Stavanger, David. Case Notes. Perth: UWA Publishing, 2020. RRP: $22.99, 120pp, ISBN: 9781760801199.
David Stavanger’s second collection, Case Notes, is a brilliant homage to the human condition. Recently awarded the 2021 Victorian Premier’s Literary Prize for Poetry, this book examines fatherhood, masculinity, dogs and lived mental health experiences with a cool eye, a sharp tongue and even sharper lines. At times confronting, this new work embodies a more tender side to Stavanger’s journey through this world, one imbued with exquisite canines.
In his 2013 Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize debut, The Special, Stavanger unabashedly explored the brutality of the mental health system. Case Notes, by and large, is far more compassionate in how it approaches this topic, with the exception of such poems as ‘Electric Journal’. In this 12-page dystopian epic we witness the horrors of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) as Stavanger captures the experience in poignantly sublime sentences. What anchors this poem, and makes it so readable, is Stavanger’s disarming wit. It is a brutal coping mechanism for a brutal situation:
I sit in the waiting room with my name on my wrist
in case I forget what wrists are for.
Your name is not yours once it’s in their mouth. (25)
The overall effect is powerful, subversive and strange. Stavanger holds up the experience of ECT not only to show how cruel it is, but how one survives such an experience, creating a liminal space where the spirit clings and endures amid the mutable. ‘Electric Journal’ is not an ‘easy’ poem to read, but it’s an important and necessary poem.
Elsewhere, and Stavanger’s liminal spaces flourish with joy. In ‘Octonaut’, shortlisted for the 2019 Moth Poetry Prize, he writes about his son. Here, childhood is discussed in a manner that is matter-of-fact yet reverent, the poem uncoiling across the page as if a waking dream.
Sometimes in the midnight zone there are fish who pass by like
sparklers, segmented worms, the snorkel mask of parents trying to
understand that which breathes below the surface. All these specialists
measuring depth. I don’t know what my son sees when he swims alone. (72)
The sublime aquatic depth of this poem is reminiscent of Timothy Archibald’s photo series Echolilia, the two sharing the same gentle language of care and observation. However, Stavanger’s work has the unsurprising added aspect of drawing in the medical profession, yet keeping them at a distance: their labels have little governance over this space.
Fatherhood spills and consumes other poems, and rightly so: it’s a complex topic. These poems (‘Corrections’, ‘Bad Dad’), in turn, wash up against and break over poems of masculinity (‘How to be an Alpha Male’). There is a toxicity here, yes, one that is inherent to the male condition. One that Stavanger dissects with a clinical eye. The result is unabashedly certain with (im)potency and acuity.
However, it’s the poems focusing on dogs’ roles which truly sing… or howl. ‘Dog Minding’ riffs on the Sigmund Freud quote ‘We are not in the least surprised when a dog quotes a line of poetry’ (88). Central to this poem is Harry, a fur covered philosopher for the modern age who spars with the narrator to great effect:
Me: Maybe I should get a dog
Harry: Maybe you should get some friends.
Me: If I had a dog I wouldn’t need friends.
Harry: That’s a burden no canine can carry. (98)
Yet a dog does carry the burden of our friendship. Unquestionably so. And as loyal accompanists in our lives, they have learnt—or rather, have been trained—to help us carry the burden of our own humanity. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the poem ‘Suicide Dogs’. What begins as a rumination on the infamous Overtoun Bridge in Scotland’s Dumbarton quickly turns into a meditation on how some dogs are aware of suicidal ideation in us. It’s a trait that has been used to train service and psychiatric assistance dogs in an attempt to help those of us who live with persistent suicidal ideation. The poem itself discusses this topic with one eye clearly focused on the value of adoration and love:
Others have identified their owner’s remains,
refusing to leave the side of those they were sent to protect.
They will never abandon you. They will forever hold
the slender bone of hope, tender in their jaws. (15)
‘Suicide Dogs’ is layered, elegant and astute, four-legged and full of tongue yet thoroughly human. It has a profound emotional impact, so much so that when I first read it, I cried. Partly because it made me feel seen, but largely because there is something so essential and urgent within it, a building sense of oh-so-very-necessary magic.
Stavanger has captured something marvellous in Case Notes. It is, in equal parts, ferocious and heartbreaking. The realism of our world is underpinned with an ache, with grim humour, resulting in lines that bite. Or sometimes lap. And much like a dog’s swishing tail can comfort, there is an attention to the rhythm of language throughout this collection, how it wags familiar beneath the words, eager to make you—the reader—smile.
Scott-Patrick Mitchell has been described ‘as one of the most diverse and original emerging poets working in Western Australia today’. Their most recent work appears in Stories of Perth, Going Postal, Australian Poetry Journal, and their 2018 chapbook ‘This Is How We Heal’.