Review: Michael Farrellon David Stavanger

Inside Pathetic Language

By beginning Case Notes with poems about dogs, David Stavanger establishes from the beginning that his book is not purely the interrogation of the archival self, of self-research, that we might imagine from its title. By ‘Electric Journal’, we are well-embarked on a mental health patient’s narration of their treatment, their handling by medical professionals. This form, in large part a defence of the self from its interpretation by others, brings Case Notes into relation with its namesake ‘The Case’ (written approximately 1867-72), by Jong Ah Sing, who was incarcerated for decades in Victorian asylums, and which I have written a chapter on in Writing Australian Unsettlement. ‘The Case’ (the manuscript of which is held by the State Library of Victoria) is an early example of someone with apparently troubled mental health (Jong was believed to have self-harmed with a hatchet, during a fight over a chook, with other Chinese miners at a campsite), writing their own version of their case history. Jim Tully, who, with fellow historian Ruth Moore, ‘translated’ Jong’s text into ordinary English, describes it as a ‘personal exoneration [written] to seek freedom and justice’. Reading it today we could describe it as a non-fiction poetic experiment – yet Jong himself described its ‘The Case’ as ‘a novel’. It is a unique English-Cantonese hybrid, neither prose nor verse – an avant-garde text without a movement, or even milieu. It is not surprising that it was ineffective in convincing authorities: if they tried to read it. 

If we are not a watch-, or bracelet-wearer, a wristband brings us to regard our wrists with new attention: 

I sit in the waiting room with my name on my wrist 

in case I forget what wrists are for. 

Wristbands do not identify patients by their names only, but also by their gender. The ambivalent masculinity of Stavanger’s poems at times evokes for me the murkiness of works by other contemporary male poets, such as The Well Mouth by Philip Salom, and The Welfare of My Enemy by Anthony Lawrence. Wristbands fade. Where will Stavanger’s speaker’s identity take us, how will they retain their sense of identification?  Will we hear more about depression and anxiety than that they are ‘strange thing[s]’? 

In ‘Electric Journal’, these conditions are dangerous things, not just in themselves, but in what they bring the depressed person to do: which then allows treating professionals to do further things. Side effects become new symptoms. The desire for harm seems to proliferate, take on life. It allows for strained puns: ‘I stay up all night, trying to lift my spirits out of the drink’. It is an impossible problem, and one through which Stavanger produces this book: how to show the damage mental illness (including its treatment, including the patient’s complicity in ill treatment) can do to thought, and to a person’s language, while maintaining linguistic control. Perhaps losing that control would be expressive, but I’m not so sure. A book-length project, such as this, could not, I think, capture the experience live (the extent of biography is of course another question): the tone becomes, then, retrospectively imposed, and contrived. In ‘Electric Journal’, all the doctors and nurses are fused into the voice of the speaker; and the speaker themselves is univocalised, made into a whole authority. We are reading inside pathetic language, and cannot therefore experience pathos.

A new inflection enters with a new mode, however: that of the prose poem. ‘The Counsellor’ pithily gives us a startling version of the rural, as well as sets up the vocational irony (of a counsellor with serious problems of their own), that a TV series might drag out for (screen) years. The speaker is driving, thinking of a particular client, while drifting (to understate) towards a tree. There is a wonderful sense of controlled understatement in this poem – in contrast to its material – that it seems a shame to end on an overstating pun, as if the speaker is trumped by the melodrama of language. If this is what language does – and all writers operate with a sense of what language does – perhaps it was unavoidable for Stavanger. The word becomes the unavoidable colliding, or collidable, object. The following prose poem, ‘Reflection’, also relies on punning: not in itself a bad thing. Puns can be hugely productive for writing. Yet if this is their purpose, they need not stay once they have fulfilled it, especially if they detract from the more intriguing images that occur in this (and the previous) poem.    

‘The Beast’ returns us to stanzas and the lyrical line. In its blunt extremities it out-Plaths Sylvia. What, indeed, might Plath have made of the 2020s and its (online) discourses? Thinking in terms of the poem’s display of its method (of statements in alternate diction from which the poem’s lyric content is derived) we might say that this poem embodies Plath meeting Bertolt Brecht (on a page, I mean). Does one or the other win? I would not give the game to either, as the reveal of the method seems to indicate the speaker has no skin in the game, politically or personally: the confessional mode undermined by the confession of its own source. This is my reading of the poet’s method (it is not admitted by Stavanger), and it could be read differently: as versions of a translation, for instance. Does Stavanger exploit – or is he exploited by – his material? The editorial comments deny that this poem (perhaps spoken by someone who contemplates sexual relations with a range of non-human creatures e.g., cows, wolves), itself is the commentary of a beast (however we might read this figure). The poem provokes by suggesting that, despite the sexual denotation of the term ‘bestiality’, it is the killing and eating of animals that is bestial. 

Community itself seems to be at stake. In the conclusion of ‘the law of diminishing returns’, we read: ‘if you set them up the wrong way/every one will fall’. The metaphor is that of dominoes. The falling/failing of dominoes is the point of the game, and perhaps living can be seen that way too. We fall, we are set up again. What Stavanger appears to place faith in is the plurality, or community, of forms: moving successively from prose poem to list poem, to short lyric, to a kind of cutup diary poem (‘Mental Health Week’), to a poem in columns, to a longer, stanzaic, narrative lyric. This multiplicity, perhaps, through staging, through accumulating facets, will build a world, or create a portrait – of the speaker, of the speaker’s reality. And not through bald assertion, nor description, of lived experience: to be a subject, to write the subjective, requires figurative representation; it requires the poet’s philosophy, or self-history – their understanding of how the way we are relates to the way we were. Which is, perhaps, where hope comes in. If we can see a differential, if we can learn from the past, then we know (or, however consciously, we rely on this) that life – that poetry – will provide new forms. At the level of a writer’s identity, that is the minimum we require from life, to be able to keep writing. Metapoetics, in other words. That Stavanger uses mental health as a concept for a book-length work of lyric poems is not surprising in our era, but it says something about where our attitudes to mental health, and of our sense of what is apt for poetics, are now. I can only speculate what Francis Webb, or Eve Langley, might have thought. 

Webb is Australian poetry’s emblematic psychiatrically institutionalised poet, comparable to the earlier John Clare, for English poetry; or (more complicatedly) Ezra Pound for American poetry (Sylvia Plath offers another path: and for that reason, Fay Zwicky, for one, thought her poetry, and its accompanying biography, too dangerous for young students). There is a long list of mid-century American poets who have been discussed in this context, and there have been reams written on the relation of poetry and madness: but madness has come to seem like a quaint term. The Cambridge online dictionary’s entry for madness states: ‘a word for mental illness, which was used by doctors in the past but is now offensive’. As someone who currently takes an anti-psychotic drug, I don’t find the term offensive (rather, horrifying): but then, I haven’t had anyone trying to impose the term on me. My own experiences, of what I describe to myself as madness, have been peaks of panic attacks: not ‘I’m going to die’, but rather ‘I’m losing my mind’. 

Writers, in the act of writing (including thinking about writing), are experienced in thinking fictional thoughts, as well as ‘real’, or nonfictional thoughts, but this ability – of moving between the two – perhaps becomes unstuck, in such moments of heightened stress. In terms of poetics, ‘Mental Health Week’ is as representative as any poem in the book, employing montage and contradiction (or paradox or semantic joke). Contra the title, it covers more than seven days: nor are the days’ entries are not presented chronologically. It could be called a cubist approach towards psychiatric interiority, where the patient’s own moods and perceptions are the food of a contemporary Tender Buttons. Like Gertrude Stein, in other of her texts, Stavanger has a penchant for repetition – but unlike Stein, also for deliberate cliché: Back in my grandmother’s day / You didn’t air your dirty laundry. It is a pertinent cliché (another paradox?), in gesturing towards the profession and self-description of psychological malady that clinical contexts require – at different levels of discretion, confidentiality and openness/honesty. Cliché also indicates social operability, and the poetic variety of Case Notes, its puns, jokes, and asides, are the trappings of the pub poet, who can contrive to ironise anything that might seem too obvious, or, we could say: something for everyone. The public performing of poems offers the possibility of complete tonal control, the illusion of which, in writing, is itself poetics: it helps us cover the page. The listing of paradoxical statements is a performance trope, meant to blow the mind ‘almost successfully’ (to adapt – the very adaptable – Wallace Stevens); ‘How to be an Alpha Male’, in deploying this schema, becomes practically throwaway. 

A series of poems deals with the theme of dads: of having one, of being one. The poem, ‘Bad Dad’ is another montage: its relative distance, in its derivation from Michael Zavros’s memorably beautiful painting of the same name, allows Stavanger to step outside of trauma territory. In that sense it is an alleviating poem. The painting belongs to the Queensland Art Gallery’s collection (the book’s notes tell us the poem was a QAGOMA commission) and although not currently on display, an image of the painting can be readily found online: of a dark-haired, olive-skinned man (‘he is handsome, gratifyingly so’), floating, slumped, in the blue water of a swimming pool, on a white Playboy bunny pool toy, surrounded by other inflatables. That his head is down, facing his reflection in the water, suggests his narcissism, a suggestion Stavanger doesn’t pursue in his poetic version – in fact he negates it: ‘he looks like he gets / along with women’. Stavanger ranges widely over the possible significations and realities of the painting and its subject. Typically, the obvious pun, ‘Many men are not this buoyant’ is justified by the ironies involved: while the ‘bad dad’ of the painting is literally buoyant, in floating in a pool, he doesn’t look particularly cheerful – nor complacent about his apparent ‘bad’ness. He could be said to be at a loss – or to use a more strained pun: deflated. As the fruits of a commission project, ‘Bad Dad’, the poem, is an occasional poem, and has Stavanger extending his devices and sympathies.

The cultural conditions for male-bashing by men are ripe: it, too, can be seen as a survival strategy. In ‘Male Patterns’, Stavanger interrupts a long discursion on the process of balding, to identify narcissism, interrupting, and binge drinking as male ‘medical condition[s]’. It is relentlessly on theme for the most part, ironically proliferating a(nother) montaged statement – on baldness as seen by the culture: a paradigm of  which the internet reliably provides. Why put bald statements of fact into verse form? The sense of the (hair)line seems to dissipate after the first stanza. (Line animates, is creaturely; too much internet is death.) 

Meanwhile Stavanger’s style infects mine.  I prefer the less tonal, following, poem on the same theme, ‘Names + Bones’, with its digression on the speaker’s nicknaming as ‘Forehead’ – because of his high hairline. The sentence: ‘Helmets are becoming a real problem’ feels misplaced, however: either too rueful for the poem or its position. 

The following section commences with a complete shift of voice, in ‘Dog Minding’, a poem that returns us to the book’s thematic beginnings. It is composed of brief verbal vignettes that consist of an exchange between a human (‘Me’) speaker, and a canine (‘Harry’). In this dialogic experiment, Me and Harry strive for a balance of statement, rather than a resolution of argument. Each page presents a brief dialogue, of four to seven lines (except for one that consists merely of a social media id: ‘@therealHarry (Trademark’)). It is the most original poem in the book (though the name Harry made me wonder if the poem was a descendent, of sorts, of Berryman’s Dream Songs, and its Henry exchanges); the form allowing Stavanger to perform a dialectic exchange – within the exchange – between communication and something more lateral; and yet, on rereading, what appears to be non-sequitur, is not. It is only that the exchange has a poetic density that is not in regular conversation: 

Me: … Your doctor said half your teeth are broken.

Harry: Quacks. Clouds for eyes. I’m 35. Who hasn’t eaten rock?

Or, the lines proceed topically, but paratactically, which I think is common enough in speech, though less so in representations of it:

Me: I shouldn’t have had that last coffee.

Harry: My only vice is licking the lounge. Don’t sleep there.

Harry’s resistance to Me’s discourse keeps Harry resolutely other, despite inhabiting human language, a conceit directly undermined by the second text between them:

Harry: What did you get me for my special day?

Me: I wrote a poem as you to you from me.

This would be just as apt if written: ‘I wrote a poem as you to me from me’. There is no authentic voice; there is one voice; there are two: all are true of this poem. Whether the device is deliberately adapted from Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas or not is no matter. 

The poem differs from recent book-length explorations of human speech as related to nonhuman creatures: works such as Jordie Albiston’s Jack and Mollie (And Her), and Stuart Cooke’s Lyre. Albiston’s is a narrative montage of differing consciousnesses (two of them dogs), while Cooke’s consists of extensive speakings, to a range of species, including plant species: that is, to a plurality of being. All three, including Stavanger, are staging speech, representing a fictional-cum-rhetorical speech, but it is Stavanger, that is closest to the stage as such. The form of ascribed speech is part of it, but so is the language. To adapt Star Wars, ‘the Beckett is strong with him’.

Works Cited

Jordie Albiston. Jack and Mollie (and Her). St Lucia: University of Queensland Press. 2016.

John Berryman, 77 Dream Songs. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. 1964

Stuart Cooke. Lyre. Nedlands: University of Western Australia Publishing. 2019.

Michael Farrell. Writing Australian Unsettlement: Modes of Poetic Invention 1796-1945. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

Jong, Ah Sing. ‘The Case’. Diary [Manuscript]. 1866–1872. Melbourne: State Library of Victoria.

—. A Difficult Case: An Autobiography of a Chinese Miner on the Central

Victorian Goldfields. Eds. Ruth Moore and Jim Tully. Daylesford: Jim Crow 2000.

Anthony Lawrence. The Welfare of My Enemy. Glebe: Puncher and Wattmann, 2011.

Philip Salom. The Well Mouth. Glebe: Puncher and Wattmann, 2012.

Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace. George Lucas. Twentieth Century Fox, 1999.

Gertrude Stein. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. London: Penguin, 2001.

—. Tender Buttons. Garden City: Dover, 1997.

Michael Zavros. Bad Dad. 2013. Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane.

Published November 21, 2022
Part of Juncture: JUNCTURE is a fellowship program presenting a series of new essays on Australian and international literature by leading critics.  All Juncture essays →
Michael Farrell

Michael Farrell is the author of Writing Australian Unsettlement: Modes of Poetic Invention 1796-1945...

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