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Andrew McMillan (Cape Poetry, 2015); pbk, £10.00 - review by Frances Kelly
physical is Andrew McMillan’s debut collection following publications of his work in numerous prestigious magazines and anthologies such as London Review of Books, Modern Poetry in Translation and The Rialto. These poems are personal and moving works, and as the title suggests, they are focused for the most part on the body – exploring its senses and desires.
physical dives into human experience and exposes the fragments of human sexuality and relations. Although primarily concerned with physicality, McMillan allows his readers to discover poignant and emotional moments that spring from a very personal context, and perhaps bravely and self-exposingly so. More specifically, in this collection, he writes of male sexuality and of love – examining both their sexual and platonic aspects. McMillan writes beautifully crafted, uncensored free verse which is true to both the joyful and darker sides of all forms of love and relationships. Although the poems in physical appear to be written from the poet’s very personal and intimate experiences, they are not exclusively so; McMillan’s sincerity opens them up to the potential for universal identification. The vulnerability and complexity of relationships expressed in poems such as “Choke” demonstrates this adherence to truthfulness, and something that appears only possible due to the poet’s courage in laying himself out before his readers, bared and vulnerable…
I learnt the pleasure in possessing capacities that are never quite fulfilled almost being broken almost leaving but deciding to tough it out.
As well as his exploration of romantic and sexual encounters, there are poems here which tackle what it is to be “male”. “How to Be a Man”, for example, expresses the complexities of masculinity, illuminating the conventional male gender roles as just that. In this poem, McMillan writes of his experience of witnessing his father grieving over the loss of his own father. The stanzas are separated into “scenes” demonstrating the surrealism of the situation. As the poet admits; “you thought men simply carried on / when your dad unfolded in front of you / nobody had taught you how to fix him back together”. “The Men Are Weeping In The Gym” also charts this kind of wounding exposure:
they are wringing their faces like sweat towels in the sink their veins are about to burst their banks they are flooding out of themselves onto the tiles.
In a way, it would be easy to write that McMillan “explores” particular aspects of sexuality, desire, relationships (and more) in this collection. But perhaps that is not the correct word to describe what the poet achieves in physical. The work is not so much an exploration as a testing of the waters, an attempt to find answers as it were. physical is more an honest meditation on life as a male given social expectations. McMillan writes openly, and perhaps in a confessional way, of his own romantic, friendly and familial relationships with other men, but this collection reaches further than his own experiences. Just as they are about more than physicality, 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.