Andrew McMillan’s Physical was recently nominated for the Forward Prize for Poetry and won The Guardian First Book Award, in November, 2015. It was a deserved win and one notable for a number of reasons. Physical placed poetry on The Guardian First Book Award list for the first time in 16 years. (A shocking reminder of how a powerful cultural force historically has become side-lined among readers...to the point that only two poets have ever made the shortlist). The accolade also acknowledged the talent of a gay writer whose themes are not immediately in touch with the lives of the many book-groups that took part in the judging process: a tribute to liberalism and fair-mindedness. (Curious, though, how the book groups felt the need to recognise the difference and remoteness in McMillan's gay life yet somehow felt close to a mythically inspired novel about a fishing expedition in Nigeria! Perhaps, that fact tells us something about reading habits and genres: when it comes to novels, readers actively seek fictional worlds beyond their own reality; when it comes to poetry they seek an endorsement of their own world). And finally, the win recognised a poetical voice that is Northern and rooted and mercifully free of dreaming spires and Englishness.
At the presentation in London, McMillan paid tribute to his editor at Cape, Robin Robertson, and that seems a sensible place to begin this review of Physical because so much of how poetry appears these days is down to the work of a poet and how that work is manipulated by publishing houses into its final form.
The introductory blurb by Cape promotes McMillan’s poetry as an “almost religious celebration of the flesh” in “colloquial Yorkshire rhythms with a sinewy Metaphysical music”. That “almost” is quite revealing, for it notes that this description isn’t McMillan’s work exactly; in fact, the tone of worship is about as close to religion as the semen stain that Gunn memorizes with such precision on “the toe of a boot” in “The Miracle” (The Passages of Joy, 1982). Each night it is polished and renewed like "a saint’s blood". It is unfortunate that, in England, when it comes to male-to-male sexual writing, we are unable to promote naked flesh without dressing it in spirituality. One of McMillan’s achievements is that he is able to love the flesh for what it is and write with candour…and wit. The Cape blurb has led some reviewers to hear the blurb rather than the actual poetry and talk of “hymns to the male body”, as if McMillan is Michelangelo addressing Cavalieri. (This is encouraged by the cover’s representative gay, naked male, which echoes the provocative design that Carcanet produced for Neil Powell’s True Colours, in 1991. Carcanet dared to go as far as a bare torso with open trousers and a hanging leather belt. Cape has gone as far as a crack-shot, de-capitated and de-membered, so as the viewer can add their own desires to the smooth, marbled, classical body. McMillan's honest poetry has nothing to do with the body-beautiful. But a beautiful butt sells better than normality). Seduced by this, Alison Flood has felt a “heavy scent of sensuality” in McMillan's work. Probably, only a female reviewer with no unfortunate knowledge of male toilets could describe a poem about male urinals as possessing a “scent”. The wit of McMillan is learnt more from the twisting debates of Gunn and his ability to transform a poem with a surprise conclusion is learnt from St. Thom rather than directly from Donne and Marvell. As with Gunn, there is a modern Elizabethanism and like the poet who paid homage to Hermes in Moly, McMillan is well-aware of the poetical trickster. He uses the flow of words (no punctuation) to create rich, Mannerist effects. What is most likeable about McMillan is his love of verbal tricks rather than the usual dull accounts of tricks picked up in gay bars. The “colloquial Yorkshire rhythms” are heard in the middle section of Physical, in the re-published pamphlet “protest of the physical”. And, maybe, they are heard too obviously, for comic effect:
drunk man to the drunker woman
where you from? Barnsley
The northern voice is heard more effectively in the weighting of certain syllables and words, in a dryness and flatness of tone. The long poem “protest of the physical” has been compared to Howl and McMillan to Ginsberg. It isn’t comparable and he isn’t:
the men are weeping in the gym
using the hand dryer to cover
their sobs their hearts have grown too big
for their chests…
That could be Ginsberg’s Howl, but for the conscious irony and analytical mockery. There is surrealism in "The Men are Weeping in the Gym" that is closer to Liverpool, Patten and Henri, than Berkeley, California. Those northern readers who know Route Publishers, in Pontefract, and have read Howl for Now (2005) will not be fooled by such empty comparisons. (There is critical life outside the South). McMillan is McMillan and he possesses his own voice. In truth, “protest for the physical”, though important to McMillan, as it got him out of a writing-rut and into ploughing new fields;- isn’t the strongest work in Physical. The most memorable poems are those such as “Urination” and “Yoga” where there is direct communication with the reader and you listen to the voice in the words, on the page, and the shifts of humour and pathos and a sense of what comes out, not in poetry, but in the gay photography of Wolfgang Tillmans, where every little thing matters and homeliness and the commonplace exist alongside existence and uncertainty:
the toilet is an intimacy
only shared with parents when you are young
and once again when they are older
and with lovers when say on a Sunday
morning stretching into the bathroom
you wake to the sound of stream into bowl
and go to hug the naked body…
I would rather read that, on a Sabbath, than go to Church! That is poetic communion. “Strongman” has wonderful humour and pathos and an ability to present complex ideas in clear images. “Finally” is a plangent lyric with a moving ending.
The problem in assessing Physical, is where to place McMillan as a gay poet, something that current reviews avoid. (Do the reviewers know any gay poetry outside Gunn and Ginsberg?) And something that Cape's publishing blurb and public recommendations avoid too. Even Mark Doty alludes to "male desire" rather than be direct about the nature of the poetry, allowing the reader to deduce that this must be gay poetry because Doty, as the most well-known gay (American) poet in the UK, as a Cape poet, is praising it to his gay Cape readership. All of the biographical, journalistic pieces written about McMillan dwell on his gay sexuality, yet this is rubbed away in the volume's shaping. Richard Scott, writing for Ambit, places McMillan alongside Jee Leong Koh…because he writes about “cocks”. He also sees McMillan as “Doty-esque”. Indeed, there is influence from Mark Doty on McMillan: it is heard in the blend of narrative construction and lyricism. Yet, Doty-esque he isn’t. The diminutive (though Scott means it as praise) is not just. Like Randall Mann, in Breakfast with Thom Gunn (2009), McMillan writes with an eye on Gunn, but his writing is truer to the spirit of Gunn and possesses a greater technical range. As Gunn learnt from Robert Duncan without copying technique, so McMillan has learnt from Gunn without becoming Gunn-esque. Gunn is the signpost at the Yorkshire crossroads. It points in many directions, towards the Pennines and beyond-- across the Atlantic. When writing, McMillan makes leaps in thought and syntax that are like climbing a staircase and missing a step. Ground disappears and re-appears. The love of language and how it can dazzle and deceive (like the physical body) is reminiscent of Reginald Shepherd, though McMillan does not push as far into realms of multi-layered perceptions. Shepherd is the true gay Metaphysical poet (and Duncan). He is careful not to make his poems into poems about language: they are poems about personal human experience. They are confessional, yet they are not genre poems about coming out. They are individual, contradictory poems that arise from the enquiring body that lived and carried them. Physical is a significant debut by a poet who can write about sexual identity without the dreary polemics of identity politics. McMillan is an intriguing poet and a valuable, emerging gay poet.