[CW: This review contains references to mental illness.]
Since taking out the Thomas Shapcott Prize in 2013 for his debut poetry collection, The Special, David Stavanger (or Ghostboy as he is sometimes known when on stage), has made something of a name for himself in Australia’s literary circles.
Stavanger’s poetry has never been what you would call light-hearted. While, as identified by Rochford Street Review in their critique of his first collection The Special, he does have a certain playful nature to his work, “allowing voices and subject matter to emerge from the tensions within disparities, and forming concepts of self and being that don’t coincide with what is stable, unified, or permanent,” the subject matter in which Stavanger deals is quite serious.
His highly anticipated second volume of poetry, Case Notes, is in part based on his experiences as a psychologist. It challenges stigma surrounding mental illness, idealistic views of masculinity and identity. But that doesn’t mean it’s not accessible to a wider audience. In fact, it’s the collection’s accessibility that makes Case Notes so enjoyable, in my opinion.
From the very first poem one must utilise every part of the animal [when faced with one’s own fears], I was captivated by the frank, rawness with which Stavanger writes. His use of imagery is on point, and yet they aren’t high-brow or overly literary. The structure isn’t always typical but it’s not over-the-top with experimentation either.
And it’s not always about metaphors and imagery. There’s a connectedness in almost all the pieces in this collection that I haven’t really experienced very much in other collections I’ve read. Depression is a strange thing is just one piece where this is most evident, and it’s probably one of my favourites.
“Depression is a strange thing. Anxiety is a strange thing. Bipolar strange things. Antipsychotics beat a path through you, a loose log down a river without banks. They taste like a mixture of chalk and talk shows … Anyone that writes about madness with certainty has never been mad, I’m certain of it.
Certainty is the strangest thing.”
As a prose poem, it’s not really what one would expect from “traditional poetry”. It doesn’t rhyme, and it’s not overly lyrical. Yet it’s just strong, if not stronger as some of the more “traditional.” If there is a bad poem in Case Notes, I haven’t found it.
Overall, the beauty of Case Notes for me is not in one particular poem but the way these poems connect that makes it such a great collection. Stavanger’s poetry cuts straight to the heart of the human psyche and allows readers to engage with it, regardless of what you’re going through or how you see the world. There is truly something for everyone, and in that, Case Notes is a triumph.
Case Notes is published by UWA Publishing. To find out more about the titles they have available, visit their website.