Here is Naomi’s next review of another outstanding book shortlisted for this year’s Sunday Times/Peter Fraser & Dunlop Young Writer of the Year award. When I first read this book of poetry last year I was so struck by its distinct direct voice and connected so strongly with McMillan’s original perspective that it became one of my favourite books of the year. If you want to read my review of ‘Physical’ click here.
Since the publication of his debut poetry collection Physical, Andrew McMillan has been hailed as the poet of masculinity. It was interesting to be aware of this approaching the collection as a feminist and – if I may be so bold – I’d dare to say that McMillan is also a feminist, at least to the extent that he understands that patriarchal ideas of masculinity are as damaging to men as they are to women.
The collection’s divided into three sections. In the first, also titled ‘physical’, McMillan explores what it means to be male in the 21st century, alongside experiences of loving relationships and one night stands. In ‘Strongman’ the narrator bench presses his nephew asking ‘what is masculinity if not taking the weight/of a boy and straining it from oneself?’ while conceding that his own attempt is one ‘not even a minor Greek would see as fit to sculpt’. While in ‘The Men Are Weeping in the Gym’, McMillan creates a picture of those who do sculpt themselves ‘and because they have built themselves/as statues this must mean that God/has entered them’ but juxtaposes this with the vulnerability that lies beneath, created with an image of the muscle tearing ‘itself/from itself’.
McMillan excels in moving from the general to the specific. In ‘Urination’ (the poem he tells us at the Young Writer of the Year Award bloggers’ event his mum has asked him never to read again), the narrator begins by describing the potential horror of bumping someone at the urinals, leading to thoughts of the times the bathroom is shared in intimate settings and the specific moment when he takes ‘the whole of him in your hand/and feel the water moving through him/and knowing that this is love…’. It’s these moments when he writes of love – whether of a one night stand in ‘Just Because I Do This, Doesn’t Mean’ where ‘the kisses that wanted to stay for longer than a night’; or a lover who’s with someone else in ‘If It Wasn’t for the Nights’: ‘if it wasn’t for the nights Steffan I’d come home’; or the rescued relationship in ‘Choke’ ‘we talked ourselves together’; or the break-up in ‘Today’
today you will break the life of someone
or you’ll break yourself apart from them
and having dressed themselves in you for months
they will be naked and half in shadow as you close the door
– where you find yourself catching your breath. McMillan captures the vulnerability that close relationships bring in many of their different forms.
The third section ‘degradation’ deals with death, whether literal or metaphorical, and again ties into ideas of masculinity and how men are expected to face death in a society that equates masculinity with bravery and stoicism.
For me, however, it was the second section ‘protest of the physical’ which really interested me. This interest was twofold: firstly, in terms of structure, this is the most ambitious section of the collection. Here nine untitled poems – five leading on to a second page; four very short and all beginning with the word ‘graffiti’ interweave moments in relationships, McMillan’s love for the poet Thom Gunn and snapshots of the northern town, Barnsley. The latter is the second thing that interests me, having grown up in Barnsley, like McMillan (although I was born eleven years prior to him). The poems that begin and end the section both start with a crane: ‘lame arm of the crane circling/unstocked shelves of half built car park’, a nod to the town which still hasn’t recovered from the miner’s strike and Thatcherism (call centres and ASOS and Next warehouses aren’t enough to replace an industry). In the second of the longer pieces, McMillan juxtaposes a relationship – ‘love/is giving everything too easily/then staying to try and claw it back’ – with the decimation of the town – ‘town coughing something up/watching breathless as it rolls into a crack in the earth’ – using a structure and a rhythm that echoes the town’s industrial heritage – ‘people were shouldertoshoulder/as in a cage waiting to descend’. It’s no coincidence that the industry the town was built upon is one synonymous with masculinity and that part of the town’s challenge is also that of 21st century men: how to reconcile itself with having that stereotypical, patriarchal view of what a man should be stripped away.
Physical is an interesting, often ambitious, sometimes breath-taking look at love and masculinity. If this is what Andrew McMillan is capable of in his debut collection then I can’t wait to witness the rest of his career.