I work part-time as a massage therapist and this job has made me highly conscious about how we inhabit our bodies. Although the basic structure of our physical being is the same, the way we carry ourselves varies dramatically. The relationship between mind and body can be as changing and tumultuous as our relationships with other people. The poems in “Physical” by Andrew McMillan speak beautifully and meaningfully about how we live within all this flesh and bone, the ways in which physical intimacy can make us redefine ourselves and the transformative impact our presence has upon our surroundings.
Many poems in this book focus in particular on the male body and queer experience from relationships with boyfriends to anonymous gay encounters. ‘Saturday Night’ creates a dialogue with a poem by Thom Gunn bridging commonalities of gay life over time touching upon the disappointment, exhilaration and insecurities tied up with cruising and romance. Online porn is an inevitable part of men’s experiences and in relationships it can play both positive and negative roles. In ‘Screen’ McMillan shows the complications which emerge from mingling mental images with the physical presence before you. More darkly, a mixture of violence and sensuality permeate the poems ‘Choke’ and the mythological-inspired ‘Leda to Her Daughters.’
Masculinity is referenced directly and indirectly in several poems. In ‘Strongman’ the challenge from a male family member is recalled. This physical provocation takes on deeper meanings than simply a macho test of strength. The closeness of the encounter provokes questions about intimacy and homophobia within the family. A unique challenge to all men is the experience of standing beside one another at urinals. In ‘Urination’ McMillan uses the mixture of embarrassment and excitement of these encounters to speak about the degrees of closeness we have with others throughout our lives. As in several poems in this collection, there is a switch partway through from the impersonal to the personal. Here, the commanding voice speaking to “you” evokes the sensory experience and power of connection found in the most intensely domestic morning setting.
Sometimes the form of the poems themselves casts scrutiny over the way men are meant to behave. ‘How To Be A Man’ is set out like a dramatic play where a man is prompted how to react to the impending loss of his father. It’s a contradictory aspect of traditional notions of masculinity that a man should build muscle and puff himself up physically, but also keep all his emotions in. McMillan literally bursts this understanding in his poem ‘The Men Are Weeping In The Gym’ where emotions spill out not in tears but in sweat. The denial of feeling takes on an eerie destructive sensation as McMillan observes how the process of weightlifting tears muscles apart to make them stronger.
The poem ‘Yoga’ speaks about the way we relate to our own bodies and the way physical connections with others can change the way we see ourselves. However, others poems such as ‘I.M.’ and ‘The Gift’ are about the insurmountable gaps created from lost connections and repressed emotions where physical distance exists. But unity is found in the poem ‘The Schoolboys” where a young group witnesses the burning of Thatcher dolls following the former prime minister’s death where they have little understanding of the historical context which has led to such celebrations.
The most sustained poem in this book ‘Protest of the Physical’ fills the entire second section and it begins with an epigraph by Virginia Woolf from her ingenious prose poem of a novel “The Waves.” In a way, this is the most hypnotic and elusive piece in McMillan’s collection as it weaves together elements of a physical local landscape and a broken relationship. Language breaks down “what town of day is it?” Images and ideas literally slosh back and forth across the page as if the words are grasping for escape from the confines of the page and the voice from the confines of the body.
The poetry in "Physical" has the unique and astounding ability to make you reassess how you exist in your own body. It provokes ontological questions about whether a person’s mind is couched in the gray masses in our heads or the neurological connections within our bodies. Throughout the book the author has a disarming way of dividing physical acts from the body and then drawing them back in to distil the accompanying feelings so they are more concentrated. What's left are the intense emotions which have overwhelmingly permeated the memories of physical encounters. I’ve spent a lot of time sitting with many of the poems in this forceful, moving collection. I discovered fresh insights and asked more questions with each rereading.