The Claims Office

Dai George
Publication Date: 
Monday, October 14, 2013
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"A brilliant new voice in British poetry whose debut is rich with Welsh wit, lyricism and spirituality. A little gem, full of promise." – Dan Jones, London Evening Standard

The Claims Office is the startlingly good debut poetry collection from Dai George, a young writer originally from Cardiff. His method is mostly straightforward narrative but the textures and imagery are often elaborate and strange. This rich surface is undercut by an interesting attitude: a mix of rebellious energy and unflinching satire. His ‘nature’ poems are often anti-nature poems, for example the darkly funny ‘Narwhal’. There are lively pieces about London and New York: ‘Metroland’ and ‘New York on a Shoestring’; skewed loves poems: ‘Plans with the Unmet Wife’. 'His works about his native Wales alternate between an edgy sarcasm and the elegiac tone of the collection's title poem, placing George very much in the lineage of poets like Duncan Bush, John Ormond, Mike Jenkins, Robert Minhinnick and R.S. Thomas; they display a deep suspicion of authority and a reluctance to conform to nationalist cliché. His spiky and tender character sketch of an old Valleys boxer, points to another influence, Gwyn Thomas. The generous forms and temperament of American poet C.K. Williams is another influence on this promising young author.




Review by Rob A Mackenzie, New Welsh Review

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Straight from the opening poem’s first stanza, you know you’re reading a poet whose language and vision will strain beyond prosaic narrative and description:

At her graveside, I’m without walls. Safe
from the churn of claim and counterclaim,
I hand myself over to what there is.

                                ‘Reclaiming the View’

As you read on, it becomes clear that these lines are virtually a manifesto. The living world is a hotbed of power games and churns with people trying to make their mark the one that counts for others. The narrator feels the need to find a truer perspective beyond all of that. While his world view is confrontational, it is not pessimistic.

The second poem, ‘Mergers and Acquisitions’, however, shows that hope is not so easily won. The corporate-speak title gives way to a Homeric ‘just as...  so’ structure which repeats throughout the poem:

Just as two dandelions choke in the web
                                      a spider laid to trick his evening kill,
so do I flail in the net of being born
                                   too near technology’s final coup.

The sense is of being trapped within a system that drags you along, no matter how much you resist. The narrator feels like an outsider, alienated from dominant trends and structures, yet locked within them. However, the poem never feels merely depressing or ranty because Dai George insists on struggle and his passionate intelligence in itself offers hope that corporate power and materialism won’t have the final word:

just as the discovered tomb resolves
out vision of the Pharoah’s court,
so may there come a day when gold
clarifies to the flesh it masked.

The Language is beautiful and while the whole poem doesn't follow a strict metrical pattern, the ghost of metre undergirds its rhythm and music. I had one nagging worry at this point, that the poem had put me just too much in mind of Roddy Lumsden’s work. However, while he is an obvious influence, most poems managed to transcend their influences and to emerge fresh and singular.

The title poem, ‘The Claims Office’, imagines a vast underground office staffed by clerks placed there ‘long after our deaths, or uselessness, / were sealed in the breathing world.’ They collect data: every word, every ‘email chain / and press release’, and analyse it against ‘criteria that their pragmatic world / would reject as spendthrift fantasy. / We issue our futile counterclaims.’ It’s a fantastic conception, a protest against what’s easily passed over, whether minority pursuits or nuggets from the huge information overload that characterises contemporary life. ‘We are // at work to keep the difficult awake’, George writes, and he certainly does that. The poems are not ‘difficult’ in the sense of being obscure, fragmented or meaningless, but they make demands of the reader. They demand concentration, to be read slowly and carefully, and repay the attention.

The collection touches on theological questions, challenging both believer and sceptic to think deeper on essential questions of claim and belief. ‘Distraction During Evensong’ remembers the disciples leaving their homes and following Jesus where he called them. The choir sing evensong but something isn’t quite in tune, ‘something / unappeased, clanging through the semibreve rest, an end / to all the usual comforts.’ The second stanza recalls an afternoon’s gardening before the evening walk to chapel, and suddenly everything inessential is called into question: ‘Leave now. Let the dinner burn.’ The tension between the sharp call of Christ and the comforts of religion is heightened by the service continuing as if nothing has happened:

Resuming voice, the choir wined beyond the lectern,
wishful voices winding through the air
like the first snore of a bedmate, a misunderstanding.

George’s skilful word choices assert the mood: ‘resuming’ (nothing has changed), ‘wishful’ (in denial), ‘snore’, ‘misunderstanding’ – a chorus of business as usual, an unexamined life. This, and other poems such as ‘Tyndale’ and ‘Towards the Palatability of Contemporary Faith’, challenge intellectual lethargy on questions of faith with unexpected metaphor, rich diction and layered argument.

This is an ambitious and consistently impressive first collection in which satire, elegy and a poetry of ideas are fused together, often within single poems such as ‘Boys of Leisure’: a skewed anti-pastoral elegy to a leisure centre that juxtaposes ‘vanishing, turnstile Britain’ and ‘commissioned breezeblocks’ with a disturbed echo of Gerard Manley Hopkins (‘jack, joke, / chump who had the change’). It reclaims value in people and things that have been cast aside. ‘Chestnut Festivals’ recalls a Latin teacher who ‘should know full well that nothing good we do // we do for any reason but itself,’ such as learning Latin or ‘the contrarian flair in us that sees a man / keep a trio of clubs in orbit.’ The same could be said of poetry. The Claims Office is an exciting read, from a writer clearly drunk both on language and its perception, which will appeal to anyone who believes poetry has lost its ability to say anything important to the world we live in.

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Review from Poetry London

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The last of these debuts, Dai George’s The Claims Office, is harder to sum up. George is a good image-maker- cicadas hammering ‘like tills’’; a kestrel’s ‘lofty mooch’- and uses a lot of subtle end-rhyme, but doesn’t have such an overt ‘voice’ as the other three. In terms of subject matter, first impressions suggest it will be zeitgeisty too- the blurb makes much of George’s study in the US and we are told the collection is ‘rebellious’ and ‘edgy’, whilst he has appeared in many of the same anthologies and magazines as Amy Key. However, the back cover also holds a clue to George’s essential difference – whilst Key has managed to get a quote from TV presenter Lauren Laverne, George’s is from Rowan Williams. This is, at its heart, a deeply Christian book.
The poet’s Christianity flavours the whole collection – from poems framed as hymns, to love poems that go, via ‘The Lord’s Prayer’, to an interest in Latinate language. In the middle of the book there is also a run of poems explicitly about faith. The best of these is ‘Oran-Bati’, a disturbing poem about doubt that is haunted by ‘the inscrutable rumour of a beast/halfway between monkey and bar’ that ‘baffles love’. It tells us that ‘The Word was not written to accommodate/machines, vaccines’. Though an agnostic tending towards atheism myself, I have always been drawn to poetry that struggles with the big questions of why we are here, what makes us human, Good and Evil. Here George approaches that territory, as he does in ‘Towards the Palatability of Contemporary Faith’, which laughs at attempts to make God safe – to figure Him:

dabbing his hooves
voluntarily in our pastures.

Or God as mild, coexistent moon,
Suggestive of our better moments,
Not a cranky, jealous child king.

Elsewhere ‘Different Shoulders’, about sex outside marriage, fears that God is ‘the peasant who’d see us burn’, and figures flesh as a ‘rogue apocrypha I can’t/ renounce.’ I also loved the sonnet sequence ‘Squander’ – perhaps nodding to Donne’s ‘Holy Sonnets’ or Hopkins’s ‘Terrible Sonnets’ – which looks at the ‘human rat’ and tells us to:

Point it out then, the particular moment
When ingenuity spoiled and our digging,
belching, progress, and breeding went over
to the bad. Whose was the first emission?

Tackling this subject matter means George’s poems have an intriguing tension. There is something weirdly old-fashioned about this book, from the opening poem with its graveyard and lambs, through a disrupted evensong and meditations on monogamy, but at the same time we keep being reminded we’re in the twenty-first century – there are poems about surveillance and even one i.m. Jade Goody. I found the book uneven in places – the latter poem doesn’t quite work, intruding in its own way as much as those it calls ‘jackals’ with its wish to ‘bathe her waning body/in mountain pools’. My attention also drifted during the longer poems of place such as ‘A Clifton Postcode’, ‘Queen’s Lane Approximately’ or ‘New York on a Shoestring’, which seemed overstuffed with description. But if all debuts deserve to be taken seriously these days, this one repays such attention with the seriousness of its own ambition.

Clare Pollard

22/05/2014 - 11:31
Anonymous's picture

Review from Wales Arts Review

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Is it prior to, following or perhaps during, the synchronized tossing of a frisbee in a field or the ‘parties from here to China’, when we have no choice but to pause and think spiritually for a moment? In The Claims Office, the first collection from Welsh youngster Dai George, a bunch of religious poems start off, chronologically fitting, with ‘Distraction During Evensong’, inspired by the Book of Matthew, and that moment in a chapel, possibly a chapel we have visited a hundred times, during a lull in the choir, when we consider things in a different, fresh way; an epiphany, religiously or personally. Or possibly the distraction is a welcomed cure for tediousness.

Resuming voice, the choir whined beyond the lectern,

wishful voices winding through the air

like the first snore of a bedmate, a misunderstanding.

But by the second religious poem, the explicatory Lord is dead. Or is it just His explication which is dead? For in the next sentence He reappears as ‘happy God dabbing his hooves/voluntarily in our pastures’. (It is possible that God in this case represents a human, as the h in ‘his’ is in lower case, but more likely this is simply a break in tradition.) And in the next sentence He is a ‘coexistant moon’, a paganish suggestion which implies that God is different for everyone, which rules out a declaration of Christian faith. And in the third religious poem, George uses seven stanzas to echo the seven days of Creation (resting was as vital to the Creation process as it is to the narrator of this stylishly rhyming poem).

‘New Translation’ also rhymes, and the rhyming is subtle and cool, and at its skilful best:

Thanks to the hacks who still insist

on fixing the smallest glitch in Luke,

the Lord’s Prayer can be gamely glossed

at the tenth line. No more is sin a lake

we’re led to like bullocks on market-day

but rather rum misadventure

No longer does sin mean death, thus being an excuse to sin again (it would not be a surprise if George’s definition of the word rum is the less known and obsolete definition, meaning odd or peculiar, but as both images fit nicely the reader will have to make up his own mind; elsewhere in The Claims Office you will find dated English sitting comfortably with newfangled English). God pops up again in the titular poem, albeit still in an irreligious form. Modern churches might declare themselves non-religious, but God being described as ‘a steel mould into which we pour/molten yearnings’ is unlikely to make the slogan on a church website. Yet, given the fact this transformation of a God from an invisible spirit into something solid and undeniably real, and mightier still than us, not many Christians could sum up their faith any better.

If we sometimes have to think spiritually for a moment, that is quite a moment. Religious poems made up of non-religion is an enigma the reader can wrestle with himself, and there are more poems in which this puzzler crops up.

Aside from these poems, The Claims Office is thematically discordant. This common problem will catch out most poets as inexperienced as George at putting collections together, a skill in itself, but this collection is saved by the consistent good standard of individual poems. It would be naive to say that this is the principal element of poetry’s criterion, but George’s poems go from being a good standard to high standard more often than is common, and this is where rereading is spawned.

‘Oran-Bati’, a contribution to a crypto-zoology project, will bring back the sense of rum misadventure, and ‘The George’, a contribution to a surname project, will doubtless have you thinking about your own family tree (if the absurd number of television programmes relating to this subject have not already doused the passionate flames everyone must, at some point, burn with for this once-fascinating pastime). In ‘Narwhal’, we’re treated to stunning description:

a farce: hoar flukes blotched like moss,

camouflage for her liquid copse where sighting

means predation. She breached, as though kiting

with a sack of spuds; gulped, then a fey flop,

oxygenated, back into the deep.

alongside conversation humour which, unless you are of the type being described, will lighten the mood in time for a potentially overdramatic flourish:

Never trust someone who claims to prefer

animals to humans. You know the type,

some frazzled, cat-kissing petitioner,

whose beaten dogs, like readers’ wives,

pout above her stall.

The final poem takes place in a plane. The narrator is travelling home after a long, long time away. The book, like the impressively mature Dai George’s mind, travels long distances. Here we are reminded of the slow whitening of the narwhal’s ocean and, no doubt, the heat which has made our yearnings molten; though this heat comes in a slightly different shape for each one of us. And then this:

Life-size homes and lakes appear

and with them, ever larger, our paradigm

for future years: a white morning; a terminal

steadying into work, where soon we’ll kiss,

as the ground hunches its back to meet us.

It doesn’t matter whether this is a first collection or not. Many poets will struggle to produce work as exciting as this, no matter what number collection they are on. But the fact that there is certainly more to come from this highly talented poet is the most exciting thing of all. Dai George has got a big part to play in the future of poetry, and well beyond Wales. The Claims Office is where this all starts.

Carl Griffin - Wales arts Review

full review:

31/01/2014 - 09:59


Anonymous's picture

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
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09/12/2013 - 13:53
Anonymous's picture

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?’
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

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09/09/2014 - 11:44
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