Poetry Read #1

With some nod at regularity (perhaps fortnightly) I’m going to try and concentrate on one book of poetry and review it. Here goes.

Might as well start with a big hitter: McMillan’s third collection of poetry, following physical, which I have read and think is brilliant, and playtime which I have not yet read, and therefore can have no opinion on.

The pandemonium described herein is that of the senses in a state of disarray, the chaos of feelings at their most extreme, which are later extrapolated outwards with a disbelieving glance at what is going on outside his front door. There have been poems that “rage against the dying of the light”, but few are as superbly, unapologetically raw as this. It is stunning how much of his heart McMillan will put on a page.

I don’t know the biographical details behind the events described – and I do not believe it necessary that I do – but what I think I take from it, is that someone close to McMillan, possibly his partner, has had a horrendous diagnosis and struggles with thoughts of and attempts at suicide: the book appears to me to be McMillan’s attempt to explain these events, and his responses to them, to try and impose some sort of order on them that makes them more comprehensible to him: his report from the eye of a personal storm, and also from the quieter moments of respite.

The collection is divided into 8 sections, of varying lengths and styles. It is free verse, there is rarely any rhyme – aside from one repurposed nursery rhyme. It is presented punctuation free: I love how clean it looks on the page.

The first page lets us know what we should prepare ourselves for:

the long worm body / of your blood wrapped / tight around your brain

Soon there is an imaginary audition for a ‘passion play’ , which doesn’t just need actors for ‘parts’:

we’ll need someone to play the bleach / someone light enough to pick up who doesn’t mind / being thrown around

McMillan leaves the hospital where he slept “on the tiled floor like a dog” next to his partner’s bed, stunned by the early morning and asks the taxi to let him out, so he can walk the rest of the way and get some air. He sees a skyscraper, in which there’s “something in the way it’s built / a fault of architecture” that is working against its nature. He covers all the mirrors for the return from hospital, “I suppose if you didn’t look at yourself / you won’t see your own inability / not to be here any more“. There is such a forlorn countenance being presented by the author, as he tries to create a welcome home. By the end of the first section McMillan feels that he “should have stood aside let you go“.

In the next section training, he is back in the gyms and changing rooms of physical, but this time he is more reflective, more knowing. He remembers weekly trips with his mum to Boots, to get weighed when he was a teenager struggling with his body, “this could be perhaps my greatest / folly to think if I made myself stronger / I could save anybody

In the eight poems of swan – inspired by Matthew Bourne’s brilliant all-male Swan Lake – McMillan ponders metamorphosis and watches as he “broken fall towards myself“. Uncivil, steps outside and takes a look around urban life today, where he appears to despair of what he sees, drug addiction “they become the crumbled statues of themselves” / homelessness / violence: “schoolgirls pelted / with petrol bombs as they walked to class” / early morning, manual workers, changing by the roadside, people building gentrified cities but cannot afford to live there, “this is regeneration.”

There is the singular, utter desolation of the section on his nephew George, who only lived one day, “the short blank page of your life“, observing that “no one is sure how should look after this sadness“.

There are reflective interludes in the garden, where he finds a certain kind of peace. He turns over a stone, and finds a wriggling, heaving “panic” of life, over which he soon restores “the lid“, because he can. He speaks of missing out on Pride weekend but he is emptied by death and is simply grateful for a cup of tea.

One of the things McMillan is doing, across the two collections I have read, is forcing open the debate, those necessary conversations about what we understand as masculinity, what it encompasses, what it should encompass, and for that we should be grateful. Lovelorn and heartfelt: it is strong medicine, to be taken in small sips. But it is beautiful.

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