Forward First Collections Reviewed #4 – Andrew McMillan

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.

Andrew McMillan – physical (Cape Poetry); author’s website here.
Article from The Independent on Andrew McMillan 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.

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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”.

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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”.

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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.

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Jacob and the Angel – Jacob Epstein

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”.

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Thom Gunn

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.

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Helen Mort’s ‘Division Street’ wins Aldeburgh First Collection Prize

The winner of the Fenton Aldeburgh First Collection Prize 2014 – one of the most long-established poetry awards in the UK – was announced at the opening of the 26th Aldeburgh Poetry Festival on Friday 7th November. The judges were Imtiaz Dharker, Robert Seatter (Chair) and Anthony Wilson. Here, Anthony Wilson assembles the competitors on his own blog: http://anthonywilsonpoetry.com/2014/11/08/the-fenton-aldeburgh-first-collection-prize-2014/

The prize went to Helen Mort, Division Street (Chatto, 2013): http://www.thepoetrytrust.org/news/fenton-aldeburgh-first-collection-prize-2014-ndash-winner-announced/

And here’s the review I did of the book a few months back for Poetry London:

Mort’s first collection has been much anticipated (no-one else has been five-times winner of the Foyle Young Poets Award!) and Chatto have snapped her up but given her a rather ugly cover with its chalk-board script and rotated image of police confronting striking miners in 1984. Michael Symmons Roberts identifies the bedrock of the book as “the north of England” and the semiology of Division Street means the reader anticipates something more politically engaged than the poems deliver: this is not Heaney’s North, a bit more North of Boston. The north is often setting if not subject, but it is a place almost too recognisable where a girl learns “the name / for artificial hills, the bridge / where a man was felled by bricks / in the strike” (‘Twenty-Two Words for Snow’). She might learn to dance, but sniggers at the teacher’s pretentious “parr-durr-shat” (‘Miss Heath’). A man grows old “in the same bungalow for thirty years / and dreams of digging his way out” (‘Fur’). A stage comedian gets a more lively balladic treatment which suggests a more resilient culture amongst the “empty works” and “braziers / that vanished thirty years ago” but the juke box still dates from 1971(‘Stainless Steven’).

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The risk is regional cliché here and I’m not sure this is really Mort’s true subject. The miners’ strike is dealt with via a re-enactment of the battle of Orgreave by conceptual artist, Jeremy Deller, in 2001. Mort’s desire to write about it is important but the sequence of poems is more an exploration of good old class guilt as the narrator leaves the “Calow WMC” to study in Cambridge, a place where she “cannot learn the tune”. The resonating image is of a different “picket line/ . . . crossed” into a “gilded College gate, / a better supermarket” (‘Scab’). This is why Mort’s epigraph is from Stevenson’s doppelganger novel about the “profound duplicity” of life, but both writers are less concerned with political divisions than personal. Much of Division Street is given over to explorations of the self’s development. The finely-tuned sequence, ‘North of Everywhere’, treats location as psychological landscape where the heart can be let “go on ahead of me”, where “silences become the better part of us”. Such questing is transmuted to a mother gazing at a group of deer, “on pound-coin-coloured hooves”. They are something she denies seeing, though the daughter also finds them, “closer / than before [. . .] their eyes, like hers” (‘Deer’). There is a recurring sense that “doors to other worlds exist” (‘Lowedges’). However much a narrator likens herself to her dogs, she is different:

one night I’ll set off past the meadow, down

behind the beck, beyond the blunt profile of Silver Howe

and nobody will call me back.

‘The Dogs’

Mort’s love of landscape is profound and, like Wordsworth, her hills and skies remain a locus, as well as image of, the process of self-exploration. She boldly plays on her own name in ‘The French for Death’, fantasising of a “girl / who takes the worst route home, pauses // at the mouths of alleyways, or kisses / strangers”. But this transgressive trouble-maker is not so prominent elsewhere where a more compromised, tentative identity emerges. ‘The Girl Next Door’ becomes a haunting double who seems to co-opt the narrator’s weakening identity. ‘The Year of the Ostrich’ wittily suggests a new astrological sign for those of us with “unlikely grace, / who hide our heads, or bear the weight / of wings that will not lift us”. Mort is always good at animals and while jogging she sees a fox, supple, slinking, sly, always about to vanish: “And what she sees she cannot tell, / but what she knows of distances, / and doesn’t say, I know as well” (‘Fox Miles’).

We find and define ourselves against others and Mort does this through romantic love, mostly its loss. “I turned to ask you something and you’d gone” (‘Fagan’s’) is a recurring sentiment. The title poem itself refers to the place where “You brought me [. . .] to break it off”, though in this case it is the other whose “head-down walk” we see, passing pubs in whose windows can be seen “nothing but your own reflection”. Pessimistically, ‘End’ suggests that “Death is // the shape / beneath romance” but the hauntings a writer sustains through such poems as these, though they do not revive the love, at least reinvigorate the lover and persuade that such deaths may only be “le petit mort”.

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