Case Notes by David Stavanger. UWAP 2020
‘These poems reach inside you, take a highlighter and draw a big fluorescent circle around your humanity, lest you forget where it lives.’ Ali Whitelock.
It has to be said, I’ve never reviewed a poetry collection before. So I’m doing this as I see fit and not according to how a review is meant to be done. I don’t offer myself up as an expert, but as a reader who has been unimaginably moved by this work. Every poem took my breath away. If I could cite every poem from this collection in this ‘review’, I would.
I first heard David Stavanger read at the Art After Hours response to the Du Champ exhibition at the AGNSW in 2019. David’s performance was mesmerising. A combination of his words, his delivery, the ball of string he produced from his pocket, handing one end of it to an audience member, then rolling it the length of the first row made the audience sit up and take note—something special was about to happen. David’s set was beyond brilliant. He read one of his poems wearing dark glasses (produced from his pocket almost as an after thought) in an already dark room. which added a magical dimension to the entire performance. With all this in mind I went along to the launch of Case Notes expecting it to be brilliant. It was. However what I wasn’t expecting, was for it to be so deeply arresting.
When David took the mic & started to read, as mad as this sounds, I felt myself become the words, the lines, the phrases. As the poems kept coming, I sat in the audience and (again, as mad as this sounds) I was David. His cells became my cells. His body became my body. His mind became my mind. His terror became my terror. This wild experience came as a monumental surprise and left me somewhat bewildered (in a very good way).
I journeyed through the poem, ‘Electric Journal’ as though I were on a train that would not stop. I travelled the days with the narrator and I travelled the nights, each stage bringing something new and terrifying. The bright and awful light of the following lines blinded me:
‘I am considered ‘an excellent candidate for ECT’. I am thrilled.
My arts degree has come to something after all.’
I laughed out loud at the line, ‘My arts degree has come to something after all’ before stifling it, unsure of whether it was a line I should be laughing at.
As this journey raced on, an overwhelming sense of dissociation was so perfectly brought home in this stanza:
I state that I was not harmed. This is part of the process.
I keep repeating this as I walk round the house
trying to find where I live.
And further devastated with this:
I sit in the waiting room with my name on my wrist
in case I forget what wrists are for.
I finished ‘Electric Journal’ at my own central station, glad to get off the train and feeling richer as a result of this quietly devastating journey.
As I read this collection I came across many surprises. I hadn’t, for example, expected to find out as a Scot that there’s a bridge in Scotland where over fifty dogs have inexplicably leapt to their deaths, ‘plummeting from parapet past green stone’ (Suicide Dogs). I hadn’t expected to find out that electric shock therapy is still being carried out. I hadn’t expected to find out, ‘the small intestine is roughly 23 feet long, the equivalent of the largest saltwater crocodile on record’ (FOUND; THE HUMAN BODY) or that, ‘during their lifetime, a person will on average accidentally swallow eight small spiders’ (FOUND; THE HUMAN BODY). It is entirely possible I’ve been living under a rock. But through this collection, in all its extraordinary truth and terrible fucking beauty, that rock has lifted. And I have expanded.
Another profoundly moving poem is, ‘Apple’:
I’m at the Genius Bar
Just got told the phone
I have brought in is not my phone.
I thought it was. I must be water damaged.
It’s been a wet start to Autumn
I’m relieved because there is also a chance
I am not me and can be replaced
Then they tell me/there is only a two-year warranty.
The cloud rolls in.
A woman across from me
is trying to recover photos of her dead cat.
This poem recounts the trials of our every day and juxtaposes lines of great emotional insight––‘I am not me and can be replaced’ ––with lines of banal acceptance, ‘It’s been a wet start to Autumn’. It also somehow shows us how we have surrendered to a system in which are now all so helplessly a part of, in the same way we have surrendered to lives we feel we are powerless to change. Who hasn’t found themselves in an Apple store dripping wet without an umbrella, waiting (hoping) for our number to be called? Who hasn’t tried to retrieve photos, previously thought to be irretrievable? Who hasn’t stumbled to the Genius Bar when our name or number was called, only to be told the situation with our iPhone, iPad, Mac were not quite as we believed them to be? And yet the line, ‘I’m relieved because there is also a chance/I am not me and can be replaced …’ almost finds cause for sad celebration when the poet imagines he is possibly as replaceable as a hand-held device. This poem highlights the stark irony, the ugliness, the reduction of us as humans to a number, a bar code, a statistic, an iPhone––and highlights the lack of humanity in our capitalistic society.
The wonderfully titled,’The Bingo Code of Etiquette’ is a poem from the bowels of what may be unknown to many––the bingo world. A world which means everything and nothing; a world full of desperately vital importance and no real purpose.
……………………………….……….If asked to
switch seats, comply
……….…………….If a pensioner drops, keep marking
your cards, even when the paramedics arrive.
Don’t make this personal. My grand-
mother died after winning
the meat tray.
In the gravity of the broken rules in the bingo hall (and the tragedy and futility of his grandmother dying after winning the meat tray), this poem holds up a mirror to us all, to all the mundane minutiae of our lives, to all of the pointlessness and grave importance of every single thing we do. Things which simultaneously mean everything and absolutely nothing. Stark, sad and darkly funny, this is one of my favourite poems in this collection.
Varied formatting is also used to great effect in the book. For example in the poem ‘I lied’, the lines appear across the page, spaced unevenly, disjointed, as though dictated by a narrator who was re-learning to think, re-learning to speak and has been asked by a higher authority to say each simple line out loud:
I …….wrote….. this….. on…… the…. train.
It …….was….. me….. who…… ate the last… guest.
My….mother….has….. everything ….. to….do with …….. it.
Each line feels like a key that might at any moment unlock a reservoir of pain. Each line brilliantly follows the next as though they were coordinates being plotted on a graph that may eventually show us the answer to everything (to the closest decimal point). ‘I lied’ stretches across the page, stilted, spaced with such powerful simplicity that you begin to wonder if you even knew what truth was.
Case Notes is more than truth, more than a mirror, more than honesty–– it is an endoscopy; it is the drinking of the barium meal; it is an emptying of everything you ever thought you knew about yourself, the world and those around you. These poems reach inside you, take a highlighter and draw a big fluorescent circle around your humanity, lest we should forget where it lives.
the lactic acid in the calves of your despair’
and my heart crumples like a coke can
poking seaweed with a stick & running away from the smell
Ali Whitelock’s latest poetry collection, the lactic acid in the calves of your despair is published by Wakefield Press and her debut collection, and my heart crumples like a coke can (also Wakefield Press) has a forthcoming UK edition by Polygon, Edinburgh. Her memoir, poking seaweed with a stick & running away from the smell was launched to critical acclaim in Australia and the UK in 2009. www.aliwhitelock.com
Case Notes is available from https://uwap.uwa.edu.au/products/case-notes
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