. These events, condensed into black text with such articulate and meticulous white space around them, are given to us in all their horror as artefacts, made things, which can conceivably be unmade. It is Alvarez’s great talent to frustrate us, to refuse to provide easy explanations. The only possible response is outside the book.

– Andy Jackson

See the full review here: http://cordite.org.au/reviews/jackson-alvarez-galbraith/

09/09/2014 - 11:44
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