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John McCullough

the poet

John McCullough lives in Hove on the south coast of England.  His first collection, The Frost Fairs, won the Polari First Book Prize in 2012 and was a Book of the Year in The Independent as well as a summer read in The Observer. His latest collection, Reckless Paper Birds, published by Penned in the Margins and shortlisted for the Costa Poetry Award 2019, focuses on vulnerability and the human body. It won John the coveted Hawthornden Prize in 2020.

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the poems


00:00 / 02:15

You tumbled into my palm       in a trickle of sterling     
bad coin       foul queen       though I didn’t notice.     
I pocketed you       conveyed you       like your Sedan chair     
respectfully slotted you       into vending machines that coughed 

you out.       You winked at me       from a change tray     
and abruptly       I spotted everything about you     
was wrong       your weight       your ill-defined milled edge     
your obverse skewed.       Not copper zinc nickel       but lead 
sprayed with gold paint.       Too shiny.       Queer-cole     
they used to say       meaning counterfeit or base money
what ends up improperly       beside your person       tilting 
the system       forcing each wall       mutilating the weather. 
Fucking queer       a voice in the Watford crowd snarled     
as my lips brushed Ryan’s cheek.       There I was       my mouth 
mimicking legit       my hoodie cap trackies       like a man’s     
but on close inspection awry       my voice too light             
edges blurred.       Flickery.       I carry this awareness in my blood 
how simply I’m revealed       as undermining the currency     
warping the ceiling.       Now coin       I keep you squirrelled     
in my wallet’s secret section.       You are my talisman     
return me to what I am       no pink pound       but queer-cole     
rebel head       wonky origin       dangerous minting.

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00:00 / 02:14

September is going all out to ease us in. 
     The clouded sky is a whiteboard for helpful diagrams, 
          the first cool air as welcome as your hand inside my jeans. 
Autumn zips round with its orange highlighter 
     and you provide nifty shocks and marshmallows,        
          leaving pornographic Post-its that ask me to rendezvous, 
please, for hot chocolate. 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. 
     I admire rows of ginkgos that lose all their foliage 
          in one drop to form a Yellow Brick Road. 
I am a desperate Lion today, stalking Scarecrow. 
     I chew biros, glimpse at my watch too often. I was so afraid 
          of being late to see you once, I arrived six days early.
Love is horrific like that. First it’s a rabbit, then a duck,
     then it’s a ravenous, one-eyed sock puppet;
          but the rest is yoghurt adverts. And you fasten my thoughts
with the most beautiful paperclips, even the filthy ones,
     like the time I saw a grove of ripening chilli plants 
          become a rainbow of penis trees. Do you wish to continue, 
says the voice of a self-service checkout. Yes, yes I do.
     Between the shops, the sea snuggles under its blue leaves.
          The clock tower waits patiently for Christmas, 
a familiar figure below waggling his arms 
     to lure me over. Succeeding. Your skilful face punches 
          a giant hole in the day and I jump through it.

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Tender Vessels

00:00 / 02:23

I keep trying to slip away through the crowd         
but history won’t take its mouth off my body.
What was exacted on someone else’s softness,
his cuttable flesh, is always about to happen here.
The vague kinship which exists between tender men 
glowing with thirst starts in awareness of this,
how we’re unstitched by tongue prints, resurrections. 
Standing in a street party one Pride, I saw a figure 
stomp through, fists raised, and strike three boys. 
They dropped to the ground, clutching their heads.
I witnessed everything, squeezed a stranger’s shoulder
then fifteen minutes on, my body was distracted     
utterly by the smell of oranges. 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. It’s like those inventors who tried to devise 
a spray-on cast for broken bones, created Silly String.
But there are remedies worse than squirting 
metres of sticky mayhem across a jubilant face, 
outcomes bleaker than attempting despite the scissors 
to inhabit this twenty-first-century skin.
I live in a dream of plummeting from the earth’s 
tallest building without ever having felt more beautiful 
because I’m not the only one falling. I’m in a crowd, 
a loose democracy of descent, velocity with its hands 
all over our bodies, but not enough to stop us 
gossiping and blowing kisses as we speed 
through the air together, reckless paper birds. 
They will find us with our beaks wide open.  

Publishing credits

All poems: Reckless Paper Birds (Penned in the Margins)

  Shortlisted for the Costa Poetry Award 2019

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