I don’t really feel qualified to write anything about Andrew McMillian’s debut collection of poems Physical because as we have discussed on here before, many a time, I am not one of poetry prowess. Poems on the whole tend to scare me, as I don’t feel I understand them as I should. (I mentioned this when I was discussing Sarah Lowe’s collection Loop of Jade a few weeks ago.) However a collection like Physical is one that you simply cannot ignore and I simply have to write about because it embodies, see what I did there, everything I want from poems and poetry… a reaction that hits me right at my core, an honest voice and an experience that fiction couldn’t conjure if it tried.
Physical, as the title might suggest, is all about the body. However as we read on (or as you might guess from the cover) we come to learn that this is all about the male body, what it can do, what is it meant to do, what it shouldn’t do, how it comes in all shapes and sizes, how it can be desired, loved and sometimes feared. Andrew McMillian’s debut collection is all about masculinity, no scrap that, Andrew McMillan’s debut collection is a book that ponders, despairs and celebrates what masculinity is meant to mean.
If this all sounds like I have gone bonkers, let me explain with the help of the first two poems. In the opener, Jacob With The Angel, and its follow up Urination McMillan plays with our expectations and turns them on their head. What we instantly think is about one thing, is another, something which might occasionally or often shock and surprise us. When we read Jacob With The Angel we initially thing of a classic, literally, poem of a religious scene however the more we read on we start to wonder if this is not in fact the meeting of two gay male lovers.
Similarly with Urination we think it is a poem about the awkwardness of urinating at such close proximity with a stranger (which remains odd no matter how old you get, especially if it’s your CEO and they want to chat to you which has happened to me in past jobs) and then swiftly turns into those domestic moments of ritual within a relationship, the moments we should treasure. This wonderful trickery is something I have only seen once before in that famous scene in Keith Ridgway’s equally brilliant, quirky and just as original novel Hawthorn & Child. In many of these poems we are pulled through the squeamish, the uncomfortable, the thrilling, the erotic, the joyous and the heartbreaking moments of men’s lives be they heterosexual, homosexual, undecided or it doesn’t really matter.
Admittedly there is a main focus on homosexual relationships, it is not the whole story though. Not that it should or would matter if it was. We all feel love and lust, we all compare ourselves to other people of the same sex, often admiring them even if there is nothing sexual in it. Plus when McMillam does write about sex or initimate moments between two men it is done directly and visually but always with a beauty even at its most base of moments. Sex is sex. Love is love. We all go through these things whatever gender, sexuality and race. It is all about how we relate to each other, men and men relating (or not) being one of the themes here too.
Speaking of which, back to the masculine nature of the collection though… There are a whole spectrum of machinations of masculinity, from the danger of Leda To Her Daughter to the questioning and pondering How To Be A Man from the erotically charged Saturday Night to the vulnerable and open Screen, which shows you the bare insights of a lover looking at the object of his love and then at the objectification of the man in the film, albeit a porno, see there are those brilliant twists and flipping things on their head moments again.
at the beginning I asked you
to let me watch you watching porn I think
I needed to see you existing
entirely without me your face lost
There is another interesting construct to Physical and that is that it is made of three parts; Physical, which houses 15 poems; Protest of the Physical, which flips the style of poems as we are used to them (or at least as I am) on their heads; Degredation which consists of a final nine poems. Now as I have mentioned before I am now connoisseur of poetry, though the more I read the more I enjoy it, but I found this a really interesting shift in perspective and in gear even if I couldn’t quite understand if it had a purpose. This is me not being au fait with the art form rather than anything McMillan does and I enjoyed it regardless. With the first and final sets of poems being slightly more conventional in terms of form, if not subject, Protest of the Physical is something quite different. It is one great big piece of poetry made up of smaller poems (well that is how I read it) some which take up a whole page, be it in length or in random places literally all over the page, or just a few lines. It is something I will need to read again and again to get more and more from, rather like a painting that holds you and gives you more and more as you stare.
I am worried I am making this sound a little too worthy or too serious and there are a lot of laughs and funny moments in Physical. Firstly from its northern nature and narrative. As you read of Manchester bedsits and poems entitled The Fact We Almost Killed A Badger Is Incidental the wonderful warm Northern tone comes through which is always has a twinkle in its eye, well tone. Elsewhere, yes there is the titillation of the writing of sex, porn, urination etc which might have you expelling a mild giggle before being lost in McMillan’s words. Amongst all this and the honest and thoughtful more serious poems there are some belly laughs. I for one still cannot read the opening of The Men Are Weeping In The Gym without laughing out loud, before the poignancy of what follows settles in.
the men are weeping in the gym
using the hand dryer to cover
their sobs their hearts have grown too big
for their chests their chests have grown too big
for their shirts they are dressed like kids
who have forgotten their games kit
they are crying in the toilet
Physical is a stunning, raw and direct look at what it is to be male. It celebrates the male physique in all its forms as much as it celebrates the foibles of the male species. It is a collection that asks a lot of questions, primarily ones such as in the poem Strongman, which asks ‘What is masculinity if not taking the weight?’ Be you male or female you need to read this collection. Books, poems and stories are all about experiencing the world of others and walking in their shoes, Physical excels at this and from an unusual and original view point. I cannot wait to see what Andrew McMillan creates next.