Dave Clark Reviews “Case Notes” by David Stavanger

Case Notes

By David Stavanger

UWA Publishing

ISBN 978-1-76080-119-9

Reviewed by DAVE CLARK

I recently attended a training course that looked into depression. As I sat, sipping on an Earl Grey tea, the presenter went on an acronym spree, throwing them around like a farmer with an excess of seeds. I was beginning to feel lost with the terminology when a lady across the room called out.
     ‘None of this will help the people I work with.’
We all paused in wonder. The presenter, flustered by what they felt was an unnecessary interruption, ploughed ahead with the phrasing that he knew, continuing to lock many of us out of the discussion. The lady threw her hands up in the air and called out again.
     ‘This isn’t how people describe their experience of mental illness.’
Sweat pooling on his brow, the presenter was now the one who seemed lost.
     ‘Well, um, you’ll have to find ways of explaining it to them,’ before reverting back to jargon that put the barriers back up.

Working in the field of mental health as a counsellor, I have seen for many years how the language used around mental health can block people out of their own experience. It constrains them, shames them. People can be reduced to a number, a label, a stereotype, a problem, an illness. Their find themselves on the other side of the door, locked out of their own story.

David Stavanger’s latest collection of poetry, Case Notes (UWA Publishing, 2020), picks up a crowbar at the outset and pries open the door for more than a peek inside. As the poems unfold, there are times where his works cut open a hole in the wall and leads the reader through, bypassing dehumanising phraseology and into an intimate, raw and illuminating insight of lived experience with mental illness.

The book of thirty-seven poems steps immediately into the impact of bi-polar depression, suicide, medication and electroconvulsive therapy, revealing them with wording that puts skin and bones back onto mental health. About medication, he writes,
     ‘They taste like a mixture of chalk and talk shows’
About the complexity of depression, we see that ‘he wants guarantees that can’t be given’ (p12) and that ‘Certainty is the strangest thing’ (p23).

No hard-and-fast words that package it up neatly. Instead, Stavanger steps beyond bland phrasing and poignantly describes an intricate world of ambiguity. His poem, ‘Electric Journal’, which was shortlisted for the 2016 Newcastle Poetry Prize, sees the writer trying to keep hold of his mind. Stavanger is able to breathe words into corners of mental illness that are usually, at best, misunderstood, and often, disregarded.

Halfway through the book is a poem called ‘P is for Power,’ listing roles starting with ‘P’ who hold influence. Patient is not one of them, and Stavanger uses his writing to claim some of his power back, and in doing so, giving some to the reader. This is a compelling skill and one that I was moved by throughout the collection.

The works not only deal with mental illness. They pivot into balding, bingo, fading relationships with fathers and being a father to his son. And yes, dogs. Dogs are mentioned over fifty times in Case Notes, including a discussion between the writer and his dog in ‘Dog Minding.’ Who’s the writer and who’s the dog is up in the air and adds to the enjoyment of the piece.

I found a trilogy of poems about his relationship with his Dad especially touching. The lines

‘…but sometimes
there’s no way
to resurrect the living’

will surely strike home for anyone who has found it difficult to relate with a parent and the regret over what has been, and what continues to be, when looking at those figures that raised us. There is a tenderness expressed in these writings, lamenting that it is possible to have a pulse and yet still not be fully alive.

Another topic to explore in his works is the one around toxic masculinity. ‘How to be an Alpha Male’ highlights the destructive façade of the social script fed to many of us men over the years. It is an area that needs to continue to be discussed and pulled apart, and I would be interested to hear more of it from Stavanger’s satirical perspective.

Not only is there clever pivoting of topics throughout the collection, Stavanger uses an array of forms – free verse, lyric, cut-and-creatively-paste from discussion forums, poetic memoir, prose – to keep the reader’s interest up. And throughout is a playful, wonderfully absurd use of language. At no point did I find the humour degrading his experience of mental illness. Rather, the black humour and flat-out whimsy provided a clever counterbalance to the weight of what he addressed and left me laughing at regular intervals.

In the poem ‘Mental Health Week,’ he writes:
     ‘If you tell them such things
     they will tie you to the nearest chemist.’

There’s this outstanding line in ‘Male Patterns:’
     ‘In the savannah of middle-class suburbs
     you seldom see a bald man lose a street fight
     with a wheelie bin’

And also this cracker – ‘I got into $ for the art’ (p76).
These turns of phrase occur at a pleasing rate and caught me off guard every time. I dare anyone to read his glossary of terms at the back of the book and not burst into a blazing smile.

Each line in this book is well-crafted, bumping you further along a path you didn’t know you were walking down, but glad you did traverse. In a recent interview with Jackie Smith (Smith 2020), David spoke about how he wrote some poems as an unreliable narrator. To my reading, this cleverly reflected the variability we find in our own minds, regardless of the state of our mental health, sometimes stumbling along to who-knows-where. Case Notes does this with deliberate vulnerability and incisive wit.

I agree with Ali Whitelock’s (Rochford Street Review 2020) assessment of the book, that it gets inside you and reminds you of your humanity. In a world where stigma and acronyms and labels predominantly fill up the experience around mental illness, this work pushes that aside to reveal a beating heart and a mind fighting hard to get itself back. It brings clarity and gives an approachable language to complexity. That is a welcomed feat. And while he says in interviews that he does not write for awards or his peers, it is no surprise that four of the poems in this collection have been shortlisted for prizes over the years. Unsought-for but worthy recognition for one of Australia’s finest contemporary poets.

The final three poems in the collection release some of the pressure built up from a tightly coiled selection, showing us an author finding hope, recovering in the waters of the ocean and a sauna. He remarks at the start of the final poem, ‘New Age,’
     ‘We dream, we heal, we are reborn’

To capture in poetic form the struggle of mental illness and the steps towards healing is an achievement. To capture it in a way that leaves the reader wanting more of it is a sign of a collection worth reading, recommending and reflecting upon. And whether it was Stavanger’s intention or not, this work provides one more key to the doors that usually lock people out of their own experience when it comes to mental health. Thanks to the poems in Case Notes, the barriers of stigma and acronym-filled-labels are one step closer to being undone.
Rochford Street Review, 2020, Reaching inside you: Ali Whitelock reviews ‘Case Notes’ by David Stavanger, Accessed 2/10/20
Smith, Jackie 2020, Exploring ‘Case Notes’: an Interview with David Stavanger, Accessed 2/10/20
Stavanger, David 2020, Case Notes, UWA Publishing, Australia.
DAVE CLARK in an emerging writer-poet who does his living and breathing in Alice Springs. He works as a counsellor and enjoys reading, photography and giving voice to silenced stories. His works have appeared in Verdant, Adelaide, Glow and read on 8CCC and ABC Radio.
Twitter: @DaveClarkWriter