Nicole Smith reviews Admissions Ed David Stavanger, Radhiah Chowdhury, Mohammad Awad


Ed. David Stavanger, Radhiah Chowdhury, Mohammad Awad


ISBN: 9780645248098

Reviewed by NICOLE SMITH

Within these pages is a cohort of activist consumers, neurodivergent creatives, psychiatric and trauma survivors, dreamers, community leaders and mind-bending writers.

I dive into Admissions: Voices Within Mental Health. A mosaic of 105 Australian voices follows, in the form of poetry, short fiction, rap lyrics, essays and illustrations. Well-known names Anna Spargo-Ryan, Krissy Kneen, Omar Sakr, Felicity Ward, and Grace Tame are anthologised with 30 emerging writers who were chosen through a 2021 MAD Poetry callout by Red Room Poetry. The foreword affirms

Everything within these pages is someone’s truth.

The editors pledged to approach the works in Admissions with ‘radical empathy’ imploring readers to do the same, because we are all human, regardless of mental health challenges. As Luka Lesson reminds us:

There are 206 bones in our bodies
and mine
are just like yours.

The readers are reminded of this shared humanity so that they may come to the anthology without prejudice and join the writers and editors on a mission to rid the world of stigma around mental health.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual is only cited twice, demonstrating that the anthology’s interest does not lie in pathology, but in the interpersonal experience of living with such challenges.    

In the words of editors David Stavanger, Radhiah Chowdhury and Mohammad Awad Admissions seeks to show how: 

…art and language can expiate suffering. Art as release, art as relief, art as recovery, remission, remediation.

Such words are echoes lines by Quinn Eades that evoke the complicated relationship we have with writing, and explore writing as therapy:

we are mad to write and mad to not write we carry this book for so long that it is become
un bearable

Artist and contributor, Amani Haydar’s cover image shows a woman with one eye closed, symbolising both a phobia of seeing ourselves, and a desire to be acknowledged by others.

The anthology is organised in reverse alphabetical order by surname, echoing Alice Blayney’s inclusion ‘The Z-A of Crazy’. Each piece questions and reframes stereotypes of mental illness, and associated trauma and recovery, using different tones and a vast vocabulary to regain power and convey identity.

The collection has narratives, in the first person such as Chowdhury’s ‘Motherlines’:

In our preliminary session, my first psych told me that I should think of treatment and recovery as a nonlinear path with an ever-shifting end point.;

the second person, such as Hefferan’s ‘from the book of puns and other altered sentences’:

it is twenty minutes since you took your meds Zyprexa, the communion wafer the blasphemous one instead of taking it on the tongue you take it under the roof of your mouth.;

and third person, such as Mununggurr’s ‘Point of No Return;

She closes her eyes
only starless skies, opens then
Still only darkness.

The collection explores a variety of environments and themes including the uncertainty of COVID-19, the emotional turmoil caused by intrusive thoughts, body image, growing up with a parent with mental illness, psychiatric hospital stays, face-blindness on a first date, swimming with dolphins as treatment for depression and smart ovens keeping the lonely company. This variety, while certainly part of the book’s charm, is one reason I would caution against reading Admissions in one sitting. The use of figurative language and symbolism means some lines delight in ways that can be easily missed. Here is an example from ‘The Bedroom Philosopher’:

I ran a bubble bath, it went flat
I had a falling out with myself, I’m not talking to myself anymore.

My favourite are the grounded memoir pieces, particularly those with a familial focus, for example: Kristen Dunphy struggling with a loss of control surrounding her wife’s illness and a feeling of helplessness when supporting their daughter:

When will Mummy stop being sad? She asks me. …The woman I married is no longer here. She is the ghost of her former self.

The genetic nature of mental health is referenced by Samson L. Soulsby :

Madness runs in the family like greyhounds.

Krissy Kneen continues the familial thread:

I am learning about time
from men
who look nothing like my father
who remind me of his absence.

The familial theme takes a hauntingly beautiful turn with the inclusion of a piece by Annette and Stuart Baker reflecting on their deep sorrow on the loss of their daughter Mary. The reflection is placed directly after Mary ‘s poem ‘The Key’, in which she speaks of freedom and longing to break out of a cage like a bird:

So unravel this cocoon of your protection,
Untie this chain of your love
Open the door, release me.
Trust that I won’t fly away.
But if I do, Trust that it is for the best.

The inclusion of Mary Baker as well as Benjamin Frater, two artists whose mental health battles also ended in suicide is evidence that words live on and emphasises the strength of those fighting mental ill-health.

Parts of Admissions feel frenetic, especially those written in a loud collective voice (often written in capital letters) such as Steven Oliver’s CARRY ALL THE HURT AWAY. 

The abstract nature of the poetry is admirable yet alienating. At times it feels the poetry is deliberately obscure, as I was left to infer meaning from syntax, structure and meter I’d never seen before. No doubt many of the poems are it is intelligent, and evocative, however the non-linearity meant I had to read the poems multiple times which prevented me from becoming fully immersed. One wonders I wondered if the chaotic and at times nonsensical elements are included to evoke the disconcerting nature of dissociation and ill-health ‘episodes’. For, as the anthology makes clear, although there can be a sense of pride for those with diverse brain chemistry, many wish to no longer be on the outskirts of their own lives.

Conversely, the pieces that read as inner monologues, for example, Olivia Hamilton’s ‘Time Lapse’, or have excerpts of academic text, for example, Martin Ingle’s exploration of OCD ‘A victim who feels like a villain’ are consumed with ease.

A word of caution: the book takes a candid approach to taboo topics such as sexual assault and rape that may prove confronting for some.

The contributions by First Nations writers Brooke Scobie and Kirli Saunders conjure the Australian landscape, flora and fauna, connecting it to vulnerability and emotions:

 …measured by acacia blooming, echidna trains, winds that change, moon who wanes.

Throughout Admissions, the failing mental health system, and its need for more funding is variously hinted at and explicitly stated. At times, readers could be forgiven for thinking that works are set in prisons, rather than mental health facilities. For example, KJ writes:

 Escorted to my room My packed-the day-before bag holds my hand
Inside the remnants of my sanity; 

And Jacobson:

I was not there in my self while my body
lay on the bare mattress and screamed
for my return.

However, as Jeffs reminds us:

The madwoman in this poem
is everywoman
is any woman
is a mother, daughter, sister, lover, friend –
the madwoman in this poem –
is me.

Admissions reminds all of us that as beautiful, confronting, confusing, funning, disorienting, brave, sorrowful, infuriating or joyous the experience of mental illness can be, these writers are us. These stories are, or could be at any moment our stories, and it is in all our interests to pay attention to, and improve the narratives surrounding mental health in Australia.
NICOLE SMITH is a writer with Cerebral Palsy living and working on Wurundjeri land. She has a blog where she interviews social entrepreneurs. Last year she was a Storming the City mentor with the Writeability program and ran an ‘Effective Interviewing’ workshop.