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.
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.
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.
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.
All poems: Reckless Paper Birds (Penned in the Margins)
Shortlisted for the Costa Poetry Award 2019