Andrew McMillan

gospel

 

i)

I saw him first in Soho Square
the long thin plank of his body
in repose     hair spilling over
from the tipped jug of his head

he was alone    it’s important
to remember that    before
everything that happened    there was
something about him that made

men grow towards him like a plant
towards the light    he had the air
of someone used to being seen
or expecting that they would be seen

lord   that glimpse as I hurried
home from work    he burned himself on me

 

ii)

I won’t speak about the well-known times
the parties where wine seemed endless
the days in bars people gathered
at his feet    his latest parable

or anecdote    before all that
there were just a few of us
ones who’d caught his eye    brushed passed him
in a queue    we bonded over

our almost-times with him    almost
loved each other    as a way
of loving him    not one of us
could tell you who he spoke to first

lord   it was like he was already
speaking    and we started tuning in

 

iii)

then after that well   that was it
we were inseparable    or rather
we stuck so close to him we might
have all been brothers   out each night

together    us always following
several steps behind   caught fast in
his slipstream   following what he said
don’t go home with him   don’t wear that

it’s so last year   until his phrases
became the rules by which we lived
and judged the others    we started
dressing like him   maybe as him

lord   show me a queer kid who doesn’t
want an answer to the question of themselves

 

iv)

other times   when he was tired
he let us talk   all gathered around
queer boys thrown out of home   we saw
in him something we all wanted

someone we might be   how we all
carried the ghosts of our fathers
inside us   still trying to please him
the sting of his right hand    our face

he never responded   only
listened   opened up a space
where we laced our words in circles
until they became unknotted

lord   that was his trick staying quiet
so long it seemed he was helping

 

v)

it’s not true to say I didn’t doubt
or know a lot of it was bull
that time in hospital   those days
of pestilence   four funerals a week

but then the meds and people living
longer almost overnight
things shifted   I cured him
he’d tell me   he was dying

and I bought him back   and why didn’t
I stop him?   make him see his own
delusion? God knows- it’s nice being
in a gang   in the in-crowd

lord   it was the way the dance-floor
would part for him   and then for us

 

vi)

and who was it first got closer?
of course each one of us would say
that it was us alone who did
in truth   his trick was seeming

to love us all singularly
the way he held our eyes in his
the way he nodded or reached out
a hand    we’d just feel caught

in the single beam of him
I know I did   I know the times
he took me to his bed and I’d
confide in him   undress my wounds

lord for him   as if he were
my father    and I a child again

 

vii)

that time we all got high at Simon’s
and suddenly he said let me
wash your feet   and nobody said no
so there he was   on his knees

the heavy warmth of the socks
rolled off   too tender to be sexual
how he held each one   like an heirloom
vase   how someone without thinking

brought a bowl of water   someone else brought
towels   and the one he rubbed the sole
of    rolled back his head like a dead-weight
like a rock    slipped his hands down

lord   and simply held himself
like young boys do    to feel safe

 

viii)

one time I said I needed counsel
when really I just needed him
all of him    not the public him
he toured round the scene

but the him I’d seen that first day
him purely alone    I said
I’d wash his feet   he must have had
a heavy day   he protested

but only jokingly   sat down
on the edge of my bed   let me
take each foot in turn   I had no
water   and so it dawned on me

lord   to kiss   them their leafy dusty smell
and he laid down   spread out his arms

 

ix)

I took it as a call to service
kissed each toe   took them like morsels
of bread into my mouth   and then
the sole   the heel creased like paper

then the ankle   then ran my tongue
up the inside of each thigh   heard him
purring almost   and then the tongue
back down   and up again   both fast

and slow   something joyful born
of repetition   he took my face
in his hands   he looked down at me
as though my face in his hands were the world

lord   I gently cupped of his thighs
like water   and pushed them skyward

 

x)

thin splinters of the hairs around
the sphincter   running my finger
around them   letting each fine spelk
rest on my nail   and then away

and then the parting   and the tongue
and the salt-musk of him on me
and even then   him prone before me
it felt like a gift he was giving

offering himself up    so that I
might learn something of my own
desire   might know my flesh better
than before   the way he cradled me after

lord   the way he lay with me
the way his hand pressed mine    the silence

 

xi)

I still can’t speak of how he left
of jealousies   of minds poisoned
into thinking other people
favourites   that night I stayed with him

I sat at the end of the bed
a long time   him sprawled out on the sheets
I went out early to get breakfast
and when I came back he’d vanished

home I guessed   to shower
to cleanse the night from his body
I’d been careful not to mark him
knew the other’s would not forgive

lord   he was meant to be ours
not mine   my heart was so greedy

 

xii)

I’ve come to think the condition
of men is to want to be loved
until they are   and then to not
and so to run    to be loved

is to be seen   entirely
to be naked   to be judged
he left the way the streetlights leave
all of a sudden   one morning

or we think he did   it wasn’t
so much a leaving as a slipping
off   the way one slips a coat
off shoulders   I kept a photo

lord   as the background of my phone
wondered where he’d gone   where could be better

 

xiii)

a couple of drinks in   the talk
always shifts to him   we still come
to the same bars   same clubs   still dance
but really we remember

each gesture a way of recalling
of re-animating him
the stories change so much   it’s like
he’s still alive   and multiplied

different inside each one of us
we finish each other’s anecdotes
we raise a glass   it mirror-balls the light
we don’t say missing   we don’t say gone

lord   I’ve been empty so long   he’s been
gone so long   I don’t think I’d know him

 

Andrew McMillan’s debut collection physical was the first ever poetry collection to win The Guardian First Book Award. The collection also won the Fenton Aldeburgh First Collection Prize, a Somerset Maugham Award (2016), an Eric Gregory Award (2016) and a Northern Writers’ award (2014). His second collection, playtime, was published by Jonathan Cape in 2018. He is senior lecturer at the Manchester Writing School at MMU and lives in Manchester.