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"Hymns to intimacy": Andrew McMillan's Physical - review

‘What is masculinity if not taking the weight / of a boy and straining it from oneself?” In “Strongman”, Andrew McMillan takes his young nephew’s playful request to “benchpress him” like “his mother’s new lover can” as an imaginative springboard to some urgent personal and social concerns. It is typical of the poems in Physical. Adept at finding the surreal in the everyday, turning an ear to the lilt of conversation alongside serious (but rarely solipsistic) reflection, McMillan’s verse worries away at what it is to be human, to feel through both the flesh and our emotions, to lose and to love, but most of all, what it means to be a man. In his delicate, frank and piercing interrogations of maleness, this is a poet who looks to assess the state of modern masculinity. He does so in ways that few others currently writing are either willing or able to.

“The men are weeping in the gym / using the hand dryer to cover their sobs”, begins one grimly comic dissection of male anger and anxiety: “swearing that they feel / nothing when the muscle tears itself / from itself”. Sorry scenes of guys bulking themselves up with bicep curls and protein shakes, “swearing” under their breath, are related with an insider’s perspective; the poem manages to steer clear of sanctimony even as it gently mocks, speculating at the compensatory nature of such actions. Similarly, the frustrated imagination of an unhappily married man is powerfully envisaged in “Things Men Take”, though here the tone comes closer to judgment as it seeks to expose and provoke, wondering at “the man who takes the image / of the blond haired girl in the lowcut top”. The effect is immersive, and the poem makes for uncomfortable reading.

Alongside these portraits of a heterosexual, damaged masculinity as witnessed, Physical also explores what it is to be a gay man. Some of these poems are couched in symbolism – or rather, unpick the euphemistic manner in which the homoerotic has been historically conveyed. “Jacob with the Angel” relays the biblical tale of the Israelite’s evening wrestle with an unknown aggressor, conventionally viewed as an allegorical contest between the flesh and the spirit. While preserving this interpretation, McMillan also opts to see it literally: “it just happens”, the poem says, with justified insouciance and a kind of take-it-or-leave-it, get-over-it attitude: “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”. In reimagining an iconic religious scene as a chance sexual encounter between gay lovers, the poem is something of a manifesto, declaring a commitment to truths both figurative and literal, to depictions of the vulnerably carnal, and to preserving experience and making meaning through verse. As the narrator concludes of Jacob’s request for ink and paper: “he says writing something down / keeps it alive”.

In an age where poetic voice is often valorised above all else, it is worth praising the emotional force and cerebrally transformative capacities of a poet’s writing. Alongside the effortless scrutiny of the masculine, the way in which McMillan not only writes about the body, but actually writes the body itself, should be celebrated: I can’t think of any other poet who could make a poem about a trip to the urinals into a serio-comic hymn to intimacy that actually works, let alone close it with a confessional scene of sensual immediacy that moves and shocks. But since McMillan’s success with his imaginative materials seems particularly predicated on his poetic voice, it is worth noting that his unusual blend of influences – Mark Doty, John Riley and Geoff Hattersley – makes Physical one of the most distinctively voiced debuts since Simon Armitage’s Zoom! in 1989. Where many male poets have an uneasy relationship with their poetic forebears, attempting to best them in a kind of literary one-upmanship, McMillan falls asleep with his hero Thom Gunn on his bed, “night after night / open at the spine”.

The long poem at the centre of this collection, “Protest of the Physical”, is a tour de force in the true sense. Attempting to combine social observation with acknowledgement of various artistic debts, it is a jump-cutting song of love and hate to a post-industrial northern town, where the “lame arm of the crane circling / unstocked shelves of half built car park” is a metaphor for how “the day’s spent itself already”. But interwoven throughout is also a recurrent personal desire for escape: “I left you because man made fire / then carried / it across the plain”. Though the poem is similarly sprawling and sometimes overly scattergun, a contrast with Ginsberg’s “Howl” illustrates how McMillan yields a quieter music, for all his blend of vivid Bildungsroman and communal pulse-taking. In its ambition, however, it warrants the comparison.

Elsewhere there are poems that show McMillan’s extended gift for the comic, as in the brilliantly titled “The Fact We Almost Killed a Badger Is Incidental”. Conversely, “I.M.”, in which a bereaved electrician pulls out switch boxes that suddenly look like “intricate rooms in a doll’s house”, is as haunting as it is compassionate. Minutely observed, bold yet understated, moving and often profound in the same breath, Physical is a book everyone should read.

first published in The Guardian, Saturday 5 September 2015