Maintaining the Strange Fire: David Stavanger’s The Special and Rob Walker’s tropeland

The specialReview by Lucy Alexander

David Stavanger is also Ghostboy… or Ghostboy is also David Stavanger — whichever way you like to approach it, they are both responsible for the poems in The Special. This cleft in the authorship provides a way to approach poems that writhe with memory, stop to caress madness, celebrate knotted ambiguity and the unconventional. In the Acknowledgements Stavanger thanks Ghostboy for ‘maintaining the strange fire when all I want to do is sleep’. Perhaps it is from this dreaming state that Stavanger rises, bringing with him words that are both confronting and comforting.
rob-walker-cover-170x240In his collection tropeland, rob walker (does the lack of capitals suggest another alter ego — a thief-wanderer perhaps?) tends to want to pull the thread and unravel ideas and assumptions with both a wry insight (the thief?) and playful verve (the wanderer?).
Both poets come from the living breathing poetry scene (Stavanger in Brisbane and walker in Adelaide) so these alter egos exist where it is more usual to have a performance name: a tag to be remembered by. Maybe too, there is a sense in which the translation from spoken to written, from transient voice to permanent print can be more easily done with a fracture in the speaker of the poem. (‘I wake up living’ Stavanger says with some surprise, as the last line in his collection.)

Imagine the two of them sloping into an empty pub, putting their elbows on the bar and talking in the tongue of their respective collections, as the robber and the ghost. rob talks about tropeland, telling David it’s a place he recently visited, which is sometimes in Japan and sometimes ‘leaves itself deliberately empty/ for the distant sound of a lone/ dog’; a place where ‘sweat from armpits impersonates/ cinnamon bark and vanilla pods.’

David nods with interest and says: ‘Two things/ you don’t want to die of/ a mouth full of salt/ the right girl.’

rob passes him a drink, leans in close and adds: ‘sodium chloride: turning mouths inside out/ too little our nerves close down’.

Both poets have an interest in salt, its chemical breakdown — that sodium and chloride, toxic on their own, can be brought together and melded to make something so seemingly benign as to be essential to human life. The partnership of sodium and chloride can be extended as a metaphor for the poet’s interaction with the world, where toxicity mixed with insight and language becomes essential to life, if not quite benign. The duality of the chemical breakdown of common table salt fascinates both walker and Stavanger equally and reveals something at the heart of each collection: that each poet’s creative impulse is to bring the unlikely together and observe the fallout. As walker observes, ‘at one with water in the sea yet either may be/ estranged, desalinated’. For Stavanger it is more closely aligned with balance: ‘two things/ you must not remember/ that song on the radio/ what happened to your shadow’.

In Stavanger’s poems the clear sight gets muddied, the images, startling and raw, occasionally brush up against the mutterings of someone out of their mind, then loop back as if to remind the reader not to judge too quickly. For Stavanger the subject dictates the form: sometimes the poems come in couplets, sometimes in lists or paragraphs, even a survey in the poem ‘Survey’. He plays with the complex irony that the irrational is often better able to articulate and expose the state of things, to take us by surprise by revealing truths that sound like old aphorisms:

      Two things
      you left behind
      a mouthful of fingerprints
      bullets without a hole.

Or, here in the two-line poem ‘Light’:

      in the dark                there’s enough space to forget
      in the dark               forgetting is never enough
These lines read like something your (poetic) grandmother might have repeated to you — and yet, they are also remarkably fresh.

rob walker. Photograph by Martin Christmas

rob walker. Photograph by Martin Christmas

walker seems to swim in language, and he is dolphin-quick with his word play and banter: ‘vegans flesh out proposals/ meat is doing it tough’. But there is more range of tone here, more flicking in and out of focus. The poems in tropeland seem to have four main categories: intellectual poems (‘tropeland’, for instance, or ‘Return to Sorrento’); poems that give nature a voice (‘Bird Dreaming’); poems that play with language (‘String Theory Unstrung (a Particle of Faith)’ and ‘Speaking in Tongues’); and finally poems that make social comment, either on a personal level (like the two father poems ‘Against the Grain’ and ‘Transcendence’) or as part of a wider critical cynicism, evident in ‘Clearing the Caravan Park’.

The chief difference in the tone of these two collections is that rob is toying with his readers. Many poems are tongue in cheek — like ‘Ethel Malley’s Sonnet’ (Ethel Malley being the sister of the more famous Ern), as if walker can’t quite bear to take it all seriously. Stavanger seems entirely serious, until you meet poems such as ‘in-laws’: ‘…your arm fell to the floor/ I knew the signal well ready to be eaten’. walker is playful until he’s in full voice; Stavanger is serious until he’s lulled his reader into believing his tone is that of the author — then he delights in demolishing the very assumptions he’s encouraged.

Meanwhile, back in the pub, the poets sit with their elbows on the bar. David explains how the meaning of The Special spins on an axis; how his book divides into six parts, each one picking up and refracting stories that crystalise like salt; how he embraces optimism (‘sheer terror’) and pessimism (‘you don’t need a heart’) and how poems can be prayers to offer up what’s left when life’s done with you (‘if you own something long enough/ you will part with yourself’).

‘Secrets!’ rob cries, turning the conversation his way, with a tilt of his trilby (see author photo) while David adjusts his scarf (see author photo). tropeland is based around secrets, a secret life of secretion…

‘I am a lapsed psychologist…’ David tells rob earnestly.

‘I play the shakuhachi…’ rob counters.

‘I collect names/ Florence Annie Bird, Heaton Himes, Walter Weakes…’

‘I interviewed Ethel Malley…’ rob’s eyes sparkle.

Both collections explore the father/son relationship, particularly the role of the father. walker’s book is dedicated to Jack Walker, and Stavanger is ruthless in his observations of Dad in ‘the inheritance triptych’. There are poems in each book that explore the erasure of memory and the loss of the beloved father before the physical body is finished living. To walker, his father ‘achieved a kind of benign transcendence/ only those around you/ feel the eternal depths of sorrow…’ — that last line suggesting a limit has been reached in articulating the burden of those left behind. Stavanger, on the other hand, tells the story from the underside, in shorthand, fast: ‘I am a dark one, if I let it run I only see bridges and water. Dad goes the other path trying to convince himself through others. Mirrors don’t catch his fall.’


David Stavanger

Stavanger puts his hand on rob’s arm and says in a whisper which echoes on the bar’s empty floor: ‘I put my wine down and study what remains./ In this room of empty chairs, I am the ghost and he is the/ father’. (Reader, wonder with me: is he having us on?)

‘I’ve never shaved another person, let alone my father…’ rob replies.

David puts down his wine. rob looks at him quizzically, wanting more rascal word play. But David has become morose: ‘thinking. using a microwave. drinking. voices from the pillow. not talking to yourself. talking to yourself. talking to taxi drivers. parenting…’ David’s voice reaches a low monotone.
rob wants to look away, but cannot. The performance is mesmerising…

David continues: ‘calling friends and telling them the truth. eating cheese as a way out. antidepressants for dessert. drinking coffee to relax. not going down swinging. clapping at weddings. praying. often. believing’. He drinks the dregs of his wine.
‘it’s all entropy/ and things bleeding/ into something else/ I’m tired of hearing about your lover/ and shards of things…’ rob says, perhaps a little insensitively. ‘A quote from the section ‘Bile’, you see,’ he adds, seeing David’s smile harden.

David looks into his empty glass: ‘my lover cries sometimes/ she dreams I have cancer…’

rob turns to David and says sharply, but not unsympathetically: ‘…my balding father/ hair stolen not by time but radiation/ you sit on the bed in your tracksuit pants… and your future is inoperable…’

David replies: ‘I ask the Doctor What’s gone wrong?/ she says There’s no way to inoculate against the future…’

‘I swallow the lump in my throat…’

‘That’s a bloody awful line, rob.’ (David has broken out of the game-of-quotes.)

‘I lump the swallow in my throat?’ (rob is quick on his toes.)

‘Better…’ David signals the bartender for another glass of the house wine and winks at rob: ‘you can tell him he’s a failure/ it won’t make you a success/ antidepressants don’t measure dedication/ they’re just another face to face this mess’.

Rob sips his own glass and then: ‘hold the abalone shell/ to your ear/ and they may/ find a family/ resemblance’.

‘touch him when he curls up like a tumour. if he asks you to leave, stay. if he reaches for your throat call the police. If he asks for his wife, take the phone off the hook.’ David takes a draught of his wine, looking at rob just as mischievously as he could have wished for.

Both tropeland and The Special have a playful side — walker’s overt and Stavanger’s more subtle. Like the exact balance of sodium and chloride ions in salt, perhaps it is the two-sided nature of the poets themselves that expose their delight in language and expression without shying away from darker subject matter. For instance Stavanger wrote ‘on time’, ‘bear’ and ‘survey’ — poems which explore the experiences of cancer patients — in his collaboration with Mummy’s Wish (a foundation working with mothers with cancer who have young children).

Stavanger’s focus is more minute, allowing in some ways for a tighter collection. walker’s poems cover a larger range of subject matter and seem to have been written over a longer period of time, collecting their atrocities in passing (‘Yamamoto Sensei Snaps’ and ‘Clearing the Caravan Park’ for example). In both collections, the poems share a common thread of gleeful amusement in the sinister; their strongest poems are the ones that refuse to look away just because the subject is uncomfortable.
The Special 
David Stavanger
UQP Poetry Series 2014
RRP $ 24.95 (83pp)
(Winner of the Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize, 2014) 

rob walker

5 Islands Press 2015
RRP $25.00 (97pp)

Lucy Alexander is a Canberra poet who has published two books of poems (Fathoms in 1997 and Feathered Tongues in 2004). She is a sessional academic at the University of Canberra and also a mother to four kids. She writes a regular poem on and also reviews for Verity La. Recently she was runner up in PoetryInAction and a finalist in HardCopy 2014 for her manuscript of fiction, Quarantine.

David Stavanger
is an award-winning poet, writer, and cultural producer. In 2013 he won the Arts Queensland Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize, resulting in the release of The Special (UQP), his first full-length collection of poetry which was also awarded the 2015 Wesley Michel Wright Prize. At the 2014 Queensland Literary Awards he received a Queensland Writing Fellowship to develop his next two collections. David is also the Co-Director of the Queensland Poetry Festival. He is sometimes known as pioneering Green Room-nominated ‘spoken weird’ artist Ghostboy, performing solo, with multi-instrumentalist Richard Grantham, and previously with the band Golden Virtues at festivals across Australia.

rob walker
writes poetry, music, essays, short stories, reviews, occasional Christmas cards and shopping lists. Some of these have been published all over the world. This year he has published Tropeland (a collection with Five Islands Press) and Policies & Procedures (a chapbook with Garron Publishing) with a new forthcoming collection with Ginninderra Press in 2016.