Andrew McMillan: pandemonium review – steeped in suffering

The poet reflects on death, depression and guilt with a clear eye in this troubling and fascinating collection

The title pandemonium seems wrong for a collection as collected as this. For although Andrew McMillan is writing about a period of turbulence involving the depression of his partner, the death of his sister’s baby and various reckonings with himself, the overall quality is of stunned calm. He is not only at the eye of the storm, he is the eye of the storm. It is a fascinating collection – troubling and moving to read. Its atmosphere is distinct from his earlier books physical (2015) – an interrogation of masculinity – and playtime (2018) – an exploration of gay adolescence. And this is because there is no poem in it unmarked by suffering. Pain, in these poems, becomes a form of clarity. And, in his charming and modest way, McMillan has mastered the art of self-reproach. He reproves himself early on, in an untitled piece, for failing to spot his partner’s slide into depression, realising “too late what is about to happen”, recording how, after he said “something unconsidered”, his partner curled up “like a draught excluder”.

Draughts prove, at least metaphorically, impossible to exclude. In the poem that follows, routine, he admits his partner to A&E where the wards are overflowing (no need to ask why) and keeps him company, sleeping overnight “on the tiled floor like a dog”. The poem relives a hectic crisis and yet, on the page, becomes trauma recollected in tranquillity. We are later shown how, just as it is possible to miss early signs of depression, it is easy to celebrate too soon. McMillan writes especially keenly about false seasons and false senses of security. In uncivil, he describes: “unseasonal daffodils/curling up tricked/by the few good days we’ve had” and in another untitled poem, behaves like the daffodils himself:

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