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Poetry review: 14/04/20


by John McCullough

Our reviewer enjoys a transcendental collection. 

Larkin, in his poem, ‘Days’, says ‘they are to be happy in:/ Where can we live but days?’ John McCullough throws this Zennist acceptance, that lazy recalcitrance on its ‘floating head’ and throws us straight into a lively, convoluted verb. ‘The day connives and you think you cannot live here.’ Already we know that we will be folded, then twisted ‘like a silty river’ and sent to fly in some peculiar trajectories. With the wrong face and a body that doesn't want to contain a lone person, McCullough, in the opening poem, ‘The Zigzag Path’, sets out the premise for the book – ‘to find a home/ the souls of white roses and hurt no one.’ In a sneaky leap to the final poem, ‘The Skeleton Flower’ we see that he ‘always wanted to be harmless/ but…’’ The end lines, ‘I stare/ at the heavy petals of my hands/ that are slowly turning white’ places him inside/outside of his body, exploring his own accountability, the actions of his hands. What do we make, what do we create? Has he walked as stone, moved as light, or flown as paper? He says in the beautiful ‘Soulcraft’, ‘nothing has enough hands to catch me.’ He is transcendental, a shapeshifter.

This book sees a man try to find a home within people, spaces, the sky, his own skin, the queer community, himself, within or without religious, and social constructions. He tells us ‘the light keeps shifting.’ This is one of the beauties of this book: we are on a zigzag course. It is a beautiful thing to not see round the corners, to not see the end in sight, to be constantly surprised. To escape a crocodile one is told to run in a zigzag – there is a sense of running away from one’s self as well as an acceptance. Nothing is safe as anything can become something else. Do not trust what you see – ‘flowers are not so with their giant/ thirsts and fantasies and ruthless ways/ with light.’ The book seems joyous, innocent, carnival like, but is also dark, spiritual, revealing and reflective. It is akin to being in the Hall of Mirrors at a funfair or that attraction where the floors move, walls slide back and everything is tricksy and spell-bound: we become deliberately disorientated, experience a healthy disequilibrium. McCullough warns, ‘Each word’s retrievable,/ could lead to magic.’ Be careful which levers you touch. He cleverly pushes us along this path, varying line length, meter, with clever enjambment to drive or slow poems, with experimental form often reflecting the concepts therein.

In ‘A Walk With Our Imaginary Son’ McCulloch asks, ‘did you know every shadow has a negative weight?’ This is what he does most splendidly-turns things on their head. What is true? In ‘Pterodactyl’, we are told ,’The fossil behind the glass is lying.’


This is a sensitive surrealist Salvador Dali spin on Brighton/urban landscapes, queerness, connection, dislocation, attachment, transcendence, discombobulation, the space/shape we do or do not take up, light and shade, the work of our hands. In ‘Mumpsimus’, like beloved origami, ‘images they unfold.’ McCullough is a creative genius finding a sky-full of bizarre metaphors, analogies and similes, images and objects. Dip your hand in and find a musical penis, lopped off feet, milk jellyfish, tenderly re-homed snails, plastic cats, flamingos, silent singing mice, ketchup for maps, yellow teapots, butterscotch vodka – oh this book is ‘a mug of lovely noise,’ cacophonous, railing, powerful, cutting, gentle, soft…

‘Tender Vessels’ explores how ‘history won't take its mouth off my body.’ – the imprint of oppression in the DNA and psyche-the unified flight of all gay men who are ‘attempting,/ despite the scissors,/ to inhabit this twenty-first-century skin.’

In ‘Pelican’ he is ‘not a bird at all but a man drawn on folded wrapping paper,/ cut out and pulled into fifteen of myself by his hello baby.’ This book explores what it is like to inhabit or escape these many representations of self.


 McCullough conjures everything alive and turns itself in on itself, transforming into something else. Like reckless paper birds as they dive and flutter, each poem is a different bird unfolding layers of tantalisingly elusive new truths that you want to chase with a butterfly net or scoop up with a ‘giant tongue.’ Perhaps his hands that feature in so many of the poems are also like the reckless paper birds, conjuring things with power to heal or hurt. He seems to fear the hurt that hands can do, veers between love and disgust at the body’s grotesqueness and beauty. McCulloch’s poems are as strong as iron but paper thin, ‘I swear if I keep talking/ it will tumble out, the something on which it all depends’. He says ‘if I could find the perfect word this would all be over.’ McCullough is on an endless quest, a searching under every stone, finding analogies piled up like ants, so many images, tried on, cast aside, for you to try on, whilst he strides on hungry he seems to insouciantly throw kaleidoscopes of images at us –‘the wind blows all kinds of things down/ …sometimes whole alphabets and civilisations.’ 


He is a deliberate painstaking craftsman, building, honing surreal landscapes, ‘playing with language,/ each one folded and stored though I feel I could do more.’ Encased in technical perfection, these poems can be unfolded so many times to reveal more and more meanings, such are the complexity and perfect execution of the layers and folds. Like reckless paper birds that ‘ topple’ into each other, these poems lean against each other, crash into each and some birds land in a plethora of poems, with motif, themes and words recurring: rain, creases, fire, light, souls, flowers, sea, roofs, yellow, hands, folds, tongues, bodies, orange. This is a puzzle book, the great unfolding, a museum of magical musings, conundrums, portraits of people, 'like chaos angels from desiccated towns who crashed mid-flight/ and now spice each other's hours.’


In ‘A Flock of Paper Birds’, John’s mind-boggling imagination comes into play, where a history of a Christian upbringing, homophobia, and a beautiful carnal celebration are juxtaposed in a gorgeous orchestra of a poem, where origami birds are made from the stringent law and order parts of the bible. The birds do all kinds of reckless things and one imagines them singing, cooing, gasping, judging, accepting, jostling, theologising as the protagonist defiantly, unreservedly and sensually unfolds his male lover in bed.

McCullough explores containment and spilling over the edges, a friction between being and not being. This must-have collection is colourful, vibrant, zany, magical, urgent, well structured, experimental, risqué, candid, funny, sad, happy, deep and political. This surreal and very real book is like an elegantly gaudy disco ball shining light: refracting and distorting, hovering above seaside towns, it’s light cutting through ozone shimmer and haze, carving up objects and experiences, with sad, and cheeky birds swooping and diving, and people and objects swimming below in image spaghetti, generously tossed with spice and sauce. This book is a bird of many colours. Do catch one swiftly as they are literally flying off the shelves.

Review: Angela Dye.

Get it:


Penned in the margins

ISBN 9781908058638
Buy here

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