An Acute Adolescence: Review of playtime, by Andrew McMillan

Andrew McMillan‘s debut poetry collection, physical, was warmly received for its tender portrayal of modern masculinity. His second book, playtime, continues these themes but pushes them into a fraught adult context. Cheryl Julia Lee reviews ahead of Andrew McMillan’s appearance at Durham Book Festival on 14th October.

Given the bracing intimacy of Andrew McMillan’s writing, it is difficult not to feel winded at the end of playtime, as if one has just been kicking a ball around the yard or throwing punches at a boxing match. Here in the pages of McMillan’s second collection, the heart is, to quote Seamus Heaney, caught off guard and blown open.

playtime takes the reader back to the messy and confusing days of adolescence. The people who inhabit McMillan’s poetic world are on the cusp of life, each with a

…body like a river which has not yet gathered
the rain it takes to learn the limits of the self
are malleable (“Local Train”).

They are defenseless against each other and the adults they encounter, against the little crimes and cruelties of childhood, the inevitable disappointments and embarrassments, the skinned knees and the heartaches. The insecurities and vulnerabilities that McMillan confesses are similar to those in his exquisitely tender debut offering, physical (2015). McMillan asks in his earlier book, “what is masculinity if not taking the weight//of a boy and straining it from oneself?” (“Strongman”). In playtime, McMillan’s persona is similarly not eased into manhood. Rather, his childhood gives way to it, a little bit more each day, until—a blink—and the ‘I’ we are following is an adult navigating new iterations of old fears and hopes (love, heartbreak, illness, acceptance, longing, happiness), only now armed with and disabled by the lessons and the traumas of the past.

Book covers of physical and playtime by Andrew McMillan

A sense of loneliness ironically pervades playtime and is brought to a pitch in “Priest,” in which the desire for intimacy is extended to God. Observing a priest’s intimate relationship with his community, the persona imagines that God, too, is lonely and wonders about

                                                    the ways we might
draw people towards us       the lengths the Lord
might go to       to have someone to speak to

In physical, McMillan breaks the text up with drawn-out spaces so as to better infuse the words with the living breath; in playtime these spaces are also fissures that expose emotional wounds. In the yawning space that he inserts in this line, we might imagine, hovering over the abyss, an unwritten word: just, as in the lengths the Lord might go to just to have someone to speak to. But of course, the point is that loneliness isn’t a trivial matter: in the persona’s imagination, the Lord disguises Himself as a bush and then sets Himself aflame and murders his only son for it.

The movement of thought in “Priest” is also illustrative of McMillan’s wonderful way of lifting moments out of their mundane contexts, so that they become radiant with poignancy. Often, this involves plainly stated lines that nevertheless carry the weight of significance. In the titular poem, a friend’s request to verify the non-existence of a tattoo on the persona’s bum demonstrates “such innocence such freedom in asking for the body of another.” The air thickens with envy (and continues to do so throughout the course of playtime) that is only, finally, articulated near the end of the collection in “Local Train”:

. . . oh to be that young again!
to have a body not yet dragged and creased by age. . .
to be a man
without the heaviness it brings . . . .

In “Glimpse,” the persona’s lamentation of his lack of football skills, as he could only “put my body in front of someone else/in hopes of slowing them for a moment” changes utterly the mood of the moment, making the helplessness and the rending of the heart so much more deeply felt.

In the same way, entire poems, already quite moving, are elevated—almost casually, in the last breath—into something devastating. In “Transplant,” hair loss at seventeen affords an opportunity to meditate on self-esteem and mortality. The poem takes a turn in the last line as the persona’s confession that “I couldn’t live with what I was becoming” collides with the hints about his burgeoning homosexuality that have accumulated over the previous pages. Retrospectively, the little gestures of violence throughout the poem (hair being ripped out like Velcro shoes being removed, a scar of stitched-up skin) are recognised anew as accumulating towards the greater violence of denying the self that one cannot help but become. With McMillan, that which is banal is also acute speech.

MMA fight. Photo credit: U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Stephen J. Otero

These reflections on the vulnerabilities of childhood are set alongside a growing awareness of physicality and strength, and of the body’s capacity to both withstand and inflict hurt. In a series of poems revolving around PE lessons and combat sports, the poet explores the violent register of masculine power and desire, and how these are intertwined with—and often even entail—the suffering of another (who is also, occasionally, the self). “Personal Trainer” is a manifesto, the tone of which is set at the beginning with the reminder that “the body must be bruised/so it can heal itself stronger.” In “Making Weight,” a boxer fasts and another binges in order to meet in the ring, the same place where, in “Watching MMA,” two men fighting come to resemble “lovers reuniting”. The relationships between men that are depicted in playtime are forged in fire.

In “Making Love,” the boxing ring has been replaced by the bed, where the same toxic power dynamics pertain, as do the tentative efforts at genuine connection. A moment (of love?) that the persona is trying to give to his lover disconcertingly picks up on the rhythms of “Watching MMA”: the persona intrudes upon his estranged lover’s privacy in an effort to reconnect with him, and finding something shocking and therefore arousing, he violently maneuvers his lover to the bed, and “dropped [him] there like an unwanted present.” Here, McMillan plays with the line between desire and violence, which might as well be a line drawn in the sand of a playground.

Part II of playtime finds us in familiar McMillan territory, which he previously traversed in physical but which is filtered here through the haze of early adolescence. This is a time of ‘first times’: the male body and its desires still being tried on and grown into. As such, the collection is much closer to the self. So closely bound is the reader to this self that the occasional deviation to other voices, such as in “Jocasta”, seem a little abrupt. That said, this poem does find its place in the context of the poet’s return to “the foul swamp of our origin” (“Returning”). This homecoming is experienced with ambivalence: in the poem that opens the collection, the unraveling of the self (physical’s self as it were) is depicted as martyrdom, an image reinforced by the quotations from The Acts of John, two of which come from a hymn sung before the Last Supper. Be that as it may, this return to the origin is also unquestionably a matter of necessity, a way of coming to terms with the man he has become and with the world at large.

playtime is fraught with ambivalence, and its overall tone is, in a way, more confrontational than physical, though it is also less hurried. McMillan seems more at ease with himself here. Of the many “rules” and “lessons” he has “come to know by heart,” one of them is that there will be time. First times and last times, time for praise and time for reflection, time to flee and time to stay (as it goes in The Acts of John)—and time that flees and time that stays. And, to rephrase yet another quotation from The Acts of John that McMillan includes, what can we make of that but praise that which has benefited us, in one way or another, and call it godly?

Andrew McMillan’s playtime is published by Penguin, RRP £10.00. Andrew will be appearing at Durham Book Festival, presenting the Rich Seams podcast on 13th October and reading from playtime on 14th October.

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