I wanted to love this. I really did. I was waiting for this book for a while – it was on reserve by other people (when does that happen with a poetry book, ever?) so I was excited to get it (perhaps I had built it up in my head, or it was the fact that it, as a collection, won the 2015 Guardian First Book award, beating out novels and other books).
Anyway, Andrew McMillan can certainly write well, and rather beautifully. Split into three sections, Physical, Protest of the Physical and Degradation, the book starts out well, with the first section containing the best poems, with some lines that blew me away, which had me re-reading them over and over, such as:
“ (…) or not giving a name because names would add a history
and the tasting of the flesh and blood of someone
is something out of time”
– Jacob With The Angel
and, possibly my favourite line in the whole book:
“ (…) because
what is masculinity if not taking the weight
of a boy and straining it from oneself?”
This section, like the entire book, is about intimacy; the physical intimacy between men, gay men, queer men, and locating them in the world; be it in the myths of Jacob and the Angel, or situated in both saunas and the poets that came before McMillian, as they are in the Thom-Gunn referencing “Saturday Night”, or the clash of the virtual world of pornography meeting the reality behind them, in the standout poem, “Screen”. This first section alone is worth the price of the book.
However, the succeeding sections just didn’t work for me after that astonishing opening. The second section, Protest of the Physical is a long, oblique poem about living in towns, and cities, about being part of that landscape, about resisting it. Its unusual structure fits it well, and it’s got plenty of ideas and great images but somehow they don’t seem to all fit together in the end – perhaps though, that’s the point?
The final section, Degradation, felt to me almost like an afterthought, being the shortest of the three and the most opaque. Despite it being my least favourite section, I can almost see what was going on here. The body decaying, degrading, dissipating into a final burst of images, of ideas and it almost works on that level.
All that said, despite these criticisms there is plenty here to love, and more than anything, this book is definitely worth reading, especially since it marks MacMillan as a major poet to watch out for (and, I’m delighted to see, a poet that deals with gay themes quite unabashedly being published by the very select major publisher, Cape). In that vein, I’ll leave you with a few lines from the opening of “Screen”:
“at the beginning I asked you
to let me watch you watching porn I think
I needed to see you existing
entirely without me your face lost
in concentration on another’s
rhythm to know if we could work I knew
that you would end up loving me too
much I thought you needed other idols”
You can reserve a copy online at South Dublin Libraries’ catalogue here.