Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
By Scott-Patrick Mitchell
ISBN: 978-0-6452479-3-0, Paperback, 110pages, March 2022
Scott-Patrick Mitchell’s superb and much-lauded debut Clean is one of those books that seems to straddle genre, uniting story, memoir and poetry in a way that both enhances the forms and undoes the restriction. The work is immediately hard-hitting, engaging with both the personal and the political in a way that feels as though it is removing layers from skin, revealing a deep vulnerability that is universal. The inherent pull between the many physical, philosophical and psychological impacts of addiction, attraction, joy and loss is rendered with such tenderness that the reader can’t help but feel as though Mitchell is writing about all of us, about the perilous and flawed nature of being human.
Clean is divided into three Dantean sections, “Dirty”, “The Sleep Deprivation Diaries”, and “Clean”, which immediately put me in mind of “Inferno”, “Purgatorio”, and “Paradiso”, with an epic, slightly elevated feel to the language that is charged and highly condensed at the darkest point of the book:
There is a man who claims to be family.
He teaches you to whimper with a full mouth.
He will lay his hands across naked sheets.
A stain remains.
As does ink. (“The Mourning Star”)
The ink here is an opening, a way to begin the journey out of darkness: “as ghost/step into atramentous.”
The poems in these section are intensely visceral, using rhythm and slant rhyme to mimic the pace of a high, or anthropomorphism to get inside the very nature of crystal meth, personified as a thin, white girl speaking in a staccato dream: “now more/we seek” (“The Stanzas of Shabu”)
While every word is gentle towards its subject, the body doesn’t get off lightly here, moving through brutal bullying, the stirrings of desire, and the painful development of addiction. The poems in this section mirror the flow of the drug into the body so that the work feels deeply intimate, casting the reader into the role of voyeur:
This is a ritual:
in our arms
We become a multiplicity.
frothing at the mouth. (“Co-Dependency (How Terror Forms)”)
The section ends with a series of twenty-two mini poems written after John Kinsella’s book Globe Hotel and Inner City Poems and originally launched as a chapbook. These poems map the inner city of Perth from the point of view of a drug addict going about their business of scoring, waiting, coordinating, desiring and finding relief, delivered in lines that have the cadence of performance poetry–something Mitchell is known for–with its alliteration, internal rhymes and lines that make you want to snap your fingers:
It’s where we meet.
we are bleak, freaks.
we stink of this: aesthetics of cold sweat.
how we release midnight madness:
it begins as whisper
this dark rapture a choir, articulating pain city commissions with glass spires.
The book follows a linear progression, with the second section, “The Sleep Deprivation Diaries”, moves deeper into the addictio. The title sequence for this section presents a six-day bender that takes on the contour of a high, like a a waking dream mingling with lines from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Characters here are named by chromosome, with words that shift position, redact, are crossed out, with punctuation that appears in counter-intuitive places. The poems in this section read like hallucination, a cry for help, with nightmarish scenarios of disintegration, humans as animals (ghost dog, little fish, fox), driving without being able to properly see, and ultimately going right to the edge: “. Please! Somebody/ ?! Call triple..fucking zero”. They are tragic and tender and a little heartbreaking.
The final section is the longest, opening with a ten part title poem that functions as a bridge to the previous section, using the motif of sleep as a way to recover. This poem moves in in progression from the first day to four days, a a week, three weeks, five weeks, two months, four months, five and then six: “After six months you will still be haunted. But at least you are clean.” “Clean” the poem is so self-contained that it almost feels incantatory, offering wisdom: “shame is such a heavy, useless emotion” and tips for getting clean through exquisite imagery:
Pink cloud an apostrophe in sentence. Lifting. Five months on. Heady moments of recollection: the body has memory, remembers maelstrom.
The pure joy of being able to sleep is woven like a thread throughout the section. “In Somnolence” uses anaphora like meditation, creating a sibilance that is beautifully soporific: “Sleep of theta; sleep of data; sleep of jolt; sleep of the low rapid volt…” There is so much exuberance in the rediscovery of life that happens in this section via the “magick” of semantics. The voices we hear are not only human ones but also white cockatoos, magpies, crows, rosellas, boobooks, roos, mewling cats, prayers from the natural world, or the pervasive, healing lullaby of a mother:
well is a well / a skill passed down / one that lives in my mother. / sees me trying to quell a mastery over this beast, the poem / she tells me of her siblings fighting over clothes, eyes afire / her the youngest of them all / watching with a smile while eating dhal / and this the world, in my bones, I know I can find you / if only over oceans I can travel / but until then I ask her, often, to drown me in her memories hoping, one day, when she is gone / I am able to remember them / write them down / fill in the spaces between here and that world (“Maternal Memories”)
This section represents a return to engagement with the world, a turning and a re-claiming of the self, where insults become invocations–“(take this poem home) & GET CLEAN, YA MUTT”, and puns have the power to undo unnatural binaries: “Pray for the day/that the dress declares itself androgynous./And all other garments follow suit. Pockets/abound” (“This Is Not A Manifesto”). Hooray for pockets! There’s a joy throughout this section, a re-discovery of life, but there is also grief. You can and must get clean, but “misery capitalism” as Mitchell calls it, is still at work in the world. There is still bigotry, senseless violence as in “forty-nine mobile phones” about the Pulse, Orlando shooting in 2016, and most pervasive throughout this chapter, climate grief. Mother is both a literal caregiver and also Mother Earth. Mitchell’s lines are as powerful in writing about the climate as they are about addiction, and I found the poems in this section particularly moving as they slide in and out of an anthropomorphism that is exquisite:
In the cacophony of cave-in, of termites screaming, of the wild wet outside entering our house, my mother begins to unravel. She becomes river; rubble; open cut mine; bleached reef’s stubble on wind thrashed sand; an inferno; an inferno; an inferno. And from above, a song leans in. It borrows my mother’s voice and, from parched lips, sings… (“The Wilderness Steals My Mother’s Voice”)
Clean is an extraordinary book. This work engages with both the personal and the political in such an empathetic way that it’s impossible not to identify with this story of addiction, coming out, love, loss, grief, and recovery: “the salt on your cheek is a gift.”