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 Physical
by Andrew McMillan

Cape  ISBN 978-0-224-10213-1  £10

reviewed by Alan Dent 

           

First, the solecisms: page 2 JACOB WITH THE ANGEL, his sons/ are sat waiting. It ought to be sitting. Thus: I eat, I ate, I have eaten, I am eating and hence I sit, I sat, I have sat, I am sitting. Page 4, URINATION, the naked body/ stood with its back to you. It ought to be standing with its back to you. Thus: I walked into the room and he stood up as opposed to I walked into the room and he was standing by the window. Page 14, SATURDAY NIGHT, the nightís been drank. It ought to be drunk. Thus: I drank the wine; the wine has been drunk. One is a preterite the other is a past participle. Page 32, that could be rode through. It should be ridden. Thus: he rode the horse through the fields; the fields could be ridden through. This would be mere pedantry if the collection were of a high standard; or if McMillan were a debut poet whose work was finding its place in small presses. He is, however, a teacher of Creative Writing in a university. People pay £9,000 a year to be taught to write by this man. £9,000 would be a lot of money to be taught to write by Flaubert, to be taught by someone who doesnít know the difference between the past tense and a past participle, is tantamount to fraud. McMillan has been propelled to extraordinary success on the basis of this first collection. His reception would suggest, to any reasonable person outside the tiny world of poetry, that he might be the next Chaucer, Byron or Walt Whitman. Unfortunately, the fuss around McMillan is more akin to that around One Direction than the considered response of diligent critics concerned to be both robust and fair. McMillan studied at Lancaster University where Paul Farley teaches. Farley provides one of the empty blurbs on the back cover. The other three are by Mark Doty, Michael Symmons Roberts and Helen Mort. Doty shares an orientation with McMillan. That apparently responsible writers can engage in such empty puffery of what is at best a mediocre first attempt perhaps explains partly why poetry is ignored by so many. It is, by definition, a minority activity and always has been. Everybody likes a poem which speaks to their experience, is easy to understand and memorable; but very few are interested in poetry as a phenomenon. Those who are will find it hard not to feel theyíve been duped by the hype around this book.

McMillan is published by Cape, reviewed in The Guardian, shortlisted for prestigious prizes.  Why such adulation has come to him could only be connived at, but it isnít because this collection is the work of realised or potential genius.

Its cover contains the image of a naked young manís back and backside. Is it worth asking what the response might be if a young, male heterosexual poet, or even a middle-aged, white, male, middle-class poet, published a collection sporting the image of a young girlís back and backside? Is it acceptable to reduce the male body to depersonalisation when that is associated with homosexual sex, but unacceptable to reduce the female body to depersonalisation when that is associated with heterosexual sex? Why? Isnít the point that reducing people to nothing but their physical attributes as they might serve sexual satisfaction, does violence to individuality? What does heterosexuality or homosexuality have to do with it?

The book is divided into three parts: physical, protest of the physical and degradation. To begin with the last: it contains nine poems. One is called When Loud The Storm and Furious Is The Gale.   The archaic reversal from the famous hymn  employed without irony is pretentiously poetic. The point about good poetry is it doesnít need to make any effort to be poetic. The poem is six stanzas of two lines. There are no rhymes, internal or otherwise. Nor is there assonance or alliteration. Nor does the rhythm summon up delight. It reads as a set of more or less unconnected statements: I used to know a shortcut through the dunesÖthe light has the arc of a tethered bird in flight. It is one of those poems which has nothing to say and so strives for significance. Another is called The Fact We Almost Killed A Badger Is Incidental. It relates the end of a relationship to a near miss on the road. It includes this: the way the muscles/ churned under the flesh that seemed grey in the dusk. Churned? Itís possible to see the muscles of a body builder lifting weights churning, but a badger, in the dark, in the headlights, for a moment? And grey flesh? How would its flesh be visible? Surely only its fur. Finally, begins: a day will come     whenÖÖ.youíll realise.. and ends, that it hasnít rained/ but the birds are pretending that it has/ so they can sing. Literature doesnít have to be true to fact. It can create its own facts. Gregor Samsa wakes up as a giant insect and that is a fact within the story; but the story has to hold together as a story. The last lines of this poem are meaningless, within the poem. Neither within the poem nor beyond it do birds need it to rain before they can sing. Revelations begins : every time you fell in love with someone new/ you were falling back in love with the first      again Original, eh? Readers looking for a witty, lively exploration of the idea might like to try Georges Brassensís La PremiŤre Fille; even in translation it makes McMillan seem weak and derivative. The one half-way decent poem in this section is I.M. about the death a child. Its form is undemanding: three stanzas of six lines and a one-line coda, no rhymes, no metre, none of those disciplines poets like to impose on themselves. Its ending makes a simple point about childrenís games, premature death and making sense of the unbearable. Itís not bad, but there are hundreds like it in little magazines year by year by people whose names will never be known by more than dozens.

McMillan is influenced by Thom Gunn. During a Radio 4 programme featuring him recently and presented by Paul Farley (heigh-ho) he spoke of falling in love with a Thom Gunn poem. McMillan isnít as gifted as his mentor. Gunn liked subtle rhymes and the test of form. In so far as McMillan uses form, he creates essentially facile means. This is a collection with homosexuality at its heart. Itís sometimes argued that intimacy is a personal matter and thus, perhaps, exempt from moral demands. Isnít it odd  we should imagine that relations with a spouse or lover might be less morally charged than those with your newsagent or your butcher? On the contrary, the evidence from history and pre-history suggests  sexual relations are subject not simply to legal control but also to moral stricture, because so much depends on them. If you change your newsagent, the repercussions are minor; if you leave your spouse the implications can be dire. The essence, of course, is that sex produces children, children grow up slowly and someone has to take responsibility.

Is it the case then, that as homosexual sex doesnít produce children it is morally less constrained? Or is it that intimate relations are by definition more morally intense than others because the risks of damage are so much greater?

Just Because Men Do This, Doesnít Mean, one of the poems of the first section begins: not knowing names doesnít make it something less.. Quite what the this that men do doesnít mean exactly canít be concluded, but the first line is straightforward: sex with strangers. There is nothing new about this, of course, just as there is nothing new about rape; but the duration of a practice doesnít establish its value. Isnít it dubious, however, to engage in the most intimate acts with people whose names you donít know? Isnít it morally questionable and doesnít it point to a certain degree of desperation? Letís imagine a collection by our putative white, middle-aged, middle-class, heterosexual writing about sex with a multiplicity of young women whose names he didnít know; what might the reaction to that be? If sexual relations have a moral tenor, we need to identify why. Isnít it because all human relations have a moral dimension? You canít walk into the newsagents and take your paper without paying, and that is not merely a legal but also a moral transgression. Itís quite right to assert that people have the liberty to do what they like with their own sexuality, yet itís equally right to recognise that making use of someone elseís body parts for your satisfaction, with no concern for the identity of that person, that is, for their personhood, at least raises a moral question. There is a false view, of course, that a willing participant canít be abused. The same argument is used to excuse exploitation of workers. The meaning of ďwillingĒ is by no means transparent.

Itís relevant to raise the moral questions, not only because literature, like accountancy, is a moral enterprise, but because the poem is a defence of impersonal sex. The poems that precede and succeed it make casual and accepting references to porn. Itís often argued, legitimately, that porn degrades women. Most porn, it is argued, is aimed at men. Most treats women, the theory goes, as objects of desire. It is not frequently argued that porn is less about sex than about money. It is a multi-billion, global industry. Hardly any of it sells to women. Porn produced for women sells mainly to gay men, like McMillan. Follow the money and what you find is that women have little interest in porn. Why? 

Something that is hardly ever said about porn is that it tears sex away from reproduction. In Pornutopia, no one gets pregnant. There are no children and therefore there are no parents, and in a sense it follows that there are no adults. Pornutopia is the land of sexual Peter Pans. Freud observed that the highest expression of the sexual instinct is parenthood. Gay, bi-sexual and transgender people can be parents. Parenting is a social role. Nevertheless, we have to accept the facts of biology: we reproduce sexually and therefore sexual intimacy is inextricably bound up with parenthood. Parenting, if itís done properly, involves putting other lives before your own. Christ asked us to love our neighbours as our selves, but nature insists we love our children more than ourselves. Perhaps this goes some way to explaining why pornography appeals almost exclusively to men: they donít bear children and they donít have a womanís limited capacity for reproduction. It was once argued that there is no difference between a male and female brain and Freudís declaration that ďanatomy is destinyĒ was essentially sexist. It would be a foolhardy soul today who would try to argue that gender difference implies no differences in brain activity and hence no difference in psychology. To valorise porn is to give credence to a male-oriented view of sexuality, whether heterosexual or homosexual. Perhaps there is a confusion: because gays were once outside the law and are still subject to severe prejudice, they enjoy the victimís exemption from criticism. This is akin to the view that because of the Holocaust, the Israeli government is beyond fault and to raise questions is to be anti-Semitic. In the same way, it is not homophobic to raise questions about the moral status of porn used by gay men.

The collectionís first poem JACOB WITH THE ANGEL includes this: the tasting of the flesh and blood of someone/ is something out of timeÖ It would be easy to laugh at this. It is the kind of pretentious reaching for an absolute present in  many immature writers. It tries to be an insight, but itís simply an inaccuracy. However you choose to look at it, it is mistaken. Physicists will tell you we donít know what time is, but they all look at their mobiles so as not to miss the train and buy presents for their spousesí birthdays. We live in time. Without it we canít structure our identity. It may be that our identities are structured out of a delusion, but that doesnít mean we can do without them. Is it an exaggeration to say McMillan is proposing a lie? The lines are supposed to justify nameless sex. Why should it need justifying? Isnít this special pleading? Isnít it asking for questions which we pose about all human relations to be suspended when it comes to homosexuals?

McMillan uses the Genesis story as a metaphor for anonymous homosexual encounters. In the Biblical version Jacob is fighting for his life. The difference isnít necessarily easy to reconcile. The poem is competent. Itís two stanzas of unequal length. Its form is undemanding and it contains a redundancy: he feels the bruise that is staining his thigh/ and he wonders..The second he is unnecessary. The poems in the first section all display this degree of commonplace competence. They raise questions, however, about the uses the competence is put to. URINATION finds its moral in this is love     the prone flesh/ what we expel from the body and what we let inside. Is that love? Is that how the love of parent for a child is expressed or that of child for a parent? Isnít Freud right, that the pinnacle of our sexual instinct is a non-sexual relation? Arenít the joy, excitement and ecstasy of sexual love natureís preparation for the long, difficult of haul of child rearing? Even in sexual love, isnít the physical act only part of the connection? Donít lovers go on loving one another if sex becomes impossible through age or disability? McMillanís work is full of this cod wisdom; he is unwilling to let the poems speak for themselves; he intrudes; and what he intrudes is a puerile insistence that he has something of genius to tell us.

STRONGMAN, in the same way, insists on a moral which tugs away from the flesh of the poem: what is masculinity if not taking the weight/ of a boy and straining it from oneself? Does he mean maturity? Boys are masculine. Do men become masculine by forcing their boyishness from them? Donít they rather become mature by doing that? This poem is about the poet bench-pressing his nephew. It includes these lines: my nephew who now protests I had my hand/ on his balls for the first attempt. If this is intended to be funny, itís hard to find it so in the context of the poem. What is being said? That the boy is falsely accusing? That he is perhaps homophobic? Or did the poet have his hand on the boyís genitals?

SATURDAY NIGHT makes use of the Thom Gunn poem of the same name from his collection BOSS CUPID. Itís a bath-house promiscuity poem. It has been said of Gunn that his poetic focus on the risky behaviours of his compulsive sexuality and drug-taking make his work rebarbative for readers for whom that culture is alien. Is there something in this? Wouldnít poetry out of the territory of compulsion be bound to alienate those who donít share the obsession? A compulsive bridge player (and there are many) whose poetry was shaped around the card game might be of little interest to readers who donít play. The sex in this poem is joyless. This is not always so in McMillan. There are moments of affection and tenderness. All the same, the grim narcissism of the instrumental encounters explored here may have little to say to readers who are not impelled to seek sex with strangers.

THINGS MEN TAKE is twenty-six, left-justified lines which is almost a list poem. From line thirteen it reads: like the man who takes the image/of the blond haired girl in the low-cut top/ goes home and takes his trousers off/takes the picture of the girl/from the back of his mind/takes his wife in an almost pleasant way/ then takes his face over to the wall/takes more than half the duvet/dreams of the short road out..There are, no doubt, many empty marriages and much routine, unaffectionate coupling within them. Yet in the context of a collection which seeks to give value to, or at least fend off criticism of anonymous, compulsive sex, where is the ground for the criticism implied here? Isnít McMillan coming close to saying: we promiscuous homosexuals are justified in our behaviour but a man who has sex with his wife in brute pursuit of the realisation of his sexual fantasies is to be condemned or is a failure or should make us feel sorry or sad? The detail about taking more than half the duvet is surely the important one: itís a metaphor for selfishness. Yet doesnít the kind of sex written about in SATURDAY NIGHT go way beyond mere selfishness and into the arena of the possibly emotionally inept who perhaps have difficulty recognizing the needs of others?

The second section leaves behind the competent poems of the first part and is thirteen pages of dull pretentiousness. For example:

I didnít know it would be the last   love
is giving everything too easily
and staying to try and claw it back

This is at the level of the printed message in a Valentineís card. It is sentimental, foolish, self-indulgent and untrue. Aragon is a little more accurate: Líamour cíest díabord partir de soi-mÍme. The sloppiness of thinking and feeling is reflected in the uninspiring language. There is more robust and inventive language in red-top newspapers. Aragonís line, because it contains a grain of bracing truth is also well structured. It is poetry. Poetry makes only an occasional appearance in this collection.

On the evidence of this section of the book, McMillanís view of his gifts is considerably higher than their actuality. There is a powerful feeling here of the poet speaking for himself, not the poems speaking for themselves. He commits the cardinal error of trying to reach his readers through, not in the poems and what he trying to push is unsavoury: his overweening ego.

That significant attention has been given to this flimsy debut is testimony to the emptiness of our literary culture. A poem from this collection recently appeared on a fellow poetís blog, justified partly because McMillan is ďlovelyĒ. Thatís subjective. Objectively there is nothing here to get excited about from a literary point of view. We live in a culture of self-promotion, which is the reverse side of pervasive self-contempt. The hollowing out of democracy, the moral vacuity of our so-called debate in which apparent experts are called to discuss non-questions as if that is a substitute for a vibrant culture of criticism, embraces a feeble tokenism: the once subversive power of feminism, for example, which called for an end to the excessive stress on women as objects of desire and an attenuation of the use of sex as a source of power, has given way to the infantile notion that multi-millionaire celebrities using their physical assets as a path to fame is a valid outcome of a century of struggle. McMillan is not shy about self-promotion, nor of making use of his sexuality as an apparent appeal for justice, but in fact a sly manipulation. This collection embraces no moral demand for justice. It is too self-indulgent and narcissistic for that. Perhaps it will sell well among the homosexual community, but not for the poetry. People flock to buy pop music because of their identification with entertainers (money and fame) not because of their appreciation of music; 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.

Good literature tends to mature slowly. It takes time to find a readership. If you are lucky enough to come across a first English edition of The Trail, it will be worth a handy sum. Itís rare because few copies sold. There is no self-promotion in Kafka, just real literature. The blurb by Helen Mort on the back cover is worth quoting, if you can bear its gushing idiocy:

Unforced, unbidden, these are poems that call you by your real name, poems that have seen you naked, poems that find out your secrets and gift them back. Physical (sic) is alive with subtle reflections on masculinity, love and loss; a record of how we forget ourselves and how we remember. It will captivate and change you.

It wonít, but I suppose Ms Mort might make a good living writing advertising copy for washing powder.