Sand Chapbooks, 2009 £4.00
Reviewed by Matthew Stewart, Richard Meier and Robin Vaughan-Williams
Andrew MacMillan’s Every Salt Advance boasts some pretty good initial credentials—a quote from Paul Farley in the blurb and top-notch publishing credits—so I headed for the poems with anticipation.
This is poetry that’s intoxicating and intoxicated. It’s packed with a barrage of images, some clichéd (“cupped like water”), some unconvincing (“the country is set/ between us like/ a table”); but others are superb (“the swollen/ lip of silence”), demonstrating MacMillan’s talent—and relish—for drawing out the music of language. What’s more, it’s set to a cacophony of poetic echoes. Philip Larkin and Thom Gunn are explicitly invoked, but countless others lie just under an extensive range of tones and devices. Each poem seems to work through a form or technique, trying it on for size, feeling out its intricacies.
MacMillan’s subject matter is rooted in the everyday but not limited by it. An incident with a neighbour makes its way to Icarus, while the end of a relationship leads us to Aphrodite and Nagasaki, leaps that don’t always come off but are terrific when they do. Sexuality, meanwhile, is met head-on and fizzes through many of the pieces. One such poem, titled ‘train’, forms the pamphlet’s axis and straddles its centre pages with an ambitious portrayal of desire. Slips into the obvious are inevitable, such as in “tonight being soup for one/ and wanking”. There are also wonderful turns of phrase though (“he looks the way/ silence looks before it’s broken”).
This pamphlet provides ample evidence that Andrew MacMillan is already an interesting poet. However, his work’s mimetic and chameleonic qualities mean I find myself struggling to form a coherent and cohesive view of it. In fact, I believe he himself is in a similar position: there’s a frantic love affair in process between MacMillan and poetry. Once its initial fever subsides and the relationship deepens, something special could well emerge.
The title of this pamphlet is taken from Andrew McMillan’s poem ‘lunar’:
we should go before we lose it
before it sinks behind
nostalgia’s last frontier.
they say we’re losing centimetres
every year; as if we were
a beach that’s losing
ground with every salt advance
the night is overcast
but why not try, at least,
to touch the things our orbits
cannot hold, while there’s time
while we can.
The poem demonstrates McMillan’s talent for fine phrases, as does ‘now you’ve left’:
and the country is set
between us like
a table, you should know
that I’m o.k.
and ‘Thursday morning’:
and he realised he would never have her
in the yawning, temporary sun.
In spite of such phrases, however, I found myself feeling that many of the poems didn’t quite come off. It was only when I was reading ‘reading The Love Poems of Kenneth Patchen’ that I understood why:
odd pages folded-over
as though men at prayer
under one verse
of all the things to notice
all these poems like lighted
windows in a San Francisco
city block, all this love and this someone
chose the metre
I may not be the ideal person to review this pamphlet since I’m very much on the side of the metre-scratching chap who so exasperates Andrew McMillan. Yes, there’s a lot of love in McMillan’s pamphlet, but there’s a paucity of metre and an arbitrariness of line-breaks which had me suspecting the skinniness of so many of the poems might have more to do with visual shaping than with form.
I would certainly read Andrew McMillan’s next publication. I feel, however, that quite a number of these poems try to punch above their emotional weight. ‘influence’, I believe, highlights why the pamphlet falls a little short:
when flicking through pages reveals
your flight stub
when I smile to know you flew
famous Seamus to Seoul with you
when I think of it stuffed
in your luggage,
beside the notepad and the
international calling card
when I think of essays
on the Troubles, two clauses
of a broken nation
when I think of throwing Digging
across demilitarised zones
[. . .]
I am my father’s son.
While Heaney’s poem derives its emotional freight from the conflict between the pull of the land (his father’s world) and the pull of the written word (the son’s world), McMillan’s poem lacks this tension since his father—who one gathers from these poems is also a writer—has the same metier as his son. And so it seems the wrong poem to choose to do what the poet is trying to do, and the poem seems—with its references to Korea and Northern Ireland—to be simply taking on too much.
Still, one can’t fault McMillan’s ambition. But I’d like to see the poet learn a little bit more from a another poet he clearly admires, judging by the poem ‘what survived of you’—after all, there’s an awful lot of love in Larkin’s poetry. But metre in equal measure.
The title of this collection, Every Salt Advance, comes from a poem called ‘lunar’ about the gradual distancing of the moon from the earth: “we’re losing centimetres/ every year; as if we were/ a beach that’s losing/ ground with every salt advance”.
Separation, in various senses, is a major theme running through most of these poems. It is there in the love poems, where love is either lost or not yet gained; it is there in the process of growing up, both in the separation from home and in the separation of lived reality from plans, ideals, and beliefs; and it is there in the portrayal of other people, who mostly appear as distant, anonymous, strange.
In one poem, ‘dad’, a sense of intimacy with the poet’s father is built up, mediated by a mutual appreciation of Thom Gunn (who takes the place in the father-son relationship customarily reserved for fishing and football). But a surreal vision of the poet chopping off his father’s hand, because he wants “the hand Thom grasped/ in his”, renders the apparent familiarity of this relationship strange. The hand represents the father’s social connections and skill as a writer, and the poet wants it not to hold, but as a trophy, to possess.
We get another kind of distance from others in ‘train’, which describes a series of anonymous people, presumably seen from a train: “man/ crying on platform”, “man/ gets on/ one stop later”, “man/ just for a moment/ I think it’s you”. The poem captures a sense of the transitory, of restricted views on others’ lives; but with the repetition of “man”, maybe these strangers are all the same person, a fractured self even, and represent stages in a (not necessarily positive) progression. The poet is, of course, another of these anonymous travellers, caught up in “the mass of men/ their ties of quiet desperation/ suits of settling down”. But the “stale tightness” of the atmosphere, the allusions to repressed male sexuality, and the sense of going nowhere imply that this is not something he appreciates.
There is no ‘we’ in this collection. The closest identifications are with the father (“I am my father’s son”—last line of ‘influence’) and with admired writers (Larkin and Gunn). The romantic relationships are all broken, and where there is class, the focus is on disenfranchisement and decline, rather than collectivity. A poem called ‘subsidence’ evokes poignantly the toil, pride, culture, struggle, and ultimate redundancy of the coal miners, framed pathetically in between two definitions of “subsidence”: “the sinking down of land” and “the waning or lessening of something”. One feels a readiness to identify here, but with something that has already passed.
The punctuation in Every Salt Advance is stripped down almost entirely to commas. In fact, my own rudimentary statistical analysis revealed that more than 50% of full-stops in the collection come after the letters “o” and “k”. Along with the lack of a ‘we’, this creates a strong sense of reduction, of wanting to avoid any kind of inflation of sentiment or self. But such an act belies a hard core of determination. While the poems describe a world where it is hard to find a place for the self, they are also grounded in social observation and the resilience of the sceptic.