William Bedford reviews Andrew McMillan's 'The Moon is a Supporting Player'

Andrew McMillan, The Moon is a Supporting Player (Sand Chapbooks, Red Squirrel Press, 2011) pp.38, £4.00p.

Helen Ivory’s cover design – which I take to be a homage to Magritte – is a perfect introduction to Andrew McMillan’s new pamphlet, The Moon is a Supporting Player. The techniques of surrealism offer a way of grasping the fragmentary world the poems explore: American beat poetry and Jonsonian Masques, a hint of a South Yorkshire accent and a fleeting screenplay narrative, everything structured around a series of ideas for Radio 4 Afternoon Plays.

Having said all of that, it may seem surprising to hear Auden and Larkin lurking in the wings of McMillan’s imagination. Larkin’s ‘Friday Night in the Royal Station Hotel’ provides the title for ‘now night comes on’, though ironically the tone here is much closer to the Auden of ‘Lullaby’ and ‘Dear, though the night is gone’ with their disturbing lovers’ scenarios and questions: “I guess you’ll remember the waiter/who was beautiful” but “as for why I came?/or why I thought you’d asked me?/I blame the sea”.
The Larkin note is in the opening stanza of another poem, ‘early September’, which has something of his familiar sadness, until the final metaphor takes us to another kind of imagination altogether:

the day blows out the last
of summer’s unimportant failures
a bird drops from the sky
looking like the shadow of a tiny parachutist

This is followed in the second and longer stanza of the poem by an incident on a bus journey in which a man asks “if anyone can split a twenty” and a girl’s caustic “we’re all skint” sends “laughter rippling down the bus” to make a kind of political point Larkin wouldn’t appreciate. The two stanzas together create a tension without resolving it, without providing narrative clarity, and that is the technique throughout The Moon is a Supporting Player.

Fragments do of course add up to a vision: the whole point of collage in painting. But if there is anything structuring these poems, it is perhaps the interludes titled ‘BBC Radio 4 Afternoon Play idea’, five of them but randomly numbered 1, 3, 7, 11 and 29. Each drama is self-contained, and refuses interpretation. ‘idea 3’ may illustrate the technique. A patient is talking to a psychiatrist, telling an open-ended story which leaves the reader with a series of questions: “but why was there a button missing from the man’s coat?   and where did the exhausted metaphor of the train sleep that night?   and what does the conductor smell like first thing on a morning?”

The most fascinating of these radio scenarios is ‘idea 11’, a kind of Jonsonian Masque where visual effects are repeatedly given in ‘stage’ directions, themselves a contradiction of the logic of the radio form. I must say I love the method, the elusive quality of the imagery, in this poem especially. And McMillan himself tells us what he is up to, in ‘idea 1’:

the point
        perhaps there isn’t one    except
to say that maybe miracles are possible
just not forever

For me, the finest image in the collection, typical of McMillan’s gift and setting the themes and the music singing together, comes from ‘bird sightings’: “I love you with the trailing leg of a gull heading north.” There is enough richness in that single line to keep you thinking for a long time.

The collection ends with a sequence which takes its title from Ginsberg’s Howl, ‘in my dreams you walk dripping from a sea journey on the highway across America’. In this Beat travelogue we encounter Arthur Miller, Ferlinghetti, California, Nebraska, Utah, Chicago, the El Train, Virginian song, Salt Lake station and the Mississippi River, Detroit as “a toothless piano” and New York City. We encounter an America, where:

mists roll in        light as Amish song
cars        fireflies        circle east
in the sealed jar of night

and the poet has earned the beauty of his own rather Larkinesque aphorism: “there is so much we won’t outlast”.

…reviewed by William Bedford

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