Case Notes by David Stavanger UWAP 2020
David Stavanger is a well- known award-winning writer, performer and psychologist, and his latest collection, Case Notes, has been shortlisted for the 2021 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for poetry. The book takes you into a fascinating, quasi psychedelic trip into a mind, a mind sometimes accosted by mental illness and at other times reflecting a god energy in his words. Case Notes has five sections, each section introduced by the Psychology Symbol Ψ, repeating the symbol to number each one.
In the same way colours blend and intermingle in a painter’s pallet, so do the words in this book, words that describe the sublime, the rawness, the pain, that blend with sardonic humour entangle and disentangle with the genius pen of Stavanger. The reader will enter the real world of the poet, as well the imaginary, the fantastic, the subliminal; he knows how to take you into madness, he not only has been in a psychiatric hospital, but he is also an expert in psychology.
Reading Stavanger made me think of the Divine Madness, which brings the unconventional, outrageous, unexpected and unpredictable behaviours. Yes, no straightforward poetry in Case Notes, the variety of styles in the poems demonstrate the creativity and talent of the poet. He writes free verse, flash fiction, found text, lyric poetry, and lists of observations.
Stavanger brings relationships into the midst, like the relationship with sanity and the treatment of mental illness, relationships with dogs: real dogs and the black dog (major depressive disorder) and between father and son.
If you have a dog and have suffered depression you will understand what veiled feelings are poured into some of the poems, like in the following excerpt from “Suicide Dogs”:
There are sign. A dog jumping a fence forces you
to go outside and interact with the world. If it lays at your feet,
they have registered the absence of a smile. Becoming less
concerned about personal appearance, a dog will excessively
groom himself. They recognise the shapes of fragile –-
slumped over, static, responding to a lack of fear
with bowed head and tucked tail. Research shows that dogs
don’t know what tears are. They do know they assist in
detecting despair on a loved one’s breath, a change in mood
triggered by the slightest tremor of the lower lip.
Another example, of the poet’s creativity is shown in the poem ‘Bipolar II’, where he composes the poem from found text from every second line from the book Strictly Bipolar (2013) by Darian Leader:
The 80s and 90s, the ‘antidepressant era’
sure that the medication works. To keep the mania,
make the person feel. When the patents began to run out,
reduced need for sleep. Bipolar 2.5
Swiftly joined, by hyperactive, even dangerous.
The less he would be described. The ‘same’ disease.
Highs and lows, a mood stabiliser. Often little hope
of return. Manic burn-up, splintering pain, parties,
peoples, magazines, books, music, art, movies.
The fact of being linked together. Experience of loss.
Entertainment a constant feature. One’s existence.
Words states. One listened very carefully.
In a poem titled ‘Electric Journal’, in a journal and experiential narrative format the poet describes the anticipation, preparation and mulling over about having ECT (Electroconvulsive Therapy). He does it with humour and sarcasm, with poignant words, he reflects, he brings love and sadness into the poem. I have selected at random a few days and nights to illustrate my assessment (in caps) of the different feelings, mood, reflexions in each stanza, you may disagree with me:
The drip is your arm
You watch the way even water can be taken from rain.
When faced with the truth it is better to focus on symptoms.
I state that I was not harmed. This is part of the process.
I keep repeating this as I walk around the house
Trying to find where I lived
Remission rates are encouraging.
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.
Looking at the night sky,
I believe that a rotating and revolving rock is not merely a fiction of faith.
I stop crying.
Our love is a moral & spiritual document.
I study it while you sleep, knowing I can catch up.
The nature of her physical universe demands it.
I believe that the fact that the poet is also a psychologist and has suffered depression allows him to reflect on a myriad of issues regarding mental illnesses and the treatment of people suffering from them, he makes us realise that sometimes the cruelty and pain we suffer in the real world make us escape to a fantasy world. The following poem, ‘Reflection’ is a sample of a mind in chaos, a chaos embellished by creativity and penmanship.
Two sales staff talked to themselves about a man who walked by their
shop talking to himself. He was the only one listening, voices came
from within and without, the street heard everything. I was both sales
staff and the man, and I bought into it all, discounting nothing, even
the possibility I was there. My feet moved forward as to move back
was to rewind tape, by then the man had started talking to a future
self, while I was catching up with the past, moving as fast as I can.
Tense was absent, even the four security guards stayed still as they
stole glances at the man, who was now a dot or a cloud, depending
on who you asked or the season. I once saw a man walking a head of
cabbage, even once it started to rot. “I will stop talking to myself
tomorrow,” I said, in which time I will break in new shoes, break these
grey thoughts, and pass a window in which I will see only glass.
Water, dead cats, zoophilia, humans who hope to be repaired, gods who take the shape of humans, chicken in a bucket and a cloud of lost animals are presented to the reader, who need to carry out a very careful reading not to get lost in an incongruent world where the poet plays with words. He jumbles words and arranges them in concrete poetry, in lyric stances, in experiential listings, where the reader is left pondering, reflecting, feeling sad and sometimes laughing crazily. The mundane becomes elevated in experiential narrative poems, some of the poems about relationships imaginary monsters populate memories, darkness, fondness and despair are fought with the poet’s flair.
The final section of the book titled ‘Dog Minding’ contains very short and entertaining pieces of dialogues with Harry a dog, enjoy these few:
Harry: It’s my birthday today. I am 35 today.
Me: That’s only an estimate. Everyone is three when first picked up.
Harry: Based on what? Mild music muscle waste, milky ways, tartar build- up?
Me: You have a cataract. You limp.
Your doctor said half your teeth are broken.
Harry: Quacks. Clouds for eyes. I’m 35. Who hasn’t eaten a rock?
Harry: What did you get me for my special day?
Me: I wrote a poem as you to you from me.
Harry: Prefer animals as animals. Where is it?
Me: Attached to my collar. Next to my ID tag.
Harry: Projection. The first principle of pleasure.
Harry: Where are you sleeping?
Me: There’s so much choice. I feel indecisive.
Harry: I highly recommend the couch or underneath the deck.
Me: I shouldn’t have that last coffee.
Harry: My only vice is licking the lounge. Don’t sleep there.
Me: You really want to go for a walk in this?
Harry: Every character should want something.
Me: You’re too young to understand desire. This is a heatwave.
Harry: Even if it is only a bowl of water.
Me: Why isn’t your tongue hanging out?
In Case Notes David Stavanger opens a door into a world of words that will embrace you with power, meaning and inspiration. Be prepared to be sad and to smile, to reflect and to understand, be the patient, be the doctor, be the son or the father, perhaps be the dog …
– Beatriz Copello
Dr Beatriz Copello, is a former member of NSW Writers Centre Management Committee, writes poetry, reviews, fiction and plays. Her poetry books include: Women Souls and Shadows, Meditations at the Edge of a Dream, Under the Gums Long Shade, and Lo Irrevocable del Halcon (In Spanish), her other books are A Call to the Star and Forbidden Steps Under the Wisteria.
Copello’s poetry has been published in literary journals such as Southerly and Australian Women’s Book Review and in many feminist publications. She has read her poetry at events organised by the Sydney Writers Festival, the NSW Writers Centre, the Multicultural Arts Alliance, Refugee Week Committee, Humboldt University (USA), Ubud (Bali) Writers Festival.
Case Notes is available from https://uwap.uwa.edu.au/products/case-notes