Thursday, October 27, 2022

On Scott-Patrick Mitchell's Poetry Collection Clean

 Launch Speech for Scott-Patrick Mitchell’s Clean


            by John Kinsella


I first met Scott-Patrick during a workshop I was giving in 2006. Well, that’s true and not true. I had read their work as part of the pre-entry submissions and had been astounded at the freshness and verve of the work — that its language seemed so alive and yet had something haunting about it as well. But I had encountered their work prior to this as part of the ‘world-building’ Interactive Geographies project for Poetryetc listserv back in the late 90s. As that project was made of so many voices, I hadn’t separated any one voice off in particular. Texts were offered and absorbed into a kind of polyvalent rhizome and the whole work pulsated with many lives, many places.


At a tangent to this, one of the many interesting and even exciting things that came with a first reading of Scott-Patrick’s book Clean was to encounter who they’d been in the sharing of their voice with the many, and to see it reworked into the language of the city it geographised. In Clean (Upswell, 2022), Scott-Patrick’s ‘interactive geography’ moment becomes part of a personal synthesis, part of the thesis/anti-thesis sub-structure of this remarkable work of addiction and recovery. Boorloo/Perth in the context of an ongoing journey that came close to consuming and even destroying the poet.


So, in a vicarious kind of way, I realised that I had in fact ‘known’ them for much longer than I’d been fully aware, and apropos of this, that I needed to question what it is that suggests we might know someone in the first place. We can never know anyone completely, and Scott-Patrick’s poems also show us that we spend our lives trying to know ourselves.


These reflections came from a first encounter with Clean and intensified as I reread the three sections of a book that gathers into a life. The many levels of affect the poet engages us through are compelling, troubling, addictive and in the end, liberating — personally, and also collectively as people implicated both in the very place of writing, the city it is being launched in, and in our embodiment of the poems as readers. We, the readers and hearers of this remarkable collection, are constantly asking ourselves what we should and shouldn’t do, where we might and might not appear, and where we should or shouldn’t fuse our own experiences through what is mapped and unmapped. This is an act of immersing ourselves in a life, and in a city — an act that carries responsibilities.


I want to say something about the nature of addiction which, I feel, my twenty-seven years of sobriety, of being ‘clean’, have suggested to me — that an addict never stops being an addict, and that if we are able to channel our addictions into generative and healing actions, that mark(er) of our lives can improve rather than destroy them. Further, it means we can hopefully bring joy and support to other people’s lives rather than damage or even destroy them, too.


In the poem ‘Reworking slurs I was called from when I was using’,  Scott-Patrick makes use of expressions of contempt meted out by non-addicts towards addicts which I could strongly identify with — they flip them linguistically of course, and there’s a harsh reflection to be cast back on the social condition delivering them, but ultimately the responsibility comes back to the addict, and the poet — “DO US ALL A FAVOUR AND (graft saplings/to rock face/at the edges/of the compass)’. This is a tough equation that doesn’t map onto any other personal-social dynamic. It’s also a brilliant fusing of rhetoric in the form of insult, and figurative slippage into a layered perception of being, of quiddity.


Society’s bigotry is never acceptable, and normative ways of controlling difference are always damaging, always, to my mind, wrong. Witness Scott-Patrick’s superb ‘This Is Not a Manifesto’ in which they begin: ‘Because I am still manifesting. At the age of/ 42, my gender identity is more fluid than ever’ Inside, I am aqueous...’, which many of us in different ways will either identify with or understand. The ultimate beauty and generosity of this poem is exemplified by these words near the end: ‘Until then, weep at the bravery of/ those who are younger, so much more certain/ of how to speak uncertain’.


I’d like to riff off the issue of ‘beauty’ in Scott-Patrick’s work. Beauty is lost in the grimmest and sludgiest moments of the early section of the book, ‘Dirty’, and this lack of beauty creates a ghostly residue, a haunting that grows with sobriety. The haunting is complex — it is both the loss of self that comes with addiction, but it’s also the loss of the world addiction brings. It’s the grimness of scraping up stuff to feed addiction and it’s the anti-performance of getting through the day and the night and the day. Being clean is remembering what it was like not being clean. But beauty is always somewhere to be found, and as the book ‘journeys’, the nature of this potential beauty shifts focus.


Inhabiting a city empirically and also inhabiting it conceptually as Scott-Patrick does, doesn’t conceptually (and maybe even physically) mean the same city. The city seen through the heightened, expectant or dulled senses of the addict is very different from the city seen while ‘clean’, and, even more so, through the stages of getting clean. It’s hard to shake the residues of the addict city, and they have to be reinvented, rewritten as a part of seeing it fresh.


It took me years to return to inner-city ‘Perth’/Boorloo... I could not walk past certain hotels, nightclubs and doors that went up to Northbridge rooms without feeling ill. Scott-Patrick has remained in the city, and has rewritten their relationship to it, adding to their world and all our worlds. Consider the poem in ‘Dirty’, ‘This Town’, that goes: ‘Funny how this drug is anything but chill. A storm rolls into curtains, threatening to arrive. It never does. At least, not in the sky.’’ The travel through to ‘Ghost City’ of the ‘Clean’ section near the end of the book: ‘Bird song fills the void/ where once fumes coiled: each squall and call/ amplified off these walls.’ Bird song is beauty.


Now, the irony remains, as does the ‘street-smart’ locution that is steeply immersed in figurative perception, but there’s a shift in register. The ghost city is the city of addiction, and it haunts, but it is something distinctly different. It is better than the fumes of the pipe, even if the city throws up other pollutions. And the growing urge across the collection towards environmental positions takes up this haunting: an addict pollutes their own body, and society pollutes the planet. What is the difference? We can hopefully cure our addictions; we can hopefully cure pollution.


It’s a simple equation on one level, and the most profoundly difficult on another. Oh, it’s not coincidental that I have quoted from prose poems — these are magnificent and tonally inventive examples of the form, and tell stories as well as create intense lyrical and anti-lyrical contestations as ‘poems’. Scott-Patrick has always been a unique wielder and breaker of the line in poetry, and compacts a mythology and satire into a love poem, into a poem of connecting and disconnecting with others, in profound love poems, but their prose poems complement those dynamically lineated poems, and work as a major counterpoint in this book. The middle section’s ‘The Sleep Deprivation Diaries’ sequence shows the prose line at work (day by day) with electric poetic sensibility, and the erasures and breakdowns of lines contest sentences which only healthy sleep can bring — which the addict never really attains, and the recovering addict struggles after.


This book is full of confronting images and situations, and also full of hope. It has to be. There’s an essential dialogue that goes on with the mother, that has its inevitable pain and grief, especially come out of loving an addict, and the earth’s pain is elided with her own because of her generosity of spirit. It’s an interaction of sublimated wit — linguistically generative, compassionate, sharing, knowing, respectful, sensitive, tolerant and sometimes difficult. It’s one of the book’s complex beauties.


As is the increasing presence and engagement with the natural world, even if it’s as harried rural foxes or crows picking a living in city streets. Flowers appear and have quiddityIn the end, the book has a positive ectoplasm in the haunting that the poet carries with them through the many-layered city.

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