Monday, 24 October 2016

Shotgun Review #2: Ivy Alvarez's Disturbance

George Ttoouli reviews Ivy Alvarez's Disturbance (Seren, 2013)


Time taken to read: 90min
Time taken to review: 1hr (plus about 10min editing)

Where found: a freebie, possibly sent for review by Seren when I was reviews-editing for another journal.

Transparency: I read the first twenty pages of this a couple of years ago and it has stuck with me, so I'm returning to it now. I know nothing about the author beyond what's on the book. Seren sent quite a few books for review for the other journal, more than I could accommodate. Many triggered some interesting thinking, and now I've reclaimed some head-space for myself, I'm revisiting.


Disturbance is “an imaginative retelling of and a response to actual events” according to the statement on the verso page; “Names, actions and thoughts of the characters are products of the author's imagination and are used fictitiously.” So there's the first challenge of this book: it's using fact to authenticate the poetry in a way that forces you to tread a fine line between thinking 'do I buy this?' and 'these events were really awful.'

Holding that unresolvable in mind, here's the rough shape of the book: poem by poem, it's a multi-vocal panorama of points of view connected to a domestic double-murder/suicide. Each poem is formally shaped to indicate different characters connected to the crime. Some are sequences in connected voices – the four policemen – others are sequences by the same speaker – most notably the murderer and his wife.

Plot synopsis: following the filing of divorce by his wife, an abusive husband and father of two (a (teenage?) boy and a daughter who is absent at university at the time) secretly copies the key to his mistress' gun cabinet, steals her shotgun and shells, then murders his son, his wife and then himself. This is bleak, realist material and while the characters are named (fictitiously, as mentioned in the verso statement), the events translate simultaneously into horror and a replicated, generic crime of passion. [*]

On first read, the structure evoked a similarly structured project, Ann Beattie's Mr Nobody At All. Published with an issue of McSweeney's Quarterly as a stand-alone novella, Beattie's collection of prose eulogies at the wake of a completely ordinary man by members of his local community is tonally completely different. It's a gentle comedic farce, carefully and consistently delivered. The traditional use of prose also allows for a far more believable construction of voice, character, actions, dialogue, etc. than Disturbance aims for.

The association, however, also demonstrates Alvarez's ambitions. Disturbance offers the emotional anatomy of a crime too terrible to make sense of. A recurring theme in the first half of the book, spoken by neighbours, police, and quested after and filled in by the journalist, is that they “don't know what could have set him off” ('A neighbouring farmer'). And this is the gap that runs through the whole book and, no doubt, the true events: why did he do it? Instead of answering this question, it features prominently and becomes a central thread through the nightmare maze of fear, horror, disgust – and love, at times.

The bonds between husband and wife, father and children, are completely broken, but there is a strange moment when the mistress speaks fondly of him in ways that no one else can. Even this, however, is retrospectively removed, in 'The Mistress Speaks':  “You think you know a man. / I guess I didn't.” The gap in knowing rewrites the bond between lovers. Even the journalist fails to fill in the gap, though claiming, “I write down what they say / and sometimes what's unsaid” ('The Journalist Speaks II').

I have many problems with the execution of the book. Being poetry, rather than plot-driven prose, the medium struggles to carry the essential details of the crime. Exposition straddles the monologues awkwardly. Poetry (with a capital P) has to keep declaring itself through rhymes, despite a sense of the intention being that the collection wants to capture everyday speech, to retain realism.

And yet, the voices are mostly the same. The formal structures of each are highly inventive (I'll talk more about this below), but ultimately there's no syntactical modulation and the daughter, the son, the priest, the murderer, the policemen and detective all seem to blend together as one voice. This voice isn't a spoken voice; to begin, there's a lot of factual detail; this gives way to abstract emotional detail; then there's the reflective attempts to make sense of what's happened; and metaphor intrudes regularly, disrupting the veracity of spoken living. So, while the project as a whole captivated me, the delivery of each slice was often unsatisfying, disrupted.

On the other hand, the structural work is surprising and worked well for me. The part that captured me most was at the end, the murder of the son. In the real events, as I understand through the book: the husband arrives, at night, at the family home, the mother and son see him coming. The son goes out to meet the father and try to stop him entering the house. The father loads his shotgun. The son starts running away and his gunned down. Then shot again and again. The mother calls the police and the operator hears the later shotgun blasts and stays on the line as the mother hides in the house.

It's terrifying in itself, but this moment is delivered over and over again in the book. Firstly, the son's point of view, in 'Tom', a prose poem in the dead son's voice. Then, in 'Witness', from the mother's perspective in the house. In 'Tony and Tom' the scene is retold in the third person, watching the interaction between father and son. Most bizarre of all, 'See Jane Run' retells the mother's version in third person, but in the style of a Dick and Jane book. (This is the most effective variance of style in the book, and it feels to me like a fairly easy decision and would have worked better if it had been backed up by more stylistic range throughout.)

The repetition of the event builds the horror. The whole of the book comes together for me at that point. Disturbance, with its subtle, police-report connotations, sets out to disturb the emotionless facts of official reports. It's a strange constellation, structurally very well organised to create emotional peaks and breaks, while also retaining a sense of serial simultaneity: time doesn't run in a straight line through these poems and the fluidity of how the events are retold draws out the emotional terror and sadness.

Some of the phrasing might be marvellous if it were given breathing space, if the collection as a whole didn't put so much pressure on (as the book blurb puts it) trying to be “a novel in verse”. The poems in the voice of the murderer, for example, are heavily woven with the colour “red”, but also offer such strikingly weird images and off rhymes as, “this is the dark / I know / chasing me / down the road / the double-tongued bark” (sixth part of 'Tony'). That darkness is an evil, chasing the poet, the reader, along this road, through the collection: the massive, unspoken, Why?

These moments of poetic energy are a little too buried by the need to carry the plot forward, to accrue energy through structure. Emotionally, Disturbance is a hard read. As poetry, it's a flawed read. But it's that energy that arrives through structure, both through the whole series and the use of shapes on the page to indicate different voices in individual poems, which captivated me most. That structure offers a kind of meaning to me: that of how hard it is to make sense of the senseless; the only option is retelling, in the hope narrative might bring meaning, even when it can't.

[*] I note the awkwardness of choosing this book as the second in a review series called 'shotgun reviews'. It didn't occur to me until I sat down to read it through from the beginning, that this might be problematic. Nothing intentional in the association. There was likely a subconscious link when I started the review series and began thinking of books I'd overlooked and wanted to return to, but nothing crass intended (for a change).

Saturday, 22 October 2016

Rochelle Sibley – Adventures in Yiddish (8): YIVO, Yivo and the challenge of standardized Yiddish

Shmerke Kaczerginski sorts through Jewish books in the YIVO building in Vilna during World War II.
Courtesy of YIVO
Futurama has long been one of my favourite shows, but despite my profound love of sociopathic robots and animated swearing, there is one problem.  Whenever I hear the name YIVO, I don’t think of YIVO, the incredible Yiddish academic organisation, I think of Yivo, the many-tentacled “Beast with a Billion Backs” (at least I’m not the only one).  While this is clearly a personal failing on my part, my defence is that Futurama Yivo was the one I encountered first, and a planet-sized purple space pervert is a pretty memorable association to have with a name.  I fear that Max Weinreich would not be impressed.
The wrong Yivo
This post isn’t an attempt to reclaim the name of YIVO, because they really don’t need any help from cartoon-obsessed נאַר like me.  However, my YIVO/Yivo confusion made me realise that space monster Yivo highlights one of the most difficult aspects of research institution YIVO, namely the standardization of the Yiddish language.
Before I say anything else, I should point out that YIVO is arguably the most important Yiddish organisation in existence.  These guys have saved a huge amount of Yiddish language and culture, and they continue to share that language and culture with overwhelming generosity.  The institution was founded in 1925 in Vilna but relocated to the US after WWII, taking with it all the materials its members and their friends had risked their lives to conceal during the Nazi occupation.  This is a collection founded on books, documents and other treasures that saw out the war hidden under floorboards and inside walls, saved by people who, in many cases, did not survive the war themselves. You can see now why I feel so bad about the whole Futurama association.
YIVO didn’t stop there, though.  They produced Yiddish dictionaries, created research archives and sustained Yiddish through decades of popular decline.  Now they provide a huge array of digital resources to the student of Yiddish, including the Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe, online classes in Yiddish culture, and immense databases of archival materials.  They run summer language schools and fellowships, exhibitions and live events, all to share and preserve Yiddish language and heritage.
As grateful as I am that YIVO exists, that last sentence carries a hint of the challenge they have inadvertently created.  In seeking to preserve Yiddish in its pre-WWII state, YIVO has standardized that language.  This made sense in many ways, since any language that stretches across such a huge range of countries is bound to have variations, dialectical differences, and all kinds of idiosyncrasies that would make it difficult to teach to new learners.  In the absence of the majority of its native speakers, Yiddish had to switch from being a multitude of different variations into a single language that could be defined and recorded, in order to save it from being lost altogether.
This is where my irrepressible recollection of Yivo the Futurama space-vert becomes unexpectedly relevant.  The whole experience of language is that words evolve.  They shift and merge in response to cultural change, so as some become archaic and fall out of currency, others appear to replace them.  A language is an organic process of growth and renewal, but YIVO standardized Yiddish has struggled, understandably, to achieve that.
The result is that the Yiddish I speak is not the Yiddish of my great-grandparents.  We could have understood one another, just about, in the way that a Londoner can understand a Geordie, but there would be a lot of contested vowel sounds and general confusion on both sides.  Perhaps that is to be expected, since my whole point is that language needs to evolve over the generations.  However, a more significant problem is that the Yiddish I speak is not the Yiddish of contemporary native speakers either.  Hassidic Yiddish is now the living Yiddish, the language that has had to incorporate terms for jet-skiing and fusion cuisine and desktop publishing.  This is the Yiddish that is growing as a language, and it’s not as simple as me needing to shift my vowel sounds to match.  If it were just a case of “You say shayne, I say sheyne”, it wouldn’t be a problem, but standardized Yiddish has frozen its entire vocabulary.  It’s a little like learning English using only the works of Jane Austen.  It’d get you through, right up until the point that you need to change a car tyre or really rip into someone for queue-jumping, but it just wouldn’t sound right.  That is how a speaker of standardized or “classroom” Yiddish sounds to a native speaker – we’re speaking a fossilized language.
While there were still communities of native speakers from the pre-WWII generations, Yiddish retained its living fullness, as Nahum Stutchkoff’s work demonstrates.  I love finding Yiddish words that my standardized dictionaries don’t have, because they represent the language at its most vital.  And yet that’s what makes this whole issue so poignant: we don’t have to go back very far to find that living Yiddish with its regional variations and localised slang terms, where “gravy” can be “tunk” rather than just “zuze” or “sos”.
Learning Yiddish now, I can see that the language is changing right before my eyes.  The most recent Yiddish dictionary seems designed to counteract that sense of Yiddish being preserved under glass, and there are increasing efforts being made to allow the language to keep up with twentieth-century life, as well as to reflect the full variety of its pre-standardized existence.  Yiddish is slowly unfreezing after its period of stasis and is regaining its plasticity.  This increasing flexibility should allow new learners to appreciate not just the difference between sheyne and shayne but also between fentster and vinde, as Yiddish begins to create new hybridized words from English just as it previously did from Polish, Russian and Lithuanian.  Yiddish now has the strength to diversify again, so that there is room for both YIVO and Yivo, which makes my life easier at least.  
!האָב ליב דאָס טאַפּ־הערנערל

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Simon Turner - About the Author (3)

Rogane Windsor’s perturbations remain wilfully experiential.  In poem after pogrom after pointel, he has contorted himself well beyond the realms of Apollo’s automata towards the moss-clogged aqueducts of Empire.  A confident conductor of shuddering juggernauts, he has been vigorously exposed on a number of occasions as ‘a tropical atheist’ and ‘a wounded Elizabethan tax collector’.  He denigrates these climbing-plants with Regency gusto.  His Septembers are uniformly milky, and whisper their invitations to Reykjavik, suggesting independence from certain districts of ‘barbarian’ emptiness.  Impossibly, many of the pencils that might pickle Windsor’s dreamscapes best are snarled in a pitcher of weak French lager, placed tantalisingly just beyond whistling distance of the rackety encampment.  His peregrinations, deselected: Libya (Pig in a Dress Books, 1981); The Tropical Surfaces (Alabama Rookery, 1985); Eight Journeys with Satirical Aspirations (Hot Trowels, 1986); The Martyrs’ Frogs (Yuck Chute, 1989); Collected Heresies (Asbestos Kimono, 1995); The Steady Kingdom (Fingerless Press, 1999); Harbour (Crimson Beefing, 2010).

Monday, 17 October 2016

Simon Turner - Saying Something Back

‘Clairaudiently’, the adverbial form of “clairaudience, n., the alleged power of hearing things not present to the senses.”


‘Maybe; maybe not’: a beautiful poem, reliant on its haunted status.  Language unhitched from its originating meaning – the King James Bible in this instance – to produce something weird and unfamiliar.  It’s like a prayer on the edge of sleep or waking, words drifting free of their moorings to find other, dreamier harbours.


Every word its own double-image; every poem shadowed by its dream.


“A poem is just a little machine for remembering itself.”

– Don Paterson, ‘The Dark Art of Poetry’ (2004)


‘Clairaudience’ comes back in ‘A gramophone on the subject’, a sequence haunted by differing voices and modes of expression: the quatrain form works exceptionally well here, both convincingly ‘timeless’ – the blunt Anglo-Saxonism of the first section could be describing a scene from last week, or ten centuries ago – and rooted in the popular poetry of the period (Kipling, the king of the iambic thrum, is quoted for the title of ‘If any question why’, and rhymed quatrains proved a pretty versatile form whenever Sassoon’s poetry took a turn for the scathing and satirical).


‘In Nice’ gets over the character, the sheer bolshie verve of sparrows more effectively and efficiently than any piece of writing I can think of: “ – Pip, sirrah, southbound / to red dust scuffles.”  Yes, yes, exactly that, yes.


Continually citing older poems / poets that themselves had an almost impossible job of memorialisation to do.  ‘A Part Song’s’ line “She do the bereaved in different voices”, for e.g., invoking the original title of ‘The Waste Land’, a poem that ‘remembers’, through its patchwork of quotation, the entire wreckage of Western civilisation: also, ‘TWH’ not only colours what comes after itself – it’s the ground zero of modernist poetry – but also what went before, what it borrows; memory as a two-way street, an impossible river.  Also, ‘A gramophone on the subject’ brings in poetry’s relation to the First World War, where poems had to / were asked required to do the (almost) impossible: to be an adequate memorial to the countless dead.


Language, the spirit of the dead, / May mouth each utterance twice.


“So it comes about the war seems, to us, to have been fought less over territory than the way it would be remembered, that the war’s true subject is remembrance.  Indeed the whole war – which was being remembered even as it was fought, whose fallen were being remembered before they fell – seems not so much to be tinted by retrospect as to have been fought retrospectively.”

– Geoff Dyer, The Missing of the Somme [1994] (London: Phoenix, 2009): 32


“Tree seen from bed” / “Late March”: the phenomena of the natural world observed and subsequently described with an hallucinatory clarity, as in convalescence. 


Perhaps we could see dream as a starting point for the quatrain forms and nursery rhymes that seem to haunt many of these poems: language pushing at the boundaries of the rational, rhyme as language refashioning itself, finding its own harmonies and occluded meanings. 


“The syntax holds and a poem’s infinite number of overtones are magnified to a greater memorableness.  A poem is charged to that power of release that even to one man it goes on speaking again and again beyond behind its speaking words, a space of continued messages behind the words…”

– W. S. Graham, ‘Notes on a Poetry of Release’ (1946)


The inarticulacy of grief: language cannot, can never, go far enough; death’s the threshold that cannot be crossed, or even engaged with rationally.    


‘A gramophone on the subject’ keeps bumping up against the failure of the public language of memory, of memorialisation.  Public grief in these poems – war memorials, cemeteries, the publication of the names of the ‘fallen’ in the local newspaper – can only ever be forms of euphemism, evasion, historical whitewashing: real grief, real memory, is difficult, intractable, and won’t be so easily brought over into words (and therefore transformed into a smooth and seamless narrative): thus, the quotation from Virginia Woolf in the endnotes – “they never mention its [death’s] unbecoming side: its legacy of bitterness, bad temper, ill adjustment”.   


the King James Bible;
Conan Doyle, etc.


The tradition as a living breathing presence in these poems: works of memory engaged not simply in a personal act of memorial recovery, but a collective, cultural one too.  No, that’s not quite right: I think what I mean is that Riley’s acknowledging that poetry is an act of memory, always has been, and that the older it gets as either a field or a form, the more memory it can conceivably contain. 


What’s notable is the versatility of Riley’s line, her diction.  This is a plain(ish) language – or at least recognisably ‘contemporary’ – that’s able to absorb the colloquial, the higher registers of rhetoric (that “ardent bee” stands out) and the remembered or quoted voices of others without overt juncture, without sign-posting.  The poems are made objects, but show no joins.  I hesitate to call this craft, as it’s a massively unfashionable and loaded term, but there might be no other way to express this feeling.


Hope is an inconsistent joy.