Poetry – paperback; Jonathan Cape; 65 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the The Sunday Times/Peters Fraser & Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award organisers.
Andrew McMillan’s debut poetry collection, Physical, has already won two prestigious literary prizes — the 2015 Guardian First Book Award and the 2015 Fenton Aldeburgh First Collection Prize — and been shortlisted for several more. I came to it thanks to its inclusion on the 2016 The Sunday Times/Peters Fraser & Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award, otherwise it would have passed me by: I don’t read much poetry, which would explain the shocking lack of poetry reviews on this blog (I’ve only ever reviewed one collection — the sublime Salad Anniversary by Machi Tawara). This means I feel slightly out of my depth writing about it here.
So, bearing in mind that I’m no poetry expert, I can really only share my honest opinion of how I felt, and what I thought, when I read Physical.
I think it helped that I heard McMillan read one of his poems at a recent event (which Annabel wrote about on her blog last week). Reading poetry out loud helps bring it alive: you hear the rhythm, you understand where the pauses fall and how they lend weight to the words. So, as I worked my way slowly through this collection, I had McMillan’s lovely Yorkshire accent in my head, helping to bring the lines to life in a way that might not have been the case had I not heard his recital.
Of course, reading poems in the “right” way is helped by punctuation: the commas let you know when to pause, the full stops when to stop. But there’s no punctuation in any of these poems. Many articles and reviews in the mainstream press have made a bit of a thing about this, but I don’t think it matters (and I say that as someone who until quite recently made her living from being a sub-editor). White space and the way the poems are laid out, line by line, on the page do exactly the same job: they assist the reader in knowing where the pauses lie, if not exactly how long to pause.
It’s all about the language anyway. And what language McMillan uses. In just a few short words he can paint a vivid picture or capture a particular emotion that really brings his work to life. A woman “coughs and sighs like a slowpunctured football”, the smell of ageing is “really the smell of unclean teeth” and a “room is exhausted as an empty city”. My favourite lines come from the poem If it Wasn’t for the Nights:
a precious bird doesn’t comprehend
the language of its wings
As a collection, McMillan draws everything together by concentrating on three key themes: men, masculinity and gay love. One entire section (part ii protest of the physical) is about his home town of Barnsley, a Yorkshire mining town on its knees following the closure of its pits:
town that sunk from its centre
like a man winded by a punch
town that bent double carried
young men and women and younger men and women
as long as it could but spinebroken
had to let them go
And everything is written with a refreshing candour and raw emotion. It’s almost as though McMillan ripped his heart out and pinned it dripping to the pages of this short book. Yet it’s not without a sense of humour, as the title alone of The Fact we Almost Killed a Badger is Incidental may suggest.
All up, I very much enjoyed this collection of poems — it took me right out of my comfort zone but I was in good hands. Yes, some of it is confronting and occasionally shocking, but the honesty here — about passion, obsession, sex and relationships, of what it is to navigate the human heart — lends an exquisite beauty to McMillan’s work. It will be interesting to see what he comes up with next.
This is my 2nd book for the #ShadowYoungWriterAward.