I’ve been pouring over physical again for the past couple of weeks after first reading in December. The whole time I’ve been trying to review it. It’s almost a lose-lose situation, because if you say it’s great, you’re saying what everyone else is. If you say it’s not, you’re lying. The debut collection from Andrew McMillan made history as the first poetry volume to win The Guardian’s Book of the Year in 2015. It is accordingly accomplished and fresh. Explored within are questions of masculinity, sexuality, and modernity; through people and places rendered knowable to the reader through precise and intimate images. McMillan’s experimentation with form results in poetry both profound and accessible.
Opening the collection, ‘Jacob with the angel’ foregrounds concerns which emerge throughout. of the shifting relationship between the physical form and perceptions of the self. The lack of punctuation and the spaces on the page feel at once tentative and self-assured. This paradox is evident from the opening lines
taken literally it just happens the way the weather
or the stock market happens
The spaces are like breaths; ‘it just happens’ and ‘happens’ function as increasingly urgent or exasperated explanations. The spaces demonstrate a confidence in voice: the patterns are akin to speech.
Throughout the collection space is used playfully and pointedly. It indicates vulnerability in ‘The Schoolboys’. The line ‘schoolboys in suits so big it seems as though’ (with the repeated ‘s’ sounds suggesting laboured breathing) is almost mimetic, as if it is blowing up the balloon of the next line: ‘grown men have deflated inside two slump’. Here the breath is broken, showing that the deflation is complete.
The use of space is most visible in the ‘protest of the physical’, where the verse lurches from side to side. Central, sprawling out across, the ‘protest of the physical’ is a sustained performance. I’ve read others compare it to Allen Ginsburg’s Howl but the energy of this poem is very different. The rhythm doesn’t bombard, it sways. The final tone is of a quietly admitted defeat: ‘I could have/I should have tried harder’. The Woolf quote that prefaces it (‘I have to bang my hand against some door to bring myself back to the body’) summons up the right mood of frustration and violence against the self and the body. It has the other purpose, like the references elsewhere to Gunn, of drawing attention to the consciousness of the poet, aware of himself within a tradition of writers struggling to articulate their experience (which is often marginalised). This tension is best expressed in the title, which McMillan has said was taken from a critic describing war poet Ivor Gurney’s work as a ‘protest of the physical’. As well as exemplifying McMillan’s deep knowledge of theory and craft, the use of one writer’s idea to describe another writer (as the basis for a poem which tries and fails to live up to that same idea) indicates wider postmodern concerns about the limits of language.
But certain poems in physical manage to communicate physical experience and feelings of personal limitations perfectly. ‘Urination’ is remarkable: unexpected and intimate, sexual and innocent of its sexuality. The male speaker admits fear of urinating in a men’s bathroom, in a private moment made public. The male space is exposed; the reader admitted. The vulnerability transitions to security by the closing lines:
and take the whole of him in your hand
and feel the water moving through him
and knowing this is love the prone flesh
what we expel from the body and what we let inside
This standard of imagery and use of rhythm is consistent throughout the collection. And despite the limitations of what can be represented in language, the final lines of ‘Jacob with the angel’ suggest its power: ‘writing something down keeps it alive.’ McMillan’s physical breathes life into the ordinary and makes it exceptional.
Ben Wilkinson’s review of physical featured in The Guardian, 5th September 2015:
Andrew McMillan, ‘How I did it: “protest of the physical”‘ for CAMPUS: http://campus.poetryschool.com/how-i-did-it-protest-of-the-physical/