This is the fourth in the series of reviews I will post over the next two months of the 5 collections chosen for the 2015 Forward Prizes Felix Dennis award for best First Collection. The £5000 prize will be decided on 28th September. The shortlist is:
Mona Arshi – Small Hands (Liverpool University Press, Pavilion Poetry) reviewed here;
Sarah Howe – Loop of Jade (Chatto & Windus); reviewed here;
Andrew McMillan – physical (Cape Poetry); reviewed here;
Matthew Siegel – Blood Work (CB Editions) reviewed here;
Karen McCarthy Woolf – An Aviary of Small Birds (Carcanet) reviewed here.
A man’s torso, from just below the shoulder to half-way down the rounded buttocks, tastefully lit from the back to catch the curves, his left hand visible clutching (quite hard) his own right flank. It’s sexy and lonely and longing and anonymous. It’s a bit Fifty Shades but Cape Poetry’s cover image does say something about Andrew McMillan’s first full collection, though it’s too confining. It’s the sort of sharply targeted thing marketing people come up with and the author (who is achieving cleanly-shaped, clear, bold things in terms of subject-matter and form) may squirm at.
But the image is flauntingly male (and happily the skin blemishes have not been air-brushed) and what it is to be a man is certainly one of McMillan’s concerns. In ‘strongman’ a nephew wants to be bench-pressed by the male narrator and (even from the young child) this is a clear challenge as “his mother’s lover” often does it, the boy has declared the narrator’s boyfriend “illegal” and he brings with him the freight of traditional masculine values: “his dad’s voice and jaw”. The narrator obliges “because / what is masculinity if not taking the weight // of a boy and straining it from oneself?” It’s not just the bench-press requiring careful balance here in the close masculine contact, the show of strength, the carefully maintained distance in the preposition “from”. The inculcation of traditional male values starts early as in ‘The Schoolboys’ who clamber onto a bus, all bulge and muscle and “sprints of growth”, wrestling “to impress the girls”. The poem ‘things men take’ is one of McMillan’s lists, articulating a more adult version of this: they take “the room above the ceiling / the better pay the jobs / your space at the bar”. But it’s with a poem like ‘the men are weeping in the gym’ that we begin to see this poet’s determination to challenge the status quo in its brief fantasy of male affectiveness: “their hearts have grown too big / for their chests their chests have grown too big / for their shirts [. . . ] they are crying in the toilet”. There is real humour here as the gym is turned from a place of physical exercise to a place where emotions are released and flexed, a re-definition of those traditional ideas of ‘strength’: “they don’t hear / the thousands of tiny fracturings / needed to build something stronger”.
But masculinity as in what it is to be a gay man in love is even more central to physical. A definition of love emerges at the end of one poem which begins with awkward fears of (literally) bumping into men in a urinal, causing spillage, splash, a turning, the revelation: “neither of us will look / or he’ll look at me avoiding looking / feigning interest in the hard cream tiles”. This is funny again though halfway through the bluntly titled ‘urination’, McMillan considers the privacy and intimacy of “the toilet”, the poem lifting into praise of waking to hear (and smell) a lover pissing “the morning’s pale yellow loss” into the toilet “and take the whole of him in your hand / and feel the water moving through him”. Such intimacy of contact is one of the provisional definitions of love: “the prone flesh / what we expel from the body and what we let inside”. Poems that explore the physicality of the male body make this book remarkable, even given McMillan’s acknowledged debt to Thom Gunn. Much after the pattern of ‘urination’, ‘yoga’ begins with the physical stretching and breathing of the class, but shades seamlessly into a love-making which echoes the breath, control, weightlessness and absence of “judgement” in the discipline of yoga. ‘Saturday night’ takes lines from Gunn’s poem of that name this time to explore a more roaming, disjointed experience of love and sexuality. The rule of ‘Boss Cupid’ is no more reliable than in the straight world, of course, and McMillan gives us other images of sleeping with “Thom night after night / open at the spine”, rather than any flesh and blood lover. And ‘screen’ imagines how even a gay porn star, so perfect and capable on screen, in real life “without direction” struggles to express himself, “stopping mid kiss pulling back mumbling”.
As my quotes suggest, McMillan abandons most punctuation in these poems, using only line and stanza breaks and long spaces to create pauses and some sense of syntactical form. This works well – it doesn’t for me interrupt or confuse at all – and contributes to the often passionate flow of the poems. It’s hard to convey this in short quotes but ‘choke’, running for just 22 lines, takes us rapidly through a relationship break up, weeping, talking, loving and next day reflections, managing to evoke the agitation, fluidity of feelings, and final resolve “to tough it out” and the lack of pointing is part of this success. Elsewhere, the flow and even blurring achieved syntactically is just right for the loss of self-consciousness associated with sexual pleasure.
What is interesting is that beside the passionate and “carnal” (Michael Symmons Roberts) nature of much of this book and alongside Thom Gunn as mentor and role model, McMillan also name-checks C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. The opening poem of the book portrays gay sexuality with Jacob wrestling the angel and I’ve mentioned the paralleling in ‘yoga’ and those beefy men crying in the gym are said to have “God” entering them as they weep. Furthermore, ‘revelations’ argues that each subsequent love is only a searching for the first, “in the manner of the humble saints who make / the worship of a nameless god relatable”. Each lover is renamed, Saint Gavin Saint Ged Saint Unknown / of Manchester Bedsit”. Humour is used here but it hardly disguises the poet’s interest in the more spiritual implications of the physicality his poems work so hard to evoke. This religious sensibility emerges in the brief foray, moving from Eros towards Thanatos, in poems in the third part of the book. The deaths of a grandfather and a young girl strike a very different note and suggest that McMillan may have found in Gunn not merely ways to explore his own sexuality in verse but also (from early Gunn) that existential sense, so wonderfully expressed in ‘On the Move’ (1957), that movement (whether on a motor bike or in bed) is at least one way towards self-definition: “astride the created will / They burst away [. . . ] Reaching no absolute in which to rest, / One is always nearer by not keeping still”.
There is something of this in the final poem of physical. Ironically titled ‘finally’, it evokes a new morning in “the xylophone / of sunthroughblinds”, but the lover is gone, not to return and the poet is like the birds who, though it hasn’t rained, pretend that it has, so “they can sing”. Earlier, the longer sequence ‘protest of the physical’ noted “there is beauty in the ordinary” but this is a pallid observation in contrast to this poet’s determination towards self-definition through loving, through singing when the loving is over.
In a collection full of humour and sadness alongside the plain-spoken eroticism, I really like what McMillan is doing with the fluidity of his form. I don’t think the longer sequence ‘protest of the physical’ is as good as the other sections of the book (I believe it preceded them in terms of date written) but here is a really talented and bold writer and I can see further areas of exploration opening up and it will be exciting to follow him there.