Holden Walker reviews Clean by Scott-Patrick Mitchell
by Scott Patrick-Mitchell
Reviewed by HOLDEN WALKER
Western-Australian poet Scott-Patrick Mitchell has spent the best part of the last decade appearing in some of Australia’s most celebrated literary journals, headlining spoken-word poetry showcases, and contributing to acclaimed anthologies. However, in 2022, Upswell published Mitchell’s first full-length collection of poetry titled Clean. Clean is a personal and intimate collection that explores the nature of substance abuse and the process of recovery from all angles. Mitchell injects heart into the text through semi-autobiographical details and offers a gritty yet honest insight into the poetically taboo.
Texan poet Bill Moran’s homage to his sister and her struggles with addiction in “Dear Amy” is the fitting prologue to the first instalment of Mitchell’s trilogy. To experience Mitchell’s collection to the fullest, I consider it worth watching Moran read “Dear Amy” aloud at the Write About Now slam poetry event, if only to get a sense of how important it is that writers are candid about topics like addiction. Moran’s repeated use of the late musician Amy Winehouse as a metaphor for drug addiction highlights how prominent it is in our culture, a reality that we are no stranger to in Australia. The epiphany bleeds into “Dirty,” the introductory collection that explores every element of addiction. Addiction intertwines itself within additional themes, including trauma, queer romance and the significant moments of everyday life.
Mitchell wastes no time layering on the heavy subject matter, as the first poem, “The Mourning Star,” introduces the concept of substance abuse following childhood trauma. It is one of the multiple instances in which Mitchell highlights the cyclical nature of abuse in the collection, for this theme arises again in “blood thieves” and “It Begins With Burning (An Obituary).” The poem introduces the emotions and the actions associated with drug abuse, particularly as a reaction to dealing with trauma.
Mitchell composes memorable lines with the ability to communicate complex ideas in a conservative amount of characters. It was with the line: “It is known by how it tugs, draws into you. / Sight shall fill with shapes. / How we monster a bed.” (p.12) that I first noticed both the skill and care taken to produce lines that are the perfect middle ground between subtle and obvious. Mitchell’s semantic choices creatively communicate the process of being corrupted by trauma without compromising cohesion. It is clear that there was an audience in mind for this collection and that Mitchell wanted their poetry to be accessible to the people who would benefit from it most.
The collection reads like a fusion between Henry Lawson and William S Burroughs. While Lawson spent his career crafting a voice for working-class Australia through his poetry, often depicting the brutality of life for Australians living outside the metropolitan zones, Burroughs was best known for his post-modernist poetry, often masquerading as a beatnik fever-dream. Scott-Patrick Mitchell represents all of Burroughs’s queer, drug-fueled chaos, but set against a working-class Australian backdrop that I, someone living in the same cities Lawson wrote about, recognise all too well. Mitchell’s words resonate, for they trust me enough to understand their contemplative manipulation of language, sparing me the Wordsworthian elitism, yet never compromising the sublime.
Lawson’s voice in particular can be heard in poems including “This Town,” Mitchell carries on the tradition of reciting vignettes that depict the country and its communities brutally yet honestly. The poem is a tribute to every regional Australian community that grew up with the presence of vice. Mitchell allows the citizens of these places to be heard and understood, a luxury not often afforded. Mitchell tackles this subject matter the way they do throughout the rest of the collection, with empathy and understanding. Their words bridge the gap between the common person and the distinguished poet, the same style that had served as the backbone of our culture generations prior.
Mitchell writes: “Beer bottles vulgar the park. / Sun churns bitumen as we burn from the inside out ”(p15). Mitchell’s imagery cements both a familiar scene and feeling. I am invited to remember the town I grew up in, even if that memory isn’t particularly pleasant, and take a moment just to admire the art of it. This action can describe Clean as a whole; it is a collection that invites you to find beauty in negative places.
The sublime nature of Mitchell’s work is evident throughout, for the poet constantly juggles elements of both the picturesque and the sinister. The poem “blood thieves” presents the scene of a person going through a painful methamphetamine withdrawal, only to return to using by the end of the poem. Despite the dark subject, Mitchell’s words are comforting, if not pleasant. “When we were gone we were an ache of poison / grey thin wind erosion / we wanted to steal red / rush of blood from their heads”(p.19). In these lines lies a middle ground that is disturbingly beautiful. At one end is a poetically intellectual structure that experiments with the emotional relationships of colours and the ever-present motif of blood. This symbol is often recurring throughout Mitchell’s work. At the other end are the gruesome details of withdrawal and the presence of symptomatic episodes of hallucinatory deterioration. Many of Mitchell’s poems often can’t help but read like a love song hiding its juxtaposing eerie lyrics in plain sight.
Juxtaposition is a recurring theme in Clean, and this is most noticeable in the instances in which the subject matter shifts from the brutal portrayal of substance abuse and the culture surrounding it to something much more wholesome. “Night Orchids,” is a poem that took me by surprise, both concerning its seemingly out-of-place position amongst a parade of depressing scenes, but also in the way it portrays queer romance so simply and yet so divinely. Mitchell introduces us to a queer romance uncorrupted by the oversaturated mainstream interpretation of intimate relationships between two masculine-aligned people. Mitchell’s interpretation of the subject is infused with a level of realism and believability that feels not only genuine but sweet. “In the absence of daylight, we are just two young men / silent save a giggle and a shoe scuff” (p.21). Mitchell’s words make the relationship feel nostalgic. “Night Orchids” is particularly heartwarming for queer readers, many of whom don’t experience the privilege of true, unproblematic, young love. It is still significant to see it depicted, even when it’s sandwiched between two poems that explore the feelings associated with excessive drug abuse. Mitchell makes it clear that their work was created with queer people in mind, and the sprinklings of queer poetry throughout the collection cement our trust in the author’s ability to provide the stories they wish to tell with an authentic and honest voice.
There is an almost linear structure to the collection; therefore, after the long, hard road out of addiction, we find ourselves at the third and final section, “Clean.” The collection’s titular poem “Clean” introduces us to the last circuit of life. Mitchell lays out the nine stages in the process of reinvention after deciding to stop using drugs. The voice in the poem is empathetic and inspiring. Mitchell introduces this chapter of their life with so much tenderness and honesty. Admitting that the process isn’t easy or pretty, but at the same time providing every reason why recovery is essential. Mitchell also sneaks in some helpful advice between the delicate lines of prose poetry. “Remind yourself that these desires, they are dying: let them. / Sometimes death is slow. And painful.” (p.64). Mitchell allows themself to be the older, wiser voice of reason that many of us wish we had in a time when we were almost vulnerable. The poem fabulously introduced us to the encore.
Although never particularly confronting, Clean is still a compelling dedication to the often discussed but rarely understood concept of drug addiction and every facet of life surrounding it. The collection will hit home for many Australians, many of whom would have found themselves the victim of addiction at some point in their life. Clean isn’t just a manifestation of the complex world of methamphetamine, for it is still relatable to anyone experiencing any addition or hardship. Mitchell’s makes us feel less alone, at least for a little while. Fans of Burroughs and those genuinely interested in a snapshot into the macabre side of life will find pleasure in Mitchell’s writing.
HOLDEN WALKER is an essayist and literary critic from Yuin Country, New South Wales. He is an alumnus of the University of Wollongong, where he studied English Literature, specialising in literary history and analysis.