Andrew McMillan’s debut collection Physical opens with an epitaph taken from one of the often overlooked novels of Hilda Doolittle, better known as H.D., the Imagiste poet and protégé of Ezra Pound.
You are trembling.
It’s the way I crooked my elbow, you know, this way – it’s nothing –
This is a collection which is refreshingly open about its literary inheritances throughout, mentioning its indebtedness to such writers as Mark Doty, Thom Gunn and John Riley without ever approaching either imitation or adulation. However, this stark and moving investigation of male desire is most reminiscent of H.D.’s stripped-back, Sapphic verse. McMillan’s poems, which for the most part lack the decoration of adjectives and are almost entirely unpunctuated, achieve through plain language the transfiguration of the profane into the sacred and vice-versa, troubling the link between these two often-assumed poles.
Take, for example, the first poem of the collection, ‘Jacob with the Angel’, which tells two stories simultaneously; the biblical account in which Jacob wrestles with the divine and a chance encounter between gay lovers. The link between the erotic and the religious experience is hardly new ground (just ask St Theresa of Avila). However, the complete absence of such exultant language as is found in hagiographic accounts – as well as being occasionally employed by the literary minded to sanctify the sexual act (a quick perusal of the Literary Review’s Bad Sex Award is never time wasted) – renders this poem both startling and tender.
taken literally it just happens the way the weather
or the stock market happens
tangling in the unpierced flesh of one another
grappling with the shifting question of each other’s bodies
and burning afterwards or barely able to walk afterwards
or not giving a name because names would add a history
and the tasting of the flesh and blood of someone is something
out of time
The two stories are one and the same, taken either ‘literally’ or ‘allegorically’. McMillan’s poetical alchemy, which can transfigure the dispassionately fleshly into the numinous – the ‘barely being able to walk’ into ‘the thresh marks of wingbeats’ – is found again and again in this collection. Only this mixture of honesty, passion and innocence could transform a poem which begins with an account of the awkwardness of public urinals into an immensely affecting meditation on the bodily intimacy between lovers, as in ‘Urination’.
you wake to the sound of stream into bowl
and go to hug the naked body
stood with its back to you and kiss the neck
and taste the whole of the night on there
and smell the morning’s pale yellow loss
and take the whole of him in your hand
and feel the water moving through him
and knowing that this is love the prone flesh
what we expel from the body and what we let inside
The external and the internal are amongst the numerous tensions which trouble and tug at this collection, like the muscle which ‘tears itself/from itself’ in ‘The Men are Weeping in the Gym’. The long poem ‘Protest of the Physical’ which forms the centrepiece of the volume delivers image after vivid image of its post-industrial Northern setting, strikingly familiar to any native yet at once made strange.
lame arm of the crane circling
unstocked shelves of half built car park
the day’s spent itself already so early in the evening
The speaker is troubled by the dynamics of selfhood and love; by the familiar tensions between freedom and commitment, and the ‘prehistoric’ urge to cut and run: ‘I left you because man made fire’. It is in this section that the poetry is most apt to unravel into the abstract – ‘lines we cannot cross/the naked flame the burning boy’. However, the unflinching clarity which the poem’s tensions are subjected to is a foil to incoherence and the closing statement delivers an unambiguous, if painful, conclusion: ‘I should have tried harder’.
This is poetry which seems effortlessly to make the connection between the immediacy of personal concerns and enduring social issues. Anxieties over masculinity and manhood repeatedly arise out of anecdotal poems; a bereaved electrician attempting to get on with his work; a nephew who demands to be benchpressed like ‘his mother’s new lover can and often does’ and who ‘once said my boyfriend was illegal’. And yet, where uncertainty and embarrassment might prevail, we find alongside it a deep and unabashed joy in the body and in the sharing of it;
you pressed me down took control
took me in your mouth I regret now being so passive
but you made me feel weightless…
I had forgotten loving you could be so calming
telling you that your body was beautiful sighing out
the brittle disappointments from the bones
having no judgement of what the body
may want to be doing where the breath may fall
This is a brave work of uncompromising honesty and, judging by its critical and popular success, one which manages to speak across the distances of both experience and genre. McMillan himself perhaps best describes the triumph of this debut in relating his wholly realised ambitions for it: ‘all I ever hoped my poetry might do was live sincerely in the world and take everything that happened, turn it, distil it, and give it back to the reader – in the hopes it might move them, or be “useful”’. This collection both affects and instructs, reconciling the tensions of its subjects into an unalloyed whole which manages to convey at once the pain and joy of love; to bring together and bind the bodily and the spiritual like reunited lovers.
By Rachel Chanter
Physical by Andrew McMillan, £10.00, Jonathan Cape