Angela Stretch reviews “Disturbance” by Ivy Alvarez


by Ivy Alvarez


ISBN 9781781720875



For every verse novel there has to be a starting point, a line in a letter, a speech or a phrase with symbolic meaning, or an image. In Disturbance, it is an inquest into the death of three family members.

Ivy Alvarez introduces us to a spare, judicious survey of a wide range of daily experiences,which begins when a number of half-apprehended intuitions fall into place, the shudder of realignments travel through the body like an electric current, raising goose bumps that herald the imaginative grasp of a sociological truth. Alvarez’s lyrics are strikingly modulated to specific human registers as if she had the killer’s demons tested, then submitted them to the rigors of nothing less than a whole human drama. What drives us? What drove Tony, a husband and father to a family murder suicide?

While I was reading Disturbance, a homicide took place in the Riverina (NSW), at the hand of a respected farmer. The perpetrator turned the gun on himself, after murdering his wife and three young children. The rural community continues to struggle with the fact that ordinary men, men who are seen as good men use violence.  Alvarez’s depiction is a chilling parable to the brutal tragedy that unfolded, west of Wagga Wagga. In both cases the victims affected were from small-town middle class families, who’s nearest and dearests had received no forewarnings about the unfathomable acts that were to happen. In Disturbance the family are framed as being wealthy, with an up-for-sale home valued at fewer than two million. They are owners of a BMW and hold a life insurance policy worth three hundred thousand. Tony seems an average sort of country Dad, with a hankering for hunting, golf and a swinger for a mistress. The mother Jane is troubled with the banalities of her estranged relationship with Tony and the drudgery of her domestic life. In the poem Warning (49), we glean Tony’s possessive nature, his building reproach. There are diametric complexities between the two families but the grim reality of violence is evident.

Born in the Philippines and raised in Australia, Alvarez settled in Cardiff, Wales where she wrote her first collection Mortal (2006), a reimagining of the betrayal of the Greek goddess, Demeter and her daughter Persephone to the underworld. The narrative sustains its power because it is the speech not of just one person, but the souls of a mother and daughter. The maternal origin points us to the source of the world, the point of intersection between nothing and something. In Disturbance, her second book, Alvarez responds to a real account of a double murder suicide that happened in the United Kingdom and like all effective incendiaries she confronts history and comes to terms with an array of cultural influences, a complex, divided inheritance; the daughter who didn’t choose to survive, the mother who didn’t choose to die.

These are strong poems which move fluently between the living and the dead, the reported past and the recorded present.  There is a perverse malevolence that gnaws at you in the second poem from the circumstantial evidence listed, quantified by duration, frequency and moral accountability. The post-mortem begins in Nuclear family:

They met 27 years ago

One injunction
One divorce

One emergency number
dialed at 7.11 pm

                                  (Nuclear family, 8)

Alvarez traces the tormented, catastrophic history of the family members, embuing them with only flashes of emotional colour. Witnesses are shadowed by questions of what might have passed, as are we, who try to read between the lines and fathom the family’s irreversible fate. The story pulsates with the biographical measures of a family’s destruction attested to by the local community, neighbours, the estate agent, journalists, the Detective, policemen, the mistress, and even the local priest.

The self-evident sometimes has to be restated, reinterpreted and questions recreated about characters to get behind the mask. A dialogue between the public and the private spheres is an important part of a good narrative and poets continue to set the standard in searching for a deeper reading of the humanity of the lived life, and a vivid sense of the life once lived. In this portrayal the extraordinary comes into view in the mainly private spheres of Dad, Mum, son, surviving daughter and the other more than twenty voices that are both directly and indirectly involved.

Alvarez seems compelled to share her understanding of dyfunctionality. We may not know it comprehensively, but the book offers us at least a dramatic core that performs or perhaps explains. She provides cumulative details, evidence and testimonials, chiseled on the page in various forms, playing with sequencing and time.

The words of the Operator who received the call for help hang in the air:

The phone rings: laughter and shrieks.
Another crank call, two cranks in ten minutes.
I just got here.

The minute hand swings over.
It’s 7.11 pm.

(Operator, 10)

And much later we hear from a Witness:

We’re laughing − a rare thing.
After dinner and we’re at the sink.
We hear a car on the gravel drive.  Our laughter dries.

                                    (Witness, 75)

And so it must have happened by increments across the community— that slow withdrawal of voices, the silence falling as the conversations between people querying the unexpected, suggests something intense and morbid had taken place.

off the record?
five thousand per dead body
but we don’t look at it
that way

(The estate agents, 14)

There’s a shiver of black humour, or rather a notation of bodily memory that reaches home to acknowledge the curiosity of why things happen.

I don’t know what could have set him off

then again
I cannot understand
how cows know
to chew in unison

(A neighbouring farmer, 15)

The poems succeed by inflection, as different circuits are rewired, allowing us to register subtleties not previously accessible. Alvarez provides us with a sense of comprehension through the views of a community numbed, a complex socio-economic layout of whom and where to place the blame, to seek justification for actions made and to perhaps identify the warning signs and be more vigilant in the recognition of these signs.

What is captured is a capacity for monstrous indifference, a means to register murder, sociopathy and violation. The tragic genre is the poet’s intent, an archetype of assemblages generated by one expectation leading to the expectations of the next. In The Journalist speaks III, this non-fiction verse narrative achieves a stage pitch.

all complexity flattened to a headline
‘Three shot dead in village’

Black cameras crowd in,

flashbulbs white as maggots.
She gives them a flat, dry stare,
The surviving daughter who releases her statement.

                                    (The Journalist speaks III, 50)

Disturbance is a book of dark intensities and deeply felt connections, haunted and haunting, at once brooding, sensual and lucid. A smaller cast of characters would make logistics simpler, but the reasons for domestic violence are just as compounding. The apparently simpler observations by a cast of characters play out a vital role; to speak out from within community, take on a deeper responsibility that incorporates some element of recognition of this major societal issue.

Alvarez’s diverse upbringing may have provided her with the social and political purpose to write about domestic violence from varying points-of-view. In doing so she has developed an elliptical but determined way of approaching her subjects that pushes forward an array of directions by turning back and engaging in a past she has imagined.


ANGELA STRETCH is a Sydney based artist, curator, writer and organiser. Her work uses language and poetry through different mediums and has been exhibited and published nationally and internationally.  She is the coordinator of the Sydney Poetry Program at the Brett Whiteley Studio, AGNSW.