Three Debuts: Review by Maria Taylor
‘Happiness’ by Jack Underwood, ‘Physical’ by Andrew McMillan and ‘Blood Work’ by Matthew Siegel
Review by Maria Taylor
Happiness is a bold title. What could possibly be expected from a collection featuring that word in day-glo orange on a beige Faber cover? As Shelley once wrote: ‘Rarely comest thou spirit of delight.’ Underwood’s preoccupations with happiness are similar but updated, as shown in the collection’s title poem: ‘we know happiness because it is not always usual, and does not wait to leave.’ As Shelley might expect little moments of happiness come and go:
Look, this plant has made it through the winter you say,
as millions of photons whoosh through my hands.
The whooshing photons of light provide an arresting image, but these lines from ‘Spring’ also show Underwood’s deeper concerns. The light is being lost as quickly as it’s noticed. Happiness also has a habit of appearing unannounced: ‘Yesterday it appeared to me in the form of two purple / elastic bands round a bunch of asparagus,’ again from the title poem. Happiness ceases to be an abstract noun and becomes as real as a handful of asparagus. Vegetables rot, however, whilst in ‘Sometimes your sadness is a yacht’ unhappiness is ‘huge, white and expensive’ and is as solid as an ‘anvil / dropped from heaven.’
Underwood’s conversational tone is engaging, but is also used as a conduit to explore more challenging areas, such as death and loss. For instance, in the poem ‘My Sister,’ the speaker talks to his ‘sister’s ghost,’ a baby girl lost in pregnancy. There’s little exposition, the ‘ghost’ simply turns up with ‘a voice unaffected by gravity’ and reveals her ‘biggest regret’ of ‘not putting her name / firmly onto the living.’ It’s the way the dead turn up as casually as walking into a coffee shop that makes the poem beguiling and strange. Underwood has an instinct for using metaphor and concrete detail over description:
I could go around all evening dropping slices of lime
into other people’s drinks, because it’s easy to give
away fractions of happiness. But bad news ticks
in the kettle…
The kettle, the emblem of delivering tea and sympathy, lurks behind the party drinks. When death needs to be confronted the speaker lets their feelings fester; ‘Instead I let a week pass. It was so easy.’ The blunt swagger of ‘so easy’ disguises what’s actually difficult to express. This conversational tone is prevalent through Underwood’s poetry.
A salient feature of Happiness is the way direct address is used and poems ‘talk’ to us. This is poetry which attempts to connect with its reader and provoke a response and hence can be wonderfully disconcerting. In a recent article for Five Dials, Underwood wrote: ‘writing a poem is an interrogatory act…at some point poetry should seek to connect with the lives of others.’ In ‘A man is dragging a dead dog’ the speaker addresses us directly using the second person ‘you’ and asks us to imagine that we are dragging the dead dog. The dead dog is your metaphor, not the poet’s. The speaker asks how ‘you came to be dragging it, what this means to you / and where it is / that you are going?’ These are questions which provoke an inward reply. Happiness is a wonderfully intense, imaginative and unusual first collection.
If Underwood’s concerns are inward and psychological, then Andrew McMillan’s poems are much more about exploring the world through sensation and the body, hence the title Physical. What could be more physical an experience then being in a gym, for instance? In ‘The Men are Weeping in the Gym,’ the gym is a place where men use ‘the hand dryer to cover / their sobs’ as well as work-out. The speaker is an observer in this poem and the images are raw and energetic:
has entered them they are wringing
their faces like sweat towels
in the sink their veins are about
to burst their banks
It’s almost painful to imagine this, which makes the poem function on a visceral level as well as a descriptive one. The body is frail and even the presence of ‘God’ isn’t enough to counteract the pressure these men are placing on themselves. Perspiration and tears become the same thing: ‘they are laying / in the broken pools of their own faces.’ The consequences of this are eye-watering:
nothing when the muscle tears itself
from itself that they don’t hear
the thousands of tiny fracturing
needed to build something stronger
In Boss Cupid (2000), Thom Gunn wrote about the ‘potent mix’ of toughness and tenderness’ and desire for ‘the weeping wrestler.’ Physical is haunted by the presence of the ‘weeping wrestler,’ a figure who weaves in and out of these poems. Physical is a transatlantic journey from Gunn’s Manhattan to McMillan’s native Barnsley. Throughout the whole collection there is an opposing sense of the ‘tough’ and the ‘tender.’
The opening poem, ‘Jacob and the Angel,’ is based on the Bible story in which Jacob battles an unknown assailant only to discover he has been wrestling with an angel. In McMillan’s poem, Jacob thinks he had ‘dreamt’ the experience but finds a tangible mark, with ‘the thresh marks of wingbeats’ on his back. The ‘wingbeats’ here are oddly delicate, and open up a more erotic reading of the fight. Throughout the collection there is an interconnectedness between bodies, even where such links seem weak: ‘how thin the membranes that we build / between each other.’
The effects of these delicate connections are explored in the second section of the book, called the ‘protest of the physical.’ Here McMillan experiments and revels in using unconventional forms: scattered stanzas; a lack of punctuation; elongated pauses and most notably, McMillan’s use of the whiteness of the page to create meaning. We are left to draw our own conclusions when presented with the blankness after, ‘pits close / we still sink / into them [.]’ Politics also weaves through the poems, most notably in ‘The Schoolboys,’ where boys wear uniforms ‘so big it seems as though / grown men have deflated inside’ and watch ‘adults…setting fire’ to an effigy of Margaret Thatcher. If 1980s politics has left a physical mark on England’s Northern towns, then perhaps these boys will also grow into their masculine uniforms with the same scars. Physical is a tight, passionate first collection.
Matthew Siegel’s Blood Work is also centred on the physical, but Siegel’s focus is on the body adapting to illness. As a teenager, Siegel was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease and the collection draws on biographical detail, as well as the surreal for effect. For instance, in ‘fox goes to the fox hospital,’ the animal serves as a disguise for the human patient’s feeling of being ‘diminished’ by hospital visits. The ordinarily cunning and nimble stereotype of a fox, along with the male speaker’s sense of vitality and sexual identity, is enfeebled in this environment:
In the gown he feels naked,
notices his softness, how his sex has never seemed less willing
to rise. As if there could be such a cause in this place.
Siegel is able to extend images without ever feeling strained or overdone, as in ‘Weather of the Body,’ where a ‘sister, wrapped in clouds, filled the room / with lightning.’ As well as his inventive imagery, he presents details in a way that is honest but unsentimental. In ‘Life Guarding,’ the reality of being a child of separated parents is made very clear: ‘Mom is sobbing in her bedroom with the door open / and we’re in the kitchen trying to fix our dinners.’ A son attempts to ‘reassemble’ his distraught mother through medication and in turn becomes the one with parental responsibility. He both fulfils household chores as well as nursing duties: ‘I sift a dead bird out of the bright water with a net.’ Despite his attempts to ‘life guard’ something in this family will not be revived. Illness and treatment are the main focus of this collection, but there are also many poems about parents and families, understandable in light of Siegel’s diagnosis coinciding with his adolescence. Siegel’s mother and their relationship is a notable feature in these poems:
I never knew watching someone eat
could be a kind of prayer, but she was praying
as I chewed whatever meat she gave me;
meat cooked while leaning on crutches.
This is a portrait of a dutiful son who will chew ‘whatever’ is prepared for him, and ‘chewed’ suggests he’s not necessarily relishing her cooking. This is from the baroquely titled ‘On the way to the airport I fail to tell my father I left some meat in the refrigerator.’ Siegel certainly has a way with titles: some, like the former, simply tell us what the poem is about; some are placed within square brackets, for instance [the heart is a dumbwaiter] as if they are added by someone else; and others surprise such as ‘At the Vietnamese Massage Parlour.’ In this poem the needs of the body are savoured – ‘I paid to have you press the breath from me’ – but arguably not the needs of the soul: ‘I sing to you but you do not understand.’
This is a collection in which body and soul are often at odds. In Blood Work the body is at the forefront, but what makes a person human is essentially mysterious, as beautifully captured in the title poem:
and I nod, think about condoms, tissues
all the things that contain us but cannot.