Review by Richard Scott
Writing the word cock – as in ‘cock limp’, or ‘my cock would press . . . ‘, or ‘my cock half out in your hand’ – is a political act. And this four-letter anatomical utterance announces itself with a filthy shout from the pages of both Physical and Steep Tea. For McMillan or Koh are not shy poets, but wonderfully proud and able to place gay experience at the heart of their poems; crucially the word ‘cock’ for them is a cry of honesty and desire – but if you were hoping to gorge on smutty poetics you’d be disappointed, for there’s love here too . . .
McMillan’s poem ‘Urination’ is a Doty-esque paean to piss which begs the reader to challenge their idea of romance; ‘and take the whole of him in your hand/ and feel the water moving through him’, McMillan writes, showing himself to be an expert at finding the lyrical within his anglo-saxon and near-ordinary lexicon. And who would have thought that watching your lover go for a wee could be such an extraordinary and illuminating thing to do – but then McMillan is asking us to re-examine the world around us, for like all interesting poets he is decoding experience for the reader. Gyms, toilets, yoga classes and train carriages become places for intimacy and love; McMillan’s Physical is something of an extraordinary fish-tank, in which you can witness the secret world of men – their ‘soundless spill’, in all it’s technicolour glory.
Perhaps more vivid than the intimacy and desire, the chests, towels and bicep curls, even the vulnerable porn-star, ‘imagined . . . heavy with the hope of other men’, is McMillan’s true subject – masculinity. His gay men and his avatars thankfully don’t exist in a solely queer world, they jostle against their heterosexual counterparts, they even bench-press them – in the tense and discomforting poem ‘Strongman’, an uncle bench-presses his nephew. ‘What is masculinity if not taking the weight/ of a boy . . . ?’ asks McMillan, fully wanting the reader to feel whatever it is they might feel – whether it be uncomfortable, enlightened, aroused, conflicted.
McMillan’s dance of allowing the reader’s own concerns and emotions to take precedence is something he performs again with elegant skill in ‘How to be a Man’. This poem is a moving poetic enterprise which takes the urgent form of a play-script, as our youthful but never-naive narrator states that he is ‘too young to know anything of death’, while witnessing the death of his own father within the suffocating domestic surrounds of ‘computer television a comedy impressions show’. This irony is well played, for no one is too young or innocent for anything in McMillan’s lusty and intelligent debut. And I admire McMillan’s syntactical habits of using no punctuation and no capital letters; amid his democracy of men he promotes a refreshing democracy of language where no word or letter is superior to another.
If McMillan places the gay man within a masculine world, then Jee Leong Koh’s voice is that of a gay poet learning from and surrounded by women. Female influences, both literary and familial, litter the pages of Koh’s subtle and learned UK debut Steep Tea – epigrams from Mary Oliver, Evan Boland and Elizabeth Bishop adorn Koh’s poems and teach us how to read them. ‘I have moved in the rooms of women poets’, writes Koh, for he is in humble service to his poetic masters, a mere step behind and full of admiration!
There is something wonderful about a poet who is prepared to wear his influences on his epigrammatic sleeve – it makes a reader believe they are in safe hands. But there is a slight danger to this practice, and in this respect Koh almost does himself a disservice. Beginning to read his poem ‘What the River Says’, we are treated to Evan Boland’s beautiful words: ‘the body is a source. Nothing more’. A cynical reader might begin Koh’s poem wondering what else he could possibly add, for surely Boland has already done the work. But to Koh’s credit, he often reaches beyond his influences – his conclusions are frequently lovely and impressively pensive (‘the river / is what the river says on its way to the sea’ being an gently authoritative and gorgeous example) – but I feel certain that this wrestling and competition is not what Koh had in mind when quoting his poetic idols.
Koh is at his best when he’s writing about lust; his massively understated poems detailing homosexual desire are marvellous. In ‘Woodwork’, for example, it only becomes clear at the beginning of the second stanza what type of poem we are reading, and this misdirection serves to heighten Koh’s well-judged metaphors: ‘the teeth marks of a vice’, ‘the metal lip of the plane’ become utterly human and relentlessly lusty – only when he’s established the seemingly-obvious eroticism of ‘Woodwork’ does Koh introduce the boy, who’s ‘hands, a shade darker than the wood’, are the true object of the poem, and now the reader’s gaze.
But as quickly as it comes it also dissipates. In both the individual poems and the entirety of Steep Tea the objects of Koh’s affections vanish into ‘the hums and curves’ of his poetic workshop. Koh has a question to ask of the reader – where exactly is the place for homosexual desire within contemporary poetry? If you let him, he will show you, for Koh plays a wonderful game – he’s adept at hiding (as gay poets had often had to) but he expertly balances this with a cocky brashness; his poem ‘Backache’ is a beautiful homage to Kay Ryan’s sensual, queer and miniature poems: ‘My / pulse would sprint / to kiss the tips of / your strong fingers . . . ‘. This short phallic brick of a poem contains enough queerness to flavour the whole of Steep Tea – as Koh’s ‘cock presses against his shorts’ it also presses against the reader’s mind.
From reading this you might have gleaned that I love gay poetry – I’m a gay man and when I read gay poetry I feel ever-so slightly connected to the poet, and proud to live in a society where writing, publishing, buying, and reading such books is possible. And as much as I believe that writing the word ‘cock’ is a political act, I also strongly believe that publishing the word ‘cock’ is something akin to a political riot! Thanks to Carcanet and Cape, these excellent collections will have an audience larger than just gay poetry fans, and that’s immensely important because it confirms the current blurring lines between gay and heterosexual experience.
Queer theorists have spent decades debating whether the stereotypical heterosexual reader finds gay literature distasteful or plain boring; previously a gay love poem hasn’t been a love poem for straight readers. But now, this silliness is almost over, and we have a whole host of people to thank – Peter Tatchell, Hilary Clinton, the cast of Hollyoaks, RuPaul, and Mark Doty to name but a few. Now we can add Michael Schmidt, Robin Robertson, Jee Leong Koh and Andrew McMillan to the ever expanding list. And for those of you who think I’m soap-boxing, I am – but that doesn’t mean I don’t have something valid to say – and it’s this: the word ‘cock’ has never been used so well and to such lyrical and loving effect – so buy and read these two collections and be aware that the world of poetry only spins forward . . .
Richard Scott talks about opera, libretti and poetry on Resonance 104.4FM. His articles have been published in The Guardian, The Quietus and Poetry News. His poetry has been published in Ambit, Poetry London, Rialto, Poetry Review and BUTT magazine.