Michele Seminara reviews The Special by David Stavanger
by David Stavanger
University of Queensland Press
Reviewed by MICHELE SEMINARA
This book is dedicated to the dead
who are bravely living
(and to those who wake wild-eyed in the dark)
So begins David Stavanger’s first full length collection, The Special, published by UQP as wining manuscript of the 2013 Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize. As the dedication suggests, this book is an unsettling read; one feels, intentionally so. The poems deal with what is dark and broken in the human psyche, informed, presumably, by the poet’s own personal and professional experiences with mental illness. This is Stavanger’s first serious foray into the world of ‘page’ as opposed to ‘performance’ poetry (a distinction he eschews), the leap between these two hotly fought over territories no doubt entailing a certain risk of the poems falling flat on the page. Yet while the book may, on first reading, appear somewhat stylistically and tonally ‘flat’, upon deeper reading it becomes clear that this has less to do with Stavanger’s poetry not transitioning well onto the page, and more to do with the nature of what the poet is trying to achieve. When exploring states of mind such as depression or psychosis, an emotionally disconnected, disjointed, or even dissociated style of poetry may indeed be the perfect mode of expression.
The Special encompasses a variety of forms such as free verse, prose poetry, found poetry, centos and some pieces which read more like flash fiction. The poems are often inspired by and allude to popular culture, drawing on newspaper articles, rock music, film and even a questionnaire from the dating site RSVP. While this lends the book an accessibility which will appeal to many who might not traditionally read poetry, it does not necessarily mean that it is an easy read. Stavanger pulls no punches, tackling challenging issues—such as mental health, terminal illness, dysfunctional relationships, the inevitability of death, the meaning of life and the meaning of even getting out of bed in the morning—head on; although he does sweeten their delivery with liberal doses of irony and dark humour. Take, for example, the title poem of the book:
I have seen enough stomachs charcoaled
to put me off life-drawing for life
one week a patient launched himself from the 5th floor
didn’t even put his hands out
hit the concrete with his face
Sometimes the future looks brighter
if you don’t look at all
(‘the Special’, p7)
The narrator’s tone is for the most part unnervingly flat, as if he were walking through life on automatic pilot, everyday experiences appearing odd or even grotesque and requiring herculean amounts of effort to accomplish. Discordant images are juxtaposed, leaving a lattice of gaps which the reader may—or may not—choose to fill with meaning. The phrases are short, snappy, satiric and self-aware. Take, for example, ‘out of danger’, one of the many ‘list’ poems of the book:
thinking. using a microwave. drinking. not drinking. voices
from the pillow. not talking to yourself. talking to yourself.
talking to taxi drivers. parenting. going to a lecture. enjoying
it. declaring yourself a legend. believing it.
(‘out of danger’, p4)
This could be read as glib, superficial, lacking in attention to the craft of rhythm, rhyme, metaphor and line break; the sort of poetry which might sound impressive in a well delivered performance but can read like a string of clever sound bites on the page. Alternately, it could be read as an artful expression of a depressed and disembodied state of mind. The list-like nature of the syntax suggests a sentience disengaged from the world, one of the zombie-like ‘dead’ from the book’s dedication propelling themselves through life without fully entering into it. Everyday objects and events appear at once discrete and absurdly connected, the juxtaposition of images suggesting meanings which are both humorous and sinister. Strings of short sentences paired with a dead-pan delivery create a cinematic effect, as in the piece ‘home visits’, which adopts a hard-bitten, film noir style of narration:
Doorbell rings. I have driven thirty minutes south across
town. They say there is a heatwave on its way but it is already
here. Thirty-eight degrees. I ring the doorbell again. This part
of the city seems full of animals but there are no insects to
be heard and the concrete cracks when you walk on it. The
pool next door is empty. Something has gone down here and
people won’t talk about it.
(‘home visits’, p22)
As if watching a film the narrator observes his own actions and reactions, removed by dark humour and irony at a safe distance from his own experiences. The lifeless tone of Stavanger’s poems gives the effect of dissociation, but also conjures up the spectre of the odd and sinister lurking beneath the everyday. We see this in the poem ‘sleep, hit me’, inspired by the David Lynch film Blue Velvet.
c. stay in the car. hard to the wheel.
wait for my call. don’t answer the phone.
hit the horn. never break. matches lit burn.
(‘sleep, hit me’, p24)
This sense of disembodiment is reinforced by the recurring absence of the personal pronoun; many of the poems lack reference to a unifying ‘I’, merely listing the thoughts and perceptions which the absent ‘I’ may be experiencing:
Invite my father to the funeral
ask him to take the hand of a stranger
make sure that stranger is me
(‘the will’, p66)
When the narrator does refer to himself, it is often in the form of the self-consciously observed ‘you’ or ‘he’:
at the school gate
there is always another one waiting
the bag heavier when you put it down to talk
about holidays and time shares
and you could have shaved
taken off your glasses, opened with their name
(though faces evade you)
(‘someone else’s shoes’, p50)
Here the speaker is literally talking himself through life in a way that most of, at times we’ve similarly struggled to function, would be familiar with. The connection between mental health and the quality of our internal self talk is something Stavanger explores convincingly in The Special, probing the relationship between the language of inner dialogue and external experience, and also the relationship of the official languages of diagnosis and classification to our internal perceptions. For example, in the poem ‘survey’, the absurdity of multiple choice questions and answers highlights the limitations of language to contain and express our deepest and most traumatic experiences. It also suggests how a disjunction between experience and the language used to define it can cause further emotional trauma and alienation.
8. Every Monday I look forward to
a) others going to work
b) going to work with others
c) watching spiders eat birds
9. I use social media to
a) tell you how you are doing
b) show you I am doing fine
c) communicate with the dead
10. Bleeding from the nipple
11. To be human is to
a) wear the right name tag
b) shower daily
c) give what you can’t give
d) fold back into the white
When you consider that this poem is one of three in the book created in response to interviews undertaken with Mummy’s Wish, a support group for mothers diagnosed with cancer, it becomes even more poignant. How can a mental health survey ever adequately assess or express the feelings of women dealing with such challenges? The act of circling answers which in no way relate to the depth of your experience must indeed feel absurd, and Stavanger’s use of form and tone in the poem artfully evokes this.
The intense subject matter of The Special might make for heavy reading, but Stavanger’s dark humour, while it doesn’t always hit the mark and can occasionally appear pat, works well to leaven the darkness of the poems. ‘I have nothing in front of me’ the pilot flying the plane in the first poem of the book, ‘optimism’, warns us—and in many ways The Special can be read as an exploration of our human reaction to the existential spectre of nothingness. When contemplating the end, either imminent or protracted, what do we human beings do? As Stavanger does in his poetry, we often use humour as a kind of reflexive defence mechanism. This literary trope is something Stavanger’s work has in common with absurdist and existential Cold War literature such as ‘Waiting For Godot’, a literature which, like Stavanger’s, arose in response to fear of annihilation and a vacuum of inherent meaning.
Yet it is not all doom and dark humour; there are thematic and stylistic progressions in The Special. While the poems do descend into the void, they also, in a distinctly Stavanger-esque fashion, rise up again, the narrator choosing to author his own type of meaning, especially towards the end of the book. Here, the tone shifts, growing less cynical and more engaged, the dark humour lifting as the speaker steps back into his body and his life. Referring to himself more frequently now as ‘I’, he no longer attempts to merely assemble himself into the simulacrum of a human being, but seems to actually feel like one. He also begins to reinhabit the roles of father, son and partner, referring to family members as ‘my’ and ‘we’ instead of the formerly used objectifying ‘you’.
my son tells me this stick is a bird
smiles and sets the bird free
it takes flight
we watch it soar to the ground
sweep into the afternoon
it is spring and the mothers are in full bloom
a flock of sticks lies in wait beneath the swings
my head is clear and we are singing
By the last poem of the book, ‘sky whale’, a calm — but not numb —acceptance has been reached: ‘They lied / there is no whale in the sky / the ocean is not blue right through’ Stavanger tells us. Alright, he seems to be saying, so things are not what we would want them to be, but does that mean they are nothing at all? The narrator at the beginning of the book would have answered in the affirmative and warned us that ‘there are never enough parachutes’ to go around in a crisis (‘optimism’, p3), but now we hear from a more mature voice:
I don’t care who gets angry
there have been such times of hate
this place is the last place to hide
no longing left to hang from the nearest branch
we drift dive, sleeping side by side
in the black house across the river
I wake up living
(‘sky whale’, p 77)
A book dedicated to the ‘dead / who are bravely living’ now ends with the words ‘I wake up living’. Although a tone of resignation remains, it is no longer nihilistic. While there is perhaps no inherent meaning in life, while we may ultimately live and die alone, we are at least living ‘side by side’, and there is some comfort in this. Relationships are flawed and ephemeral places to shelter, but at least they offer some kind of sanctuary, and maybe this is all we can hope for. In a book peopled with the living dead and the disconnected, the narrator has resurrected himself, consciously choosing to create meaning through connection to self and others. As Stavanger writes in one of the last, untitled pieces in the book:
In accidents the passenger always dies
I hand you the keys
MICHELE SEMINARA is a poet, editor and yoga teacher from Sydney. Her writing has appeared in many online and print journals and anthologies, and her first poetry collection, Engraft, was recently published by Island Press (2016). Michele is also the managing editor of creative arts journal Verity La. She blogs at TheEverydayStrange and is on Twitter @SeminaraMichele.