John McCullough: Reckless Paper Birds

Let’s start with a sense of place. Watford, a town in Hertfordshire, England, is not somewhere immediately known for poetry. Hertfordshire sounds gentile, but the mean streets of Watford are made of tougher stuff. Hipper than Luton, Watford is by no means a dump, but it’s definitively urban. It’s perhaps meaningful that when the uninformed person reflects on Watford (something we would recommend), it’s likely they will think of the “Watford Gap”, a service station which rock and roll royalty and the great unwashed frequent on their travels up and down the country. Geography fans will be aware that the Watford Gap is in fact the “low point” of a range of hills or gap that gives the landmark its’ name, and is so named because it is close to a village called Watford in Northamptonshire, somewhere completely different to Hertfordshire. For the avoidance of confusion, we suggest Watford (Hertfordshire) should be upgraded immediately and renamed Watford on Thames.

Putting attempts at humour to one side, the point is that John McCullough is originally from Watford (Hertfordshire); this is referenced in “Queer-Cole”, one of the poems in Reckless Paper Birds, when “a voice in the Watford crowd” snarls homophobic abuse. McCullough transforms this ugly moment into a positive, finding strength in not being categorised, so that he, or the talismanic counterfeit coin he retains in his wallet’s “secret section”, is proclaimed as “no pink pound but queer-cole”.

McCullough’s poetry may have an underlying social vision of tolerance and acceptance for the individual, but it avoids dry didacticism through its’ immediacy and originality. McCullough identifies as a “queer poet”, and he extends the experience of being in a community to everyone by recognising what is universal. In “Tender Vessels”, there is sudden homophobic violence at a Pride street party when:

The unspeakable
scrapes a fingernail across my neck but I can only
concentrate so long before I wind up decanting
myself into the nearest fizzing light: Instagram,
house music.

McCullough does not hide the horror of witnessing an event like this, but makes us aware of his/our short attention spans, how quickly we often have to move on from one disaster to the next, and that there are “outcomes bleaker than attempting…to inhabit this twenty-first-century skin”.

McCullough finds joy in our differences as individuals but also recognises the power of the collective. Some of his poems recognise his experience as a gay man; his move to Brighton is “like relearning the full array of punctuation marks” (“Notes for a Cheery Post-Apocalyptic Short”). “Flamingo” describes a community “gathering in hundreds at night clubs”, with the startling imagery of Sia and Audrey Hepburn “pirouetting across the floor”, the rise and fall of the poem perhaps emulating the highs and lows of the music or drugs in the club. In a stunningly almost hallucinogenic moment he declares that:

Our origin is in fire. We are invincible,
even if we’re imaginary figures
in some Red King’s dream, even if
we may be losing it, may in fact just be me
standing on one perilous leg beside
the speaker, waiting for the rain to stop.

McCullough’s poetic tone is often dramatic, but he keeps a sense of perspective; as a reader we may roll our eyes with (but not at) the poet, who becomes almost a co-conspirator. This is not to say that McCullough does not have a distinct sense of self. Witness the following, from “Stationery”:

I am the type of man
who likes unnecessary displays of manners,
who appreciates thank you cards, warning signs, 

a forest of regretful notices for building works.

This witty, conversational but direct approach is at times reminiscent of the great American poet, Frank O’Hara, and the subjects and characters which appear in the poems are perhaps sometimes unexpected; as well as a series of “reckless paper birds”, we encounter jellyfish, euphoric dogs (“Spaniels that hoover scents”), and ants; Anne Robinson, Kate Bush, Lady Gaga, and other notable individuals also make special guest appearances.

Variety ensures the reader’s engagement, with diverse topics such as the problem of an eye infection from a contact lens (“Sungazer”), an etymological urban walk (“Silkworm”) and “What Chaos Angels Eat for Breakfast” (the answer is probably pancakes with “lazy Syrup” and a smoothie, with butterscotch vodka later in the day). There is often a sense of energy on the page, with McCullough having a lust for life: in “Stationery”, “your skilful face punches/a giant hole in the day and I jump through it.”

Reckless Paper Birds also keeps the reader’s attention through its’ remarkable and distinctive imagery. McCullough writes with his own descriptive sharpness, but he shares some glitter and sparkle with renowned British poet Jeremy Reed – both write in full technicolour. In “Spout”, McCullough admits that:

Some months all my thoughts are one colour.
I hit a yellow mood and the world pours out its yolks:
tall stacks of National Geographic in Oxfam,
cranes that point uncertain fingers at the sky

In modernist standout poem “The Orange Trees of Now”, the poet lounges outside “The Honey Locust” in a black shirt, and colour is almost an assault on the senses; he considers his “newborn grey hairs” in contrast to a teenager with blue pigtails, and by the kerb, “there are scattered aquarium stones, green and orange/like someone from My Little Pony took a dump.” Yet despite the “icy pastille of sun” of Brexit Britain, he finds it “so much kinder than it ought to be”.

These are poems which bear repeated reading as the reader may pick up on a new turn of phrase or meaning each time. McCullough does not shy away from complexity and looks at life with some wonder, with new eyes. In “Cartoon for Adults” he sees the world as a colouring book, amazed at everything around him – red oak leaves, orange blooms, playing Frisbee in the park, and noticing himself and his partner “wrapped up in the 18-certificate movie/of us that somehow’s still closer to Pixar than Fincher,/more noisette than noir.” In “Accidents”, rubbish blown into a basement garden begins a rumination on randomness, and the poet becomes “an unwieldy object” thrown towards his partner that he somehow keeps on managing to catch, a “sting/of accidents you solve”. McCullough’s enthusiasm uplifts the reader as he declares:

It really is so tasty and educational living with you
ousting empires
or just sipping tea from chipped mugs
and listening to rain.
to the clouds’ magnificent collisions.

Tea-drinking is one of the more refined British pastimes referred to in Reckless Paper Birds, which is firmly set in a land of “vomit, blossom,/the latest soaring personae under construction” (“Silkworm”). McCullough creates a distinctive world where nature is redemptive and creative, but has to adapt to live in a modern environment – a robin builds its’ nest inside a Reebok in the poem “The ZigZag Path”, but a “whisper of grass” says with powerful optimism “I can, I can, I can“. As the title of the collection suggests, birds appear in many of the poems (cranes, toucans, swallows, owls, doves, ducks, nuthatches, jays, goldfinches, crows, dodos, and more). Rain falls regularly. The wind is “another clubber” stumbling down St James’s Street. McCullough’s observations are easily recognisable to the contemporary reader, and we are drawn in us through the poet’s curiosity and original imagery.

Poetry is often accused of being elitist or high-brow, but Reckless Paper Birds shows how immediate and rewarding poetry can be. A poem like “Please don’t touch me, my head falls off” should spark the interest of someone even reluctant to poetry. Set in a toy shop hangover world of “Red Bull” and the news, McCullough states that:

In tests, 70% of humans can be persuaded to give an electric shock
to a stranger. I’d rather give them shortbread, or perhaps a little wave,

but those too could have blue consequences. I scan the crowd
and wonder who might push the button. This student in brogues,
wielding lillies? The yummy mummy with a fearsome ponytail?
I’m not answering further questions till my solicitor is present

The poem goes on to consider the poet’s own fears, of (comically):

Death by milk float, steered by the nemesis
I didn’t know I had. I am vastly misjudged as a foe,
I want to tell him. He doesn’t know who he’s dealing with.
How much I’m not here

McCullough takes an artistic risk by sharing with the reader his personal vulnerabilities and uncertainties about life. With comic élan, he dismantles our beliefs and the barriers between us as individuals; we are both entertained and challenged to think in different ways. As such, these reckless paper birds are not just for ornithologists, and flutter and swoop with life.

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Publisher: Penned in the Margins
Publication Date: 15 MAY 2019

 

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