John McCullough: Panic Response

Things that make us panic include: exams (academic not medical), Luton football fans, competency interview questions, incompetence, rats in the garden, mice in the house, carpentry of any sort, alpha males, burglars, spelling mistakes, being late, colonoscopies.

These may be valid reasons to panic, or not. Poet John McCullough doesn’t confirm this specifically in Panic Response, his 2022 collection published by Penned in the Margins, but his poetry is humane, all encompassing. He’s particular adept at describing the feeling of panic. “Scrambled Eggs” speaks of panic being from the Greek god Pan, “unexplained sounds in a/forest”, something more than anxiety (“a frilly word, too trifling”); in the poet’s vision it’s like being “trapped between the walls of 4 am”, or “a flight to New York where a baby screeches and a voice/from the back yells Shut up!”.

Panic should not be underrated or dismissed. In some circumstances it’s an important part of nature; poem “Electric Blue” shows us the ultimate in social anxiety through the panic response by radiance of a bioluminescent plankton bloom ““far from home/completely lost, exiled by currents”, “terrified, magnificent/brightly living the only way they know”.

McCullough’s “Letter to Lee Harwood”, set in pandemic times where a virus “keeps half my friends off the streets”, states that the world “stinks of panic”; loneliness and fear are brought on by chemicals in dodgy tap water and germs on envelopes, as the letter ferociously declares that

The golems in charge could not name our dead nurses
or bus drivers but are very proud of the government response

and we should all try our best to move on
Those are the words for their new national anthem

The poems of Panic Response are undoubtedly informed by situations and circumstances – reactive, as the title suggests. “Bungaroosh”, a poem named after possibly the worst building material in the world – a composite made up from lime, gravel, coarse sand, flints, brick fragments and rubble which McCullough describes as a “marmalade”, considers our fragility through a meeting with a friend in a café. The friend is struggling as if he’s stuck in a blues song – “his husband’s left him, the landlord wants him gone/and now he’s heading to an interview where he thinks he might cry”. The poet admits to the reader he’s also had his own troubles, but has learnt he can exist “as an unsettled structure”. Shared anxiety about imminent collapse brings both characters and poet/reader together in solidarity, with the poet offering us some useful advice – “Listen: not everyone needs to be compact”.

A collection of poems about panic is the perfect place for experimentation. “A Chronicle of English Panic” takes us from 1900 to 2022 in twelve disparate snapshots; “’”, otherwise known as “Comma”, deliberates over punctuation, more specifically over use of the comma – “it works well for battle scenes and fluid thinking, though/other times it misfires”, and takes us on to consider the poet’s mind “careered through fields/of future catastrophes, they sprang up around me, being/sacked, bankruptcy, moving back to where queers get dog/shit through the door”. He concludes that “anxiety/mostly needs a full stop so measured breathing can start”, although is still willing to “grant a/comma to anybody who needs one,” (humorously finishing with a comma, not a full stop).

Panic leads to a sense of fracture, a disconnection between mind and body, and Panic Response often draws a distinction between the psychological and the physical. There’s a struggle to learn to talk again in “J”. Mr Jelly (in the poem of the same name) is advocated as the poet’s favourite Mr Man (in the Roger Hargreaves series of children’s books) – here the character’s fears include “snapping twigs, sounds from/breakfast cereal, gnomes”. The NBA basketball in “Old Ocean’s Bauble” is likened to “the accumulations of a head that had sailed/inside itself for years, saying nothing, veering/anywhere”. In “Scoundrel”, the poet-narrator compares himself to a printer, “theatrical and evil”, and talks of trying to shut himself down, but always seems to “switch/on again at 5am, greedy to start chomping your optimism/and paper angels/spitting out ghosts”. The poet wants to “cancel himself”, asks us to “blame the nefarious sponge that’s called/my brain” in the clash between modern life and nature in “And Leave to dry”.  In “Self-Portrait as a Flashing Neon Sign”, the poet takes his trademark “skew-whiff cap and ionized grin” and imagines himself as a “jumble of lightning bottled”, pounding “the retinas of innocent pedestrians”, assisting dog walkers and mystifying drunks – “I am a fizz in their cytoplasm”. He is “Watford-lairy”, like the spitting boys who stalk the 1995 Watford council estate, and the poet’s mind, in the jittery “Candyman”. Love poem “Crown Shyness” includes an early admission –

Recently I mislaid my mind again.
I couldn’t pour a bowl of cornflakes.
I lay like a zombie beneath a duvet
watching re-runs of Friends. The One
Where John Loses It. The One
Where Electricity Cooks John’s Head.

The inescapability of that particular American sitcom means most readers will immediately recognise McCullough’s humour through the references to its title format, developing the relationship between poet and reader to a friendly conspiracy (“from the Latin conspirare, to breathe together”, as he advises later in the poem). There are friends of a different kind in “Flowers of Sulphur”, in which McCullough returns to his 2005 PHD thesis “Disputable Friends: Rhetoric and Amicitia in English Renaissance Writing 1579-1625” in a series of lettered paragraphs. Through its use of modernist images suited to memory flashbacks, it movingly addresses the suicide of a friend.

Poets Tristan Tzara, Guillaume Apollinaire and John Ashbery are referenced in various title notes to some of the poems, with McCullough taking inspiration from their “modern” styles of experimentation (Dada, surrealism and typography from Tzara and Apollinaire, an interest in “reckless” experimental art from Ashbery). The futuristic “Quantum” follows chemistry teacher Avril Brown around the lab “aping an excited electron”. She’s seen as an inspirational figure, who “never gave up on experiments”, “her grin wide/as she accelerates, decade after decade”; McCullough pays tribute through his own experimentation in the poem by use of strike out typography to reflect an (imagined) act of violence, and the impulse to correct something from the past.

We certainly all mistakes, and the collection constructs a sense of commonality through this, a recognition of what is to be human. “Oops, I Did It Again” is McCullough’s “greatest hits” of calamity in the style of Brittany Spears – the spelling a surname wrong on an estate agent’s form, sending out the wrong version of a poem, a doomed relationship. It updates Alexander Pope’s idea that to err is to be human by concluding with a Noël Coward flourish that mistakes are demonstration of being alive. In the prose poem “Six!”, the poet describes oversleeping during a recent confinement , and as a result feeling tired all the time, as a “circular mistake”. “Error Garden” (named after the German word for maze, irrgarten) considers difficulties with language and thought, as angelic vending machines hover outside the poet’s room in Shinjuku, Tokyo:

Words are the same. First they offer shelter,
then they spring out at 4am, won’t stop opening, closing.

Edward de Bono says most errors in thinking are inadequacies
of perception, not logic, but some failures of discernment

are beautiful

Panic Response is more experimental than McCullough’s previous collection Reckless Paper Birds, but less adventurous readers should not be deterred. The human element of McCullough’s poetic vision remains central. “Pour” pictures his friends “fucking and washing up/and snorting K; listening to podcasts or deep house/and passing each other in the street, eyes meeting briefly”. “Prayer for a Godless City” (taking its title from census figures which confirmed Brighton-and-Hove possessed a large proportion of residents who defined themselves as having no religion) takes hipsters, stoners and council estates souls, with a side order of “gnawed chicken legs/forsaken in doorways” into its congregation without judgment.

Air is blessed for slamming into our faces in “Prayer for a Godless City”, and the poet declares in “Crown Shyness” that the wind that loves him keeps diving into his mouth. The world of Panic Response is brutal but beautiful, its population hands shaking, gasping for air. Panicking may not be cool, but we bet even George Clooney has his moments; as such, readers of Panic Response are likely to find moments of recognition and solace between its inclusive and inspiring pages.

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Publisher: Penned in the Margins
Publication Date: 15 MAR 2022

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