Dženana Vucic Reviews Case Notes by David Stavanger

By | 21 June 2021

In ‘Stock Market’, the third poem in the collection, Stavanger’s interest in the world, the system, society, as an irrational actor, as tending to madness, is made clear, enlivening the reader to the social critique that imbues the collection. It begins with Stavanger’s diagnosis (‘bipolar record lows / insecurities exchanged / new rashes trending daily / each doctor a new violence’) and immediately unspools itself from the individual, turns to address society at large through the apostrophic ‘you’ and binds us in the shared complicity of the first personal plural:

                            graphs seem to indicate 
                            that the voices we hear are our own 
companies are becoming more sensitive 
           to the profit margins of lost sleep
                             [but the shares get us nowhere] 
                            write that down on a blank note pad 

           another script without a lead 
            [don’t buy into things you can’t see]

The publisher describes this collection as a ‘mixtape’, and the metaphor is apt: the book includes thirty-seven poems (and a rather brilliant ‘glossary of terms’) across genres – free verse, lyric, found and concrete poetry, and flash fiction, among others – linked thematically across five sections. Throughout, Stavanger interrogates how to live in society when you don’t quite fit into society, and even when you do. Poems like ‘The Bingo Code of Etiquette’, ‘Farmers Market Etiquette’ and ‘How to be an Alpha Male’ speak to this, their titles suggesting a ‘correct way’ to behave, the rules of which Stavanger outlines and lampoons. Each poem is filled with its own tragi-comedic ironies, each more quotable than the last. His observations are keen and precise, offered in direct tones. In ‘How to be an Alpha Male’, for example, he writes: ‘Doubt your position, then stand over it. / Use expansive gestures in small halls.’ making clever use of the imperative (the most patriarchal of grammatical moods) to neatly puncture male bravado while deftly avoiding an over-kill situation through brief digressions:

Be that aftershave commercial you were born to. 
Not everyone can smell like you. It’s true. 
Possibly wear a tie. Red is a primate colour. 
Balls are bigger in the face.

The world and the self are not isolatable, cannot be disentangled – even hypothetically, even as thought experiment – from one another, and although Stavanger is very much invested in the feedback loop within which we live, he does not belabour the point, does not press his advantage. ‘Apple’, for example, is another poem that gestures to the underlying irrationality of the patriarchal–capitalist reality we find ourselves in and the ways in which this system directs our sense of self. It begins:

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.

And ends:

We are made of water so 🍎
can point to our inbuilt faults.

Such turns are everywhere in Case Notes, subtly redirecting our gaze away from individual trauma or patrio-capitalism at large and towards the frictive skin of overlap.

Other poems, of which ‘Mental Health Week’ is a paradigmatic example, poke holes in (and fun at) lazy formulations of care (of which, Mental Health Week is a paradigmatic example). This is a poem full of quips but also immense hurt, as exemplified by this bruising stanza:

Day 8                    #Today you are a hashtag
searching for a personal narrative.
Please tell me I am here
the glazed pamphlets prove
there are no eyes in ‘I’.

I read this poem as also hinting at the work required by the people supposedly benefited by this kind of ‘care’. Organised into numbered days, which appear out of chronological order, the stanzas follow a kind of logic, or can be read to do so, whereas when read in chronological order, they become more erratic, the through-line impossible to find. An external order has been retrospectively imposed to deliver a more comprehensible narrative, in a move which I take as a textual enactment of the ways that patients are often forced to narrativise their experiences to make themselves legible to doctors. To read the poem chronologically (as, I think, it was written), requires the reader to skip from one page to the next and back, to search for the next entry. It requires work to sort out and interpret, work which is often considered ‘too much’.

Or perhaps it’s getting at something else altogether. It’s more than possible; Case Notes is dense with possibilities and it goes without saying that my particular interests serve as the investigative impetus behind this review. I have not touched on Stavanger’s exploration of fatherhood, which is charming and grounded (see, in particular, ‘Octonaut’), or his recurring use of dogs, which Scott-Patrick Mitchell has written adroitly on for Westerly. I have not, in fact, touched on a great many things that made this collection a worthy winner of the 2021 Victorian Premier’s Literary Prize for Poetry. It would be impossible to do so without wildly flouting my word limit and so, instead, I must conclude by saying only that Case Notes is a remarkable work: surreal, poignant, original, astute, and a deftly balanced blend of funny and vulnerable.

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