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Part 2 – Dispossessed Bodies

A miraculous fragility’: Male Vulnerability in Andrew McMillan’s Physical

« Une miraculeuse fragilité » : la vulnérabilité masculine dans Physical d’Andrew McMillan
Bastien Goursaud

Résumés

L’une des préoccupations centrales de la poésie britannique contemporaine depuis les années 1980 a consisté à donner une voix à ceux qui n’en ont pas et une visibilité à ceux que l’on ne voit pas. Physical, premier recueil d’Andrew McMillan qui lui a valu une large reconnaissance critique, expose le désir gay avec une honnêteté et une brutalité qui peuvent parfois choquer le lecteur. La poésie confessionnelle de McMillan est une exploration du corps masculin, mais elle ne mène pas à une célébration de sa virilité ou de sa force ; bien au contraire, le recueil en examine la fragilité et s’attarde sur les détails invisibles et les rythmes imperceptibles qui sous-tendent les relations intimes. Cet article a donc pour but de démontrer que, malgré l’importance qu’y prennent la corporéité et le concret, ces textes cherchent aussi et peut-être avant tout à exposer la vulnérabilité rendue invisible de l’expérience masculine. Il s’attache à montrer que la célébration de ces corps est d’abord une manière de dépasser plusieurs strates d’invisibilité : le tabou de la sexualité gay, un certain refoulement masculin de la réalité du déclin physique et de la mortalité, ainsi que les rythmes discrets et changeants du désir. Il se concentre ensuite sur la célébration, propre à McMillan, de la vulnérabilité du corps masculin : son attachement à la sincérité le mène à un mode d’écriture vulnérable, dans lequel la fragilité de l’existence physique est décrite comme le signe surprenant et paradoxal de son caractère sacré. Pour finir, il étudie l’exposition typographique du souffle comme signe de la vulnérabilité dans ce recueil dépourvu de toute ponctuation. La conclusion suggère que la prise de risque propre à l’ambition esthétique et éthique du jeune poète pourrait avec profit être interprétée à la lumière de son expérience de performer de ses propres textes.

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Texte intégral

1Giving visibility to the unseen has been one major preoccupation of contemporary British poetry since the 1980s and Andrew McMillan’s poetic debut Physical, published in 2015, is certainly part of that tradition. This confessional collection, which has gained its author a large array of critical accolades, such as the Guardian First Book Award, exposes gay male desire in a raw, unflinchingly honest, and at times shocking way. In Physical, desire is often envisaged through the prism of dependence, and the violent emotional or physical situations it can create.

2Yet, more generally, the book also explores the male body and masculinity. But it does not lead to a celebration of virility and strength. Instead, it focuses on its frailty and pays attention to the invisible details and changing rhythms of physical interactions and interdependence, as well as to the precarious socio-economic context of Northern England, which imposes a difficult negotiation with the norms that define how one can be seen and accepted as a man. In fact, if vulnerability is a common theme of contemporary British poetry when applied to women and minorities, it is much more rarely associated with the question of masculinity, which therefore makes McMillan’s lyrical voice all the more striking and original. His focus on gay male love and communities expands into a meditation on masculinity in general and what it means to be a man in a post-industrial society.

3McMillan’s meditation on the physical presence of the male body oscillates between moments of hidden intimacy and figures of hyper visibility, as, for example, in one central poem of the collection ‘the men are weeping in the gym’. When exploring supposedly marginal forms of sexuality, or, more surprisingly, when dealing with a form of hyper adherence to norms of visibility and masculinity, McMillan is always attentive to the point where the physical and the emotional intersect, which, in his poems, is when they encounter a form of vulnerability. At that very point of intersection between the physical and the emotional, McMillan finds breath, i.e. probably the deepest yet most invisible bodily functions of all; and he attempts to give the precarious rhythms of respiration a new form of visibility. 

4My contention in this paper will thus be that despite McMillan’s insistence on physicality and concreteness, this first collection is also, and probably mostly, about exposing invisible and precarious aspects of the male body’s life. I will then demonstrate that the celebration of the vulnerable male body is a way to overcome several layers of invisibility: the social taboo of gay sexuality, a certain male repression of emotional vulnerability and dependence, as well as the unspoken, fleeting rhythms of desire. Using Lévinas’s conception of the ethical face-to-face and Martha Nussbaum’s reflection on the interplay of risk-taking and dependence, I shall propose an analysis of McMillan’s confessional strategy. I will then focus on McMillan’s representation of male vulnerability as a paradoxical sign of godliness, for his poems may also be read as affirmations of his faith in the ‘miraculous fragility’ of bare life, in the beauty of exposure and dependence. Such an affirmation shall then be analysed in reference to the collection’s very personal use of punctuation and typography that creates what I call naked breath monuments celebrating vulnerability through an insistence on the silences and respiratory pauses that form the blind spots of language. Finally, this paper will conclude by suggesting that the risk-taking inherent in McMillan’s confessional poetics and stylistic choices could be fruitfully analysed in reference to his experience as a local poet and adept of the public reading, which is indeed a moment where the emotional vulnerability of the speaker and dependence on the audience is made obvious and theatricalised.

  • 1 For example, in the interview following his reception of the Guardian First Book Award he explained (...)

5In many of the collection’s poems McMillan seems to take the adjective confessional, which he often uses to describe his work1, quite literally. He shares with many young contemporary British poets (Kate Tempest or Helen Mort for example) a preoccupation with sincerity and honesty that may seem naïve at first, but which, in his case, leads to an unflinching exploration of gay sexuality. McMillan is a great admirer of Thom Gunn, and he has certainly imbibed his ability to crudely yet sensitively depict sexuality, as, for instance, in the poem “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

months later    I saw him    the actor
from that film we watched    unmissable
petals of the neck tattoo    he seemed
to look at me as though he knew I’d seen 

him naked    his body a deep well
of things I would not ask a living soul
to do      I wanted to shout   
stranger    I
have seen your skin and you are beautiful 

he was standing at the train station
more vulnerable than I remembered
much smaller too      I imagined him
heavy with the hope of other men 

taking someone home    the look on his face
when he realised how timid
he was without direction    how
ordinary the unlit curves 

of his shoulders were    I imagined him
stopping mid kiss    pulling back    mumbling
this just isn’t going how I wanted
this just isn’t going to work (McMillan 10)

6The poem exposes two types of taboo—the taboo of gay sexuality and the taboo of pornography. It is about silenced sexual practices and yet it presents a mise en abyme of a voyeuristic impulse, as the speaker describes his fascination for his lover’s own fascinated gaze. In its lyrical honesty, the poem certainly embraces the importance of risk-taking in the confessional mode of expression.

  • 2 ‘The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
    Petals on a wet, black bough’. (Pound 111)

7Yet, it also places at the centre of the couple’s focus an idol, a strong anonymous actor whose identity is first summed up by the ‘unmissable / petals of the neck tattoo’. The line is reminiscent of Pound’s imagist haiku ‘In a Station of the Metro’2 and adds to the sense of anonymity of this character. It ties in with the idea, central to the whole collection, that beauty is often found through random and ordinary encounters.

8But this poem is also a moment of ethical encounter. At first, the actor is not recognized for his face, instead, the speaker only remembers the mark on his skin. But there is a second movement to the encounter, when the actor appears to be looking back: ‘he seemed / to look at me as though he knew I’d seen / him naked’. This passage echoes Lévinas’s description of the ethical face-to-face, in which one perceives the other’s defenceless nudity. And in fact, from that point on, the actor loses his status as an idol, i.e. an image of something else. He is recognized as purely himself, not a porn actor, which is a social role—and one that involves an hyper-adherence and acceptation of social norms—that can be understood and therefore reified, but a pure individuality, and that is exactly the process described by Lévinas in Ethics and Infinity: ‘The face is meaning, and a meaning without context. I want to say that the Other, within the rectitude of the face, is not an individual in a context. Usually a person is a “character”: a professor at the Sorbonne, the VP of the State Council, the son of so-and-so, everything that you can see in a passport, the way one is dressed and presents oneself. And all meaning, in the usual sense of the term, is relative to a specific context: the meaning something has in relation to something else. However the face gives priority to the self. You are you’ (Lévinas 91). When he looks back, the actor, who had been a mere icon of sexual prowess, becomes individualised. He also becomes ‘more vulnerable’ and ‘smaller too’—paradoxically, for the speaker, the previously hyper-exposed porn actor is more vulnerable and exposed in this moment of anonymity. As Lévinas’s analysis suggests, by recognizing his face, the speaker also recognizes a shared yet still absolutely mysterious, and therefore ethically binding humanity.

9However ruthless and clinical the beginning of the poem may seem, this ethical encounter seems to underline the speaker’s silenced weak point. At the end of the poem, he imagines him incapable of a loving relationship in the same italics that he used for his own voice, therefore suggesting a proximity. The vulnerable actor suddenly becomes a sort of mirror image for the speaker and the line ‘this just isn’t going to work’ echoes the speaker’s own ‘to know if we could work’ at the beginning. In the second part of the poem, the speaker’s lover disappears as an addressee, and, despite the text’s apparent strategy of full disclosure, it thus seems that a crucial element of vulnerability was left unsaid—did the relationship work or did it end? The question has no final answer of course but the poem strikingly points to the second possibility.

10The speaker’s insistence on the fantasy provoked by the look of the actor, with his repetition of ‘I imagined’, forces us to re-read the beginning (‘I knew that you would end up loving me too much’), and the whole text takes on a more ominous note. In a way, the hyper exposure of the first part is a feint that does not reveal the most vulnerable aspect of the speaker’s intimacy. It is only when exposed to the vulnerable gaze of another that the speaker’s own vulnerability finds an outlet. Only when the other looks back is vulnerability exposed in the speaker himself.

11All of that brings the careful reader back to the meaning of the title, thus far understood only as an allusion to the act of watching internet porn. It is also, more interestingly, a reference to the position of the actor in the text—he is indeed a sort of screen in the poem for he is the locus where images are projected; yet, at the same time, he is a way to protect the speaker, a way to screen emotions off while still recognizing vulnerability. So that the poem goes from hyper visibility to a more ordinary, more uncertain, more vulnerable form of visibility where lyric expression is made less evidently, but maybe more truly confessional. ‘Screen’ is clearly a first instance of the oscillation between those two types of visibility—it is a demonstration that hypervisibility can be perceived as a mode of invisibility, and conversely, that invisible vulnerability can lead to a more lyrically striking form of visibility.

12It seems that the poem achieves a balancing act between the risk of direct confessional exposure and a simultaneous strategy of indirection regarding the fate of the. McMillan’s risk-taking in this poem echoes Martha Nussbaum’s own interest in the interplay of vulnerability and risk-taking in The Fragility of Goodness. Nussbaum combines a passive and active approach to vulnerability that defines the good life (or eudemonia, since in her analysis she borrows the word from Aristotle) as relational. It could be fruitfully read in parallel with McMillan’s confessional poetics in ‘Screen’. As I said above, the poem does indeed offer a moment where the speaker endorses the risk of exposure to the other. Its confessional poetic project is then fulfilled when the other’s gaze confronts speaker and reader with an emotionally riskier truth—the failure of the initial relationship. McMillan’s poem therefore makes a double performance of an ethics of risk-taking, and of exposing oneself to the other, for the poem’s seemingly provocative attitude of full disclosure leads to an ethical and poetic epiphany with personal implications.

13McMillan’s interest in disclosure, in laying things bare, often encounters diverse expressions of male vulnerability. In fact, beyond the representation of gay sexuality, at the heart of McMillan’s collection is the issue of masculinity and society’s constant questioning gaze, especially in a working-class environment. One particularly striking example of that is ‘The Schoolboys’, a poem in which the speaker is observing two boys in a train, in the context of the celebrations that took place in South Yorkshire after the death of Margaret Thatcher: 

coming with the bulge of them through the doors
schoolboys in suits so big it seems as though
grown men have deflated inside    two slump
away from the morning rush of bags    phones
arms stretched out of their muscle by the sharp
sprints of growth    they find their seats and settle 

facing me
[…]
they briefly mention Thatcher and the town 

that came together for a party    they
didn’t understand the point of
[…]
                                the lady sat 

by me tuts    the boys let go
and start their conversation up again
one puts his hands between the cheap trousers
of the other    the way schoolgirls often
hold hands on their way to class    the woman
coughs and sighs like a slowpunctured football 

she stares out the window    maybe thinking
of her son    by now a man    she goes red
she focuses on a headline   
rising
unemployment    lack of manual jobs
the boys move seats    two others wrestle
to impress the girls    the boys sit closer
than they need to    the lady burns (McMillan 8–9)

14This poem, like the previous one ‘Screen’, is partly about looking at somebody looking at a form of masculinity: a moment of intimacy between schoolboys. The speaker questions our own perception of their behaviour—for instance, the comparison with ‘schoolgirls’ can be understood as saying that it is nothing but a very friendly behaviour, yet it also clearly underlines the fact that they are not conforming to how society expects boys that age to behave, and that, in a way, there is something queer about them. 

15In fact, the latter point of view finds its embodiment in the poem through the presence of the disapproving lady. Her bigotry is of course satirized throughout the text, as in the comparison of her sigh with ‘a slowpunctured football’—the surprising and rather awkward absence of a space can be read as a reflection of the lady’s grotesque, mechanical reaction to the boys’ behaviour. McMillan’s irony is quite clear here and the last words cleverly relate her outrage with the burnt effigy of Margaret Thatcher: ‘the lady burns’. As if, the poem suggests, there was a link between the ruthlessness of the two women. As if, even though they don’t seem to understand the reasons behind the town’s celebrations, the schoolboys’ intimacy and joie de vivre could in a way be related to them. And, in fact, another link is made between the two iron ladies, when the one in the train ‘focuses on a headline   rising / unemployment lack of manual jobs’. The web of socio-economic problems, faced most harshly in the North of England, partly because of Thatcher’s neoliberal ruthlessness, seems to be associated with the lady’s desire for conformity and traditional vision of masculinity. The clash of a precarious social and economic context with the norms of visibility that govern traditional masculinity is strikingly—if slightly obliquely, and, once again, through the details of daily chance encounters—expressed here. 

16The poem’s rhythm slows down in the final stanza as it is fractured by even more typographic pauses. One is of course tempted to read them as a visual representation of the divisions that inhabit the community. But, given the revengeful tone of the final words of the poem (‘the lady burns’), it is also tempting to read the typographic insistence on these syntactic pauses as the speaker’s own delight in the schoolboys’ insouciance. In this new instance of McMillan’s play with indirect lyrical exposure, the speaker’s apparently distant and descriptive attitude is betrayed by the poem’s own rhythm, as he seems to relish the boys’ indifference to the norms of masculinity, as well as the town’s carnivalesque refusal of a neoliberal legacy.

17McMillan himself made the link between issues of traditional masculinity and socio-economic realities such as the ones that led this village to celebrate the death of the former Prime Minister. In an interview for the Guardian, he spoke of his own childhood as follows: ‘It seemed to me that growing up in South Yorkshire in the 21st century, you witnessed a crisis of masculinity. That [starts] in the 80s and 90s, where industry shuts down, and what does it mean to then be a man if you don’t have a job? But that progressed to a kind of hyper masculinity where you see these chaps in the gym who are very much hypermasculine. Yet they’re still as insecure as we are about what it means to be a man, what it means to be a provider to a family, and can they provide (Lea; transcription mine)?’ What he seems to be saying is that times of crisis make it harder for the more vulnerable layers of society to follow the traditional modes of masculinity, which in turn precludes the acceptation of the said vulnerability. The two responses to that in Physical are either the one underlined in ‘The Schoolboys’—a joyous indifference to the norms that coincides with a burning of political and moral effigies, a way to negotiate a new mode of being outside the accepted forms of visibility, or, on the contrary, a form of hyper-conformity or visibility.

18One could say that ‘the men are weeping in the gym’ is a meditation on the second possibility: 

the men are weeping in the gym
using the hand dryer to cover
their sobs    their hearts have grown too big
for their chests    their chests have grown too big
for their shirts    they are dressed like kids
who have forgotten their games kit
they are crying in the toilet
and because they have built themselves
as statues this must mean that God
has entered them
[…]
the lines of them!    at the decline press
the bicep curl    waiting    staring
straight ahead    swearing that the wetness
on their cheeks is perspiration
that the words they mutter as they lift
are meaningless    that they feel
nothing when the muscle tears itself
from itself    that they don’t hear
the thousands of tiny fracturings
needed to build something stronger (McMillan 5)

19The tone of this poem, with its strange combination of amusement, fascination and sadness, is particularly intriguing. Even though the gym and bodybuilding might be deemed to represent an excessively conformist type of masculinity, McMillan’s evocation of the hypermasculine chaps described above is very far from being entirely satirical. Instead, he proposes a vision of this divided male identity as a self-concealment of the real nature of the sufferings endured in the gym. The men pretend that they don’t hear ‘the tiny fracturings / needed to build something stronger’—those ‘fracturings’ can of course be read as the echoes of the emotional instability or social pressure leading men to the hyper-acceptance of codes. 

20But what McMillan does beautifully here is make that emotional concealment intersect with the enterprise of physical construction and protection of oneself, therefore reminding the reader that vulnerability is both an emotional and physical phenomenon. ‘[T]his must mean that God has entered them’ the speaker says, and the modal’s ambiguity is of course essential as it casts a doubt on the assertion. It echoes the bodybuilders’ own gesture of hiding their physical and emotional fragility through the imitation of a Greek statue’s invincibility. 

21But despite this doubt, the assertion is still made, and the litanic aspect of the text is one example of a constant movement in Physical—the representation of male vulnerability leads to its elevation as a sign of godliness, a paradoxical, uncertain, precarious sign, but a sign all the same.

22In the previously quoted interview for the Guardian McMillan also declared: ‘for me the physical aspect that comes across in the book, […] that’s the religious, because it transcends the everyday, and it takes you to somewhere new. And that’s all I want from those poems really, that you might view your partner or the person you meet on the street, or your wife or your husband, you look at them slightly differently, maybe. And I like that transcendence, that it’s not just the body, but the body as the divine being (Lea; transcription mine)’. In McMillan’s Physical, the bare body’s exposure is often associated with wonder at its ‘miraculous fragility’. That is the case in ‘Choke’, a poem where the speaker equates the experience of being choked by his partner with the crushing feeling that their relationship has reached a dead end: 

isn’t this how the best of it should be?
taking the body to the point at which
it almost breaks and then returning
having your faith restored
in the miraculous fragility
of the self
the night I almost ended us
it was your sobbing brought me back
we talked ourselves together
and    the next day    still wearing your hand
around my neck    I found I was struggling
to swallow    every mouthful
was a labour    I became aware
of the mechanics of my own body
could feel parts of myself that would
usually go unnoticed
after your hand had been on my throat
I learnt the pleasure in possessing
capacities that are never
quite fulfilled    almost being broken
almost leaving but deciding
to tough it out (McMillan 15)

23Once again, albeit in a more personal and lyrical way, McMillan makes the physical and the emotional intersect. The lines: ‘having your faith restored / in the miraculous fragility / of the self’ indeed describe a moment of ordinary transcendence during which emotional vulnerability is fused with physical vulnerability. The experience of an extreme situation, of a moment of near collapse, leads to the realization of the beauty of exposure. Flirting with physical chaos and emotional precariousness makes the speaker perceive the value of both his body and his relationship. Hence the final repetition of the adverb ‘almost’: ‘almost being broken / almost leaving but deciding / to tough it out’. 

24But this celebration of emotional and physical vulnerability is not just a theme of the poems, McMillan’s most striking poetic feat in that respect is his ability to not just evoke vulnerability or celebrate it, but to explore it through the building of his poems as naked breath monuments. As the reader must have noticed by now, McMillan’s use of punctuation is limited to exclamation and question marks, which turns his poems into bare textual bodies. Or, to be more precise, McMillan adopts a more personal form of punctuation, using line endings and representing pauses with three or six spaces depending on the strength and/or symbolic value of the pause. By attributing an increased poetic value to the blanks on the page and within the lines, McMillan emphasizes the bodily function at the core of any poetry—breath. Which means that the collection pushes the poetics of physical exposure to the point where one of the most invisible bodily functions of all is made obvious on the page.

25But breath is also the most precarious and sensitive bodily function. That is why the poems’ typographic layout is also at times a representation of the ‘tiny fracturings’—as is said in ‘the men are weeping in the gym’—of a man’s deepest intimacy, be it physical or emotional, for breath is a revelation of both. In ‘Choke’, the question of breath and its vulnerability is of course central, and the central part of the poem, where the speaker feels the consequences of the night’s violence, is unsurprisingly fractured with syntactic pauses emphasized by surprisingly long spaces. Moreover, the progressive spatial reduction of the beginning of the text may be interpreted as a representation of the physical experience of being choked. In the same way, the visual narrowing of the last three lines mirrors another form of choking—the inability to speak normally due to a strong emotion. And, in fact, the last line ‘to tough it out’ can easily be read as a phonic echo of ‘cough it out’, therefore making us hear once again the interweaving of emotional and physical experiences. While in other poems—see the final stanza of ‘The Schoolboys’ for instance—McMillan’s personal use of typography functioned as a sort of blueprint of its rhythmical strength, this poem certainly plays on its irregular shape to represent the violence of the experience. The blank spaces function as the silences underlining a moment of physically and emotionally painful expression. It is as if the poem itself became a body in pain and bore the marks of the lover’s hands. ‘Choke’ inscribes in its very layout and rhythms the brutality of the relationship.

26Moreover, if the equivalence between typographic layout, syntactic construction and rhythm might be deemed a rather familiar one, what McMillan adds to the interplay is a keen awareness of the fragility of the essential underlying flow of expression that breath constitutes. His very personal and in fact unconventional use of typography also has to do with a transgression of norms—it is, quite literally, an ab-normal use of typography—and his poems also demonstrate an attention to broken, crooked moments of self-expression.

27In ‘the men are weeping in the gym’, the bodybuilders’ who ‘built themselves / as statues’ are finally described as ignoring the ‘tiny fracturings / needed to build something stronger’, their own broken nature. In ‘Jacob with the angel’, the first poem of the collection, another very sculptural character is introduced. The presence of Jacob right from the start of the collection has a programmatic value that must be read in relation to the book’s epigraph from H.D’s novel Bid Me to Live:

You are trembling.
It’s the way I crooked my elbow, you know, this way—it’s nothing— (McMillan 2)

28Out of context, ‘crooked’ is the central and rather intriguing—why would crooking one’s elbow a certain way cause trembling?—word of this quote. The answering character is a soldier come back from war, and his attempt to minimize his mental sufferings is significantly associated with a crooked physical posture. The epigraph echoes the figure of Jacob himself for, as the etymology of the name suggests, Jacob is ‘one who walks crookedly’ due to his encounter with the angel, and the dislocated hip that God’s emissary left him with. As most pictorial representations have it, Jacob is a very strong man, but he is also, and that is what McMillan insists upon, a wounded man:

taken literally it just happens the way the weather
or the stock market
happens
tangling in the unpierced flesh of one another
grappling with the shifting question of each other’s bodies
until the morning breaks across them and still their strength
no soft parts of stomachs no inch of them hung loose
like old sacking from the muscle
and burning afterwards or barely able to walk afterwards
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
taken allegorically he is beating on himself
until the point at which the inner river of the word
grace
runs past and everything lays down in calm
and walking back across the stream to his possessions
he feels the bruise that is staining his thigh
and he wonders at the strength of one so smooth
and his wives and womenservants and his sons
are sat waiting for the story
but he sleeps without speaking and on waking
isn’t sure if he has dreamt it
but his youngest notices the thresh marks of wingbeats
on his back and he asks for ink to be brought
he says writing something down keeps it alive (McMillan 3)

29Because it is reminiscent of a one night stand, McMillan’s reading of the biblical story in the first part of the poem is rather blasphemous and subversive. Yet, it does not make it prosaic: on the contrary, the act of love and its painful aftermath is elevated with the last two lines of this first stanza: ‘and the tasting of the flesh and blood of someone / is something out of time’. As it seemed to veer towards a more clearly sexual rereading of the story, the echo of the Eucharist brings back the oscillation between the physical and the spiritual while suggesting a holiness in the carnal encounter.

30As was the case in ‘Choke’ love and violence are closely associated and lead to an emphasis on vulnerability: Jacob is a vulnerable, crooked character and McMillan celebrates that vulnerability by composing a crooked text. As underlined in the last line of the poem, he is questioning the traditional, biblical opposition between the dead word and the living spirit. In fact, the whole poem seems to question that opposition—although it is suggested by the parallel beginnings of the two stanzas and the typographic respirations that isolate and enhance them, the division between the literal and the allegorical moments of the story is far from clear. The allusion to the Eucharist at the end of the first stanza is not exactly literal, while the second stanza’s insistence on the details of Jacob’s return eschews the allegorical reading. The text’s apparently clear cut division between the letter and the spirit of the story is abandoned. The reader is left with a purely temporal division between the moment of the encounter and the trace it leaves. At the same time, the final words (‘keeps it alive’), also enhanced by four blanks and thus echoing the beginnings of the two stanzas, add a third, elegiac moment that brings the story towards open-endedness and uncertainty. The poem’s own questioning of its apparent certainties is a way to construct a vulnerable, open-ended form—a way of celebrating the beauty of an encounter’s purely random quality, of endowing an event that just ‘happens’ with ‘grace’, as suggested by that central visual echo of the text.

31Moreover, the final line’s obvious metapoetic value gestures towards an essential element of McMillan’s work in Physical—at the heart of his poetic project one may perceive the ambition to build living forms of expression. His very personal use of typography is obviously part of that project as it allows him to construct a more plastic and idiosyncratic representation of natural speech, to the point where some blanks seem to represent unorthodox articulations, weak points, in somebody’s way to speak.

  • 3 One can think of Bonnat’s or even Delacroix’s paintings, and of sculptures such as Hendrik Andersen (...)

32McMillan’s typography, especially in a poem like ‘Jacob with the angel’, where the opposition between the dead letter and the living word is questioned, is strikingly reminiscent of Henri Meschonnic’s own work with rhythm in his translation of the Bible. Here is how Meschonnic describes it in Les cinq rouleaux: ‘La diction, notée en hébreu par un système d’accents, c’est ce que j’ai voulu recréer, par des blancs (dans une hiérarchie non arbitraire), recréer les silences du texte, rythme de page […], que Gerard Manley Hopkins appelle le ‘mouvement de la parole dans l’écriture’’ / Through the use of blanks I wanted to recreate diction, which in Hebrew is written with a system of accents (used as part of a non-arbitrary hierarchy), to recreate the silences of the text, a rhythm of the page […], which Gerard Manley Hopkins called the ‘movement of speech within writing’ (Meschonnic 1971, 11; translation mine). Meschonnic’s project is to include the body in the text through a work on rhythm, which, being the audible and/or visible manifestation of breath, is at the intersection of the subject’s voice and his body: ‘Le rythme est le mouvement de la voix dans l’écriture’ / Rhythm is the movement of the voice within writing. (Meschonnic 2006, 317; translation mine). I believe that Physical performs a similar inclusion—the poet’s choice of doing away with punctuation may indeed be read as way to expose the body to language, through an experimentation on the representation of the rhythm of respiration. Meschonnic’s reference to Hopkins is particularly striking since one of the poems that function as the intertext to ‘Jacob and the Angel’ is ‘Carrion Comfort’, Hopkins’s rereading of the same Biblical story. More generally, the story anchors McMillan’s poem in a tradition of poetry and art that represented the struggle between the physical and the spiritual in a homoerotic way3. However, in the same way that Hopkins’s puzzling use of tenses and irregular rhythms complicate the clear-cut opposition between despair and faith, McMillan’s poem preserves the mystery as to the real nature of the encounter. As if, the poem suggests, the true miracle was the written preservation of the physical, be it ordinary or crooked.

33Once again, the final line is exemplary in that respect, since the long pause added by the four spaces between subject and verb breaks the normal delivery of the sentence. If it might be interpreted as a representation of the emotion choking the speaker, it is also an instance of broken, imperfect speech. As we have seen with the last two poems, because of their very plastic use of typography McMillan’s texts could sometimes be described as body texts or traces of the physical, in which male vulnerability is celebrated. In this poem, the last blank is like Jacob’s dislocated hip—it is a sign of a ‘miraculous fragility’, the crooked inscription of the spirit within the letter, a refusal of the opposition that might remind the reader of the etymology of the word, i.e. ‘spirare’, to breathe. In spite of the typography’s general insistence regular on the work of respiration throughout Physical, the poems also present discreet rhythmical irregularities—broken rhythms to celebrate broken men.

34Finally, I would like to suggest that McMillan’s attention to breath can be interpreted as the consequence of his experience as a local poet and performer of his work. The public reading of lyrical poetry of any sort—more than the traditional theatrical performance, where the role played by the actor works as a distanciating mask—involves an increased exposure, a testing of one’s words where the poet has to stand up and accept a moment of physical and emotional vulnerability. For instance, a poem like ‘A Gift’ (McMillan 47), which is a dedication addressed to ‘the ones [the speaker] never touched’ and all his former lovers, ends on an elegiac note: ‘for all of them a / gift we were young we only had our bodies’. The line, broken once again by a typographic layout that betrays the speaker’s nostalgia and emotion, introduces the first-person plural at the end of a poem packed with intimate anecdotes. As if the speaker’s gift of himself had recreated a community—that community is possibly also an echo of the gay community where all the encounters took place, where the bodies were given. But this final inclusion may simultaneously be read as an echo of the community where the poem was given, in the space and time of the public reading or recitation.

35The absence of punctuation presents the poem naked, so to speak, as an audience would receive it during a reading. In that perspective, McMillan’s performances are certainly interesting since he seems to have developed a personal, albeit discreet style of his own. When performing from Physical, he adopts a slow, almost mechanical delivery and falling intonation. Although he uses a fairly standard Northern accent, this lingering mode of performance insists on every sound, and, more importantly where the relationship to typography is concerned, on every pause. Despite his doing away with punctuation on paper, McMillan’s performances also demonstrate a keen interest in the vocal pauses and respiratory work that underlie the projection of one’s voice. Thus, in the same way that a painting or sculpture are, in part, records of a gesture—i.e. something midway between a conscious and unconscious act, like the rehearsed respiratory pauses of a performance—, the presence of the blanks in the poems may therefore be construed, especially given the collection’s obsession with the male body, as a form of trace of the speaking body’s activity. One is therefore reminded of Dominique Rabaté’s conception of the lyrical gesture as presented in Gestes Lyriques: it consists in the preservation of an impetus, of an energy that crystalizes in the form of the poem. According to Rabaté, the lyrical poem’s performativity makes such gestures happen during the time of recitation.

36However, I believe that McMillan’s singular lyrical gesture, his attention to breath and its vulnerability, is also simultaneously a recreation of that moment of recitation, which is a moment of exposure. Like many young British poets, Andrew McMillan, who happens to be the son of spoken-word performer and radio broadcaster Ian McMillan, has gone through the repeated experience of reading his work in public in bookshops, poetry events, and literature festivals. The formative impact of that experience, which is also a key element in creative writing programs, is too rarely taken into account in the study of contemporary poetry. I believe that the experience of direct expression of the public reading or recitation could be fruitfully related to the drive for sincerity and the taste for exposure and risk-taking that lead, in Physical, to a sculptural mode of writing, a lyrical gesture that presents the poem as the naked record of a speaking body’s activity, and constructs fragile breath monuments in which bare life is exposed through hidden epiphanies to be granted a surprising form of holiness.

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Bibliographie

Lea, Richard, ‘Guardian first book award winner Andrew McMillan’, theguardian.com 27 February 2015, last accessed at https://www.theguardian.com/books/audio/2015/nov/27/guardian-first-book-award-winner-andrew-mcmillan on January 12, 2017.

Lévinas, Emmanuel, and Richard A. Cohen, Ethics and Infinity: Conversations with Philippe Nemo. Pittsburgh: Duquesne U.P., 1985.

McMillan, Andrew, Physical, London: Cape, 2015.

Meschonnic, Henri, Les cinq rouleaux, Paris : Gallimard, 1971.

Meschonnic, Henri, La rime et la vie (1989), Paris : Gallimard, 2006.

Nussbaum, Martha, The Fragility of Goodness. Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy (1986), Cambridge: C.U.P., 2001.

Pound, Ezra, Personae (1926), New York: New Directions, 1991.

Rabaté, Dominique, Gestes Lyriques, Paris: Corti, 2013.

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Notes

1 For example, in the interview following his reception of the Guardian First Book Award he explained that the collection was ‘very confessional, so the only way to write a book like that is to believe that no one will read it’. The reflection is of course a first instance of the centrality of risk-taking within McMillan’s poetic project.

2 ‘The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough’. (Pound 111)

3 One can think of Bonnat’s or even Delacroix’s paintings, and of sculptures such as Hendrik Andersen’s or Epstein’s.

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Référence électronique

Bastien Goursaud, « A miraculous fragility’: Male Vulnerability in Andrew McMillan’s Physical », Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 53 | 2017, mis en ligne le 01 octobre 2017, consulté le 20 octobre 2018. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/ebc/3813 ; DOI : 10.4000/ebc.3813

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Auteur

Bastien Goursaud

Bastien Goursaud started a PhD in 2015 at Université Paris-Sorbonne under the supervision of Professor Pascal Aquien. His research focuses on the relationships of orality, performance and lyricism in contemporary British poetry.

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Études britanniques contemporaines est mise à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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