A Poetics of Renewal: Addiction, Recovery, and the Australian Gothic in Scott-Patrick Mitchell’s Clean
Tenderness is deep emotional concern about another being, its fragility, its unique nature, and its lack of immunity to suffering and the effects of time. Tenderness perceives the bonds that connect us, the similarities and sameness between us. It is a way of looking that shows the world as being alive, living, interconnected, cooperating with, and co-dependent on itself.
—Olga Tokarczuk, Nobel Lecture: The Tender Narrator (2019)
Polish writer and activist Olga Tokarczuk might have been describing an approach to ecopoetics that transcends genre when she spoke of tenderness in her Nobel Lecture of 2019. Her speech was as much a call to action as a meditation on the state of literature, framed by a concept of tenderness that is broader than familial or romantic love. It is a definition that carries over to all living and non-living entities—a concern for existence, for the environment, for the common thread of fragility in all things, the “great constellation form” of the world (17). To embrace tenderness in the way we live, and the way we write (“giving an existence to all the tiny pieces of the world that are represented by human experiences” ), takes us beyond individual consciousness and even beyond time, connecting us to those who have gone before, those who are perhaps voiceless, those who have not yet arrived.
This very ideology underpins the ecopoetic, which sees humankind as inseparable from nature, and complicit in every heedless step taken towards a future we won’t live through. Without tenderness—without a sense that we are not so different from the flora and fauna we invoke so readily to define our nationhood, and yet neglect equally readily when it comes to enacting real change—we march ever-closer to the cliff-edge of irreversible destruction. By many accounts, we’re already in freefall, and the cliff-top is somewhere behind, as unreachable as any wilderness of nostalgia. If there are moments of hope and renewal in a time of radical flux, it is tenderness that lifts the veil, reminding us of our essential sameness, and of the possibility of redemption through genuine connection and effort.
The philosophies behind ecopoetics speak to the unconscious power of tenderness, and the need for acute observation: to understand what we are doing to the world, we must situate ourselves in it, so that tenderness becomes a motivation for renewal. Enmeshed as we are in the natural world, we are our own means to recovery. Western Australian poet Scott-Patrick Mitchell exemplifies this philosophy of tenderness in his debut poetry collection, Clean. The collection traces Mitchell’s journey through addiction and homelessness to a place of recovery and hope. It is infused with an awareness of the interconnections between human and nature within the Anthropocene of Australian suburbia, charting a journey that is transformational as opposed to redemptive.
Structured in three sections, Clean takes readers inside the bodily experience of addiction and renewal, in a process that is sublime, visceral, violent, and also poignant, rich in detail, so close to home it might be happening next-door. This is ecopoetry that enacts tenderness, designating the body as inseparable from the natural world in graphic and unflinching terms. A life from the ashes: hard-won—a fragile, resolute bud reaching to some blue and endless space. The first section of the collection, ‘Dirty’, opens with ‘The Mourning Star’. Here, we witness the lasting psychological damage wrought by childhood abuse, and it is this experience which informs the poems that follow, pointing to the cyclical pattern of abuse and addiction:
Leave your body:(14)
step into atramentous.
Through the vestibular space of ink, we enter a regional Australian landscape of addiction and brutality, affecting psyche and body as one. The tension of this section builds with an immediacy that is both mesmerising and foreboding. Language is charged with imagery, and techniques like kenning are used to great effect, so that familiar concepts are made new—impossible to pass over or set aside. In ‘Icarus Finds a Lover in The Afterlife’, a queer romance becomes an origin story, a mythic space, where the lovers “sky roam lunar high” (26). In ‘This Town’ Mitchell creates a microcosm of regional Australia—its difficulties, its icons—with a sculptor’s eye for detail, blade-edged precision:
Those two days before Centrelink are(15)
bliss: tension dissolves into sprinkler’s hiss. Summer heat induces sleep.
Then they all powder keg their heads again. Vicious dogs. More vicious
This is life at the periphery, the sharp lines of survival that “Needlecraft a map of becoming lost” (21). Like a scene from Wake in Fright transposed, stereotypes are elided and re-shaped: “how this heat swallows everything, fades meat / from pink to grey to gone” (21). In the same way that Henry Lawson spoke in frank terms about regional life in colonial Australia, Mitchell takes us beyond the Tourism Australia vision of laid-back surfer towns and general stores specialising in latte art/essential oils. Here, the quiet streets and tracts of bushland are not a benign space. The boredom, neglect, and heat have created a sort of wasteland, where “the kids are addicts. Their folks too”, and even vigilantes “quit the job” (15). Mitchell shows us a version of modern Australia that is at times nightmarish—the underside, the othered space of the Australian gothic. If we were once envisioned (chiefly, by ourselves) as God’s Own Country, our romanticism has only made us complacent. This is a feeling that intensifies throughout Clean, particularly in the poem ‘Anti-pastoral’, a sort of ars poetica, and a searing vision of the land as the body—a site of violent catharsis:
Gather holes. Pierce landscape’s fold. Bleed toward surface. We divine(21)
entry into poem, journey wreckage up an arm. Below stone, an arterial
flow. Spectral, earth lifts. Ghost plume, bloody ectoplasm, like a séance.
Mitchell is a renowned spoken word performer, and the aural quality seen above is emblematic of the collection, invoking the oral origins of poetry in a way that is often neglected in modern poetry. Their writing has an incantatory power that lends itself to reading aloud, much like any call to action: one image links to the next on a thread of sound that carries the reader along a sensory tightrope, asking them to look beyond the quiet of suburban streets, the stillness of hot days where everything happens just out of sight. As the poet Richard Hugo stated in his exploration of subject matter in poetry, “The subject should serve the words” (6). Mitchell knows this lesson well, and if there is a god in this place where “gravity has no centre” (33), it is a god of sound, of musicality, “a cello with a note reverberating in its / throat” (88).
Later in this section, the poem ‘the hoarding’ is told by a speaker living on the high of “verge diving” where roadsides are “fields / ripe with harvest / wheat & meal” (31). The speaker describes being consumed by the desperation of gathering detritus from others’ lives:
we are firestorm(31)
inflamed mouths of ember & smoke.
as kindling we envelop…
Equally, the Australian cityscape offers no sanctuary for those at the edges of normal life. The series titled ‘inner pity poems’ documents the day-to-day reality of urban homelessness in candid terms: “satellite without anchor, unless our dealer is home” (33). The city becomes a moving, breathing entity, “the aching shapes of glass & steel” mirroring the emptiness inside “the citadel of our self” (35). The architecture of the city is a labyrinth of exclusion and trauma for the homeless and the addict:
we are the walking dead.(39)
hunter logic, death wish meds.
to persist, we insist this is community service:
highlight a modern blight by trailing city’s life so no one else has to.
The second section of the collection, ‘The Sleep Deprivation Diaries’, is the shortest of the three, but it reaches to the heart of drug addiction in stark and unforgettable detail. It opens with ‘prayer for the parents of every addict’, a slim poem that might lull the reader into a meditative state, moving through a chain of almost-homophonous words, starting with “ahem” and circling back to “amen” (42-43). However, the power of the poem lies not in somnolence but in the jarring effect of juxtaposition, so that we find phrases like “heap teeth” sharply followed by “ante mint” in this deceptively simple exploration of methamphetamine addiction. The same accretion of meaning is seen in long-form in the titular poem of this second section, ‘The Sleep Deprivation Diaries’, which draws inspiration from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. This poem documents the cycle of addiction through graphic imagery and with Mitchell’s characteristic wit—acerbic humour that preserves the human in the midst of ongoing tragedy. Tellingly, it is the deletions and fragmented sentences that stand out:
. from out the corner of my sight(50)
paranoia paranoia paranoia
shadow people wave hello
. see now how conversations
. crash clatter bang into every
. can’t remember where i
The remarkable power of this poem is that Mitchell isn’t merely describing addiction: he is enacting the way it affects the mind, hairline cracks deepening until there is no coherence, no way back to normality without dissolution. The poem concludes with a destabilising tilt towards the Australian gothic, where colonisation and addiction become synonymous:
in The Before, we were all
such nice people
but this structure causes a
psychotic function: how the white colonises terra with terror
i was somebody when i began(52-53)
but now i am no thing
As the land was once robbed of its identity, its sovereignty prior to colonisation, the addict too loses those markers that define identity, humanity. The comedown—the return to “the esemplastic equation” of the real world—is ultimately a shock, “an electrical soothe of circuitry” (54). More than poetry of addiction or of the queer experience, this is poetry of the human and the natural world, without defined borders (“human, because it is the only / word I know for other” ). Mitchell’s writing here is reminiscent of Richard Siken at his bleak, imagistic best, and both poets call attention to similar life experiences. In his award-winning collection, Crush (2004), Siken writes of loss and trauma: “There’s a thing in my stomach about this. A simple thing. The last rung” (9). When I read Mitchell’s work in Clean, I have the sense we are continuing down the same ladder, our foot poised on the same last rung.
Mitchell views the body as inseparable from the natural world, even in its decay into the physical realities of addiction. Thus, when healing takes place, the world begins to re-populate with living metaphors, and with a return to origins. The collection would be a vastly different one without the sustaining force of maternal love, which distinguishes the third section, the longest of the three by far. Like a series of nesting dolls, this section is titled ‘Clean’, and it opens with the prose poem ‘Clean’, highlighting the precision in Mitchell’s poetic arc, where structural elements are imbued with their own balance and momentum. ‘Clean’ is written in the second-person, so that the title becomes directive (a verb) rather than adjective. With the passing of time, the speaker states, “You shall arise, / anew, from this grave, adorned in resilience, dew” (64). Tenderness transforms the narrative of addict, of the othered human, and hope arrives in the form of books and poetry and food, tangible markers of self-care:
After two months the colour returns to the world, your cheeks. You are(65)
filling out your form as if ticking boxes.
Beyond the interconnections of physical and metaphysical, it is the quotidian moments of tenderness between mother and son that speak most deeply to the transformative power of love. Mitchell’s mother is brought to life as real and fragile and life-giving in ‘Maternal Memories’, a poem that contains such detail as to embody the act of listening, of giving someone your time in order to carry their memories forward. The speaker in this poem describes the mother’s patience through the metaphor of growing a mango “from seed / a deed that has taken over a decade to achieve” (71). In the later poem, ‘She Knows No Spell to Quell a Tsunami’, the speaker’s mother “wants to help, but she – like Nature – is ancient: / they both struggle with large crowds” (79). And in ‘Ingredients for Grief’, the speaker says: “I can judge the quality of her sleep by how big her hair is next morning” (99). As a single parent to a son, these moments of quiet, tender observation reached me beyond words or images, in some way that is life-giving and elemental. They are moments of love enacted, broader than time or space or a single lifetime of familial roles—the saving grace in the long game of recovery.
Throughout this final section, love and nature are cast as one: “You say to me how love is like a wildflower: a moment that recurs again and again when the conditions are perfect” (81). However, ecological collapse, climate change and grief are ever-present, and equally inseparable. If there is recovery, there is also circularity of time, the sense that past and present are layers of the same story: “If all time happens at the same time, then every day is eulogy” (100). Mitchell has a skill for attention to detail of the type Dorianne Laux discusses in ‘Two Essays from Finger Exercises for Poets’, recently published in The American Poetry Review. Laux draws on the Russian Formalist approach of ostranenie (looking anew at commonplace items) as a means to poetic insight: “The object, if we love it enough, starts to open up and offer itself to our imagination” (Laux 17). This intense attention to detail seems akin to the tenderness that Tokarczuk espouses in her Nobel Lecture—a way of living, of really seeing. In Mitchell’s work, his recovery is topographical, intimately tied to the world around him: “how a mountain can be built from this / how a pebble is the corner of a landscape” (101). The collection circles back to its origins in the final poem, ‘The Morning Star’, where dawn arrives “between epiphany / & epilogue, a eulogia / fading from breath” (104). We are reminded that this collection is a life’s work—that renewal comes through death, and none of the difficult parts are left behind or forgotten.
In Shirley Hazzard’s novel of post-war transformation across continents, The Great Fire (2003), the protagonist describes the feeling of opening his box of belongings from military service after the war has ended—the same box his mother would have received had he been killed in action: “When the box came back to me, the owner of those oddments was dead, I was my own survivor” (190). In following the trajectory of Clean, I had a similar feeling: the poet is his own survivor. Tokarczuk’s radical definition of tenderness draws attention to literature as a source of healing and renewal—where the endpoint might be something other than destruction, “as if the world were a living, single entity, constantly forming before our eyes, and as if we were a small and at the same time powerful part of it” (Tokarczuk 25). In Clean, Mitchell marks out a path to recovery in a breathtaking sweep of loss and renewal, “light dying into light / last star, an offering” (104). This exceptional debut is itself an offering of light and sound, vivid as any lighthouse along the sharpness of a coastline, clear as a whisper in the darkest hour of night:
addict, retract: in place, awe for a new day.
marvel at flower
creaking concrete open
a bouquet amid grey.
this too is work.(98)
Hazzard, Shirley. The Great Fire. Virago, 2004.
Hugo, Richard. The Triggering Town : Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing. W.W. Norton, 2010.
Laux, Dorianne. “Two Essays from Finger Exercises for Poets.” American Poetry Review, vol. 51, no. 6, Nov. 2022, pp. 17–19.
Siken, Richard. Crush. Yale University Press, 2005.
Tokarczuk, Olga. “The Tender Narrator.” Nobel Lecture, Swedish Academy, 7 Dec. 2019, https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/2018/tokarczuk/lecture/.
Turcotte, Gerry. “Australian Gothic.” University of Wollongong: Research Online, 1998, https://ro.uow.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1060&context=artspapers.