Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

"Physical" by Andrew McMillan (Cape, 2015)

The book contains about 34 pages of poetry, not much more than a pamphlet. I liked most of the poems at the start ("The Men are Weeping in the Gym", "Screen"), disliked or didn't understand several from p.15 onward ("Leda to her daughters", "how to be a man"), then began to like some again from p.45 ("I.M", "Revelations"). The common themes are men's bodies and the way men are supposed to behave, contrasting with how particular men feel - body versus mind; tough exterior versus tenderness. It's that "versus" that he seeks to transcend, preserving both sides.

I'll focus on the first poem, "Jacob and the Angel" because it's a sort of Prelude, and because it's attracted the attention of several reviewers. I had to look up the story because it's not related in the poem. Stanza 1 begins "taken literally", stanza 2 begins "taken allegorically" - a division that haunts the rest of the book. It ends with "his youngest ... says writing something down keeps it alive".

  • Ben Wilkinson points out that the tale's "conventionally viewed as an allegorical contest between the flesh and the spirit", going on to say "In reimagining an iconic religious scene as a chance sexual encounter between gay lovers, the poem is something of a manifesto". I understand that.
  • Dave Coates sees "a deep sense of unease about the processes that turn these private moments into the poems’ public gestures" re "Jacob’s closing request ‘for ink to be brought". It's his youngest son, Benjamin, who asks for ink, though that detail doesn't affect Coates' main point - McMillan doesn't want events to be poetized out of existence.
  • For Rachel Chanter it's "the complete absence of such exultant language as is found in hagiographic accounts" that "renders this poem both startling and tender"

Other reviews

  • Ben Wilkinson (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. ... The long poem at the centre of this collection, “Protest of the Physical”, is a tour de force in the true sense. ... Minutely observed, bold yet understated, moving and often profound in the same breath, Physical is a book everyone should read.)
  • Dave Coates (Throughout its lyrical moments of intimacy – or, more often, physically proximate solitude – there is a deep sense of unease about the processes that turn these private moments into the poems’ public gestures. ... physical is a complex and deeply human book, with some of the finest and most clear-eyed poems about love and personal-level power dynamics I’ve read in a long time.)
  • Richard Scott (I admire McMillan’s syntactical habits of using no punctuation and no capital letters; amid his democracy of men he promotes a refreshing democracy of language where no word or letter is superior to another)
  • Rachel Chanter (This collection both affects and instructs, reconciling the tensions of its subjects into an unalloyed whole which manages to convey at once the pain and joy of love; to bring together and bind the bodily and the spiritual like reunited lovers.)
  • Alan Dent (Unfortunately, the fuss around McMillan is more akin to that around One Direction than the considered response of diligent critics ... at best a mediocre first attempt ... The second section ... is thirteen pages of dull pretentiousness. ... That significant attention has been given to this flimsy debut is testimony to the emptiness of our literary culture. ... no one with a real appreciation or knowledge of poetry could find this an inspiring book. There are some competent and even good poems, but no more than that.)
  • lonesomereader (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. )
  • Martyn Crucefix (I don’t think the longer sequence ‘protest of the physical’ is as good as the other sections of the book ... but here is a really talented and bold writer)
  • Robin Houghton
  • Frances Kelly (these poems extend to more than “masculinity” and sexuality; they express love and loss and desire as most of us, of any gender, know it.)
  • Maria Taylor
  • Gregory Woods in the Jan-Feb 2016 edition of PN Review (rewarmed and dilatory ... the homo-eroticism is generally bland and timid ... McMillan's apparent satisfaction with vagueness of diction ... There is indeed beauty in the ordinary but I'm not convinced McMillan ever finds it)

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