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playtime review – paeans to beauty and selves that might have been

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McMillan’s follow-up to his celebrated debut, physical, is a tautly controlled exploration of nostalgia and loss of innocence

When Andrew McMillan published his first poetry collection, physical, in 2015, the response was extraordinary. A tidal wave of praise and celebration pouring in from all sides marked it out as the sort of once-in-a-generation debut that causes everyone to sit up and take notice. It was also shortlisted for pretty much every prize going (the Polari, the Forward prize for best first collection, the Dylan Thomas, the Costa) before becoming the only poetry collection ever to win the Guardian first book award. Straightforwardly indebted to Thom Gunn and Sharon Olds, but at the same time fresh, vivid and utterly unexpected, physical was a collection unlike any other. Raw and visceral in its descriptions of male bodies and their wants and needs but equally elegant and cerebral in its consideration of them, it drew on the past to create a new present, and in so doing moved the whole conversation forward.

All of which might easily have caused McMillan to succumb to second-book syndrome. But in this, his follow-up collection, playtime, the poet does an impressive job of shrugging off expectations and writing just as cleanly and clearly as he did first time around. Inevitably, this book doesn’t deliver the body blow that the first did: the subject matter (masculinity, homosexuality and the way the two interact) is less startling, and his unpunctuated, sliding stanzas more familiar. But by returning to familiar ground and deepening his engagement with it, McMillan makes clear that the poetics of physical wasn’t a one-off. As with all the best second outings, this collection firmly establishes his patent.

McMillan shifts from the present into the past, from experience to remembered innocence, and the sense of loss is palpable

Related: Physical by Andrew McMillan review – hymns to intimacy

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