Why I’m reading: Reckless Paper Birds by John McCullough

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This quote popped up in my twitter feed earlier this month and it propelled me to take a closer look at the poetry of John McCullough.

Drawn by his letters on craft, I ended up buying the poet’s most recent book, Reckless Paper Birds which as a collection simply soars.

I asked the man behind the bookshop counter whether a lot of people are shopping for poems these days, and he said, ‘enough’ as a woman passed asking where she might find the work of another great contemporary poet, Raymond Antrobus.

The bookseller smiled, in that cathedral of bookshelves on Piccadilly, and told me:

‘Poetry is gaining in popularity, thanks in part to Instagram. The instagram poets.’ 

Costa Prize shortlisted John McCullough is a poet more traditionally published – he has several books out. His latest, Reckless Paper Birds, plays with the various journeys made by birds. They travel through this deep and vivid collection, soaring and plummeting ‘reckless.’  One creature ‘sprints beak down’. They make this collection move as a single piece and also scatter into themes.

On the opening page ‘a robin has built his nest inside a Reebok’ and already we are given a glimpse of the specific and beautiful fragments which populate this book.

The theme at the start seems to be homelessness or rootlessness and is later echoed in the poem ‘Michael’ which takes the form of a Q and A to a man who sleeps in ‘Doorways’:

[Q] How many nights will you spend here?

[A] It’s impossible to kill yourself by holding your breath.

The heart rending will to self-annihilate is made plain in an interview by one man who does not scare ‘the customers’ to another, who possibly does, and this terrible ousting by society returns later as we read of casual homophobia on a train by members of a ‘stag night’ .

In another poem, discrimination of a more murderous kind exists when a president’s vision of a nation erases sections of society and is positioned against the writer’s elimination of tumbleweed from an outdoor space.

There is much light between these lines. It sometimes feels like John McCullough has created an anthem for the finely attuned. If you read Susie Boyt or Kazuo Ishiguro you’ll recognise the acute attention given to everyday emotion through powerful and sensitive imagery. Each of McCullough’s poems is both a mirror to our most tender selves and the window to a myriad of worlds via the journeys of imagined ‘paper birds’.

In the poem, ‘Please don’t touch me my head falls off, ‘ the body becomes a site for the sheer terror of being alive:

‘I’m petrified

of the thump in my chest that is four valves closing,’

I love the way he cuts through urban city scapes and hipster modernity (‘the undergrad above is deconstructing brands of bubble bath’)  with pure flashes of nature (a ‘jay’s wing swoops through the morning.’)

These are poems which appear to achieve effortlessly the ‘clarity and simplicity’ which Elizabeth Bishop describes in the author’s tweet (above). McCullough’s language paints pictures sharp and compelling while leaving space for the vulnerability in his vision.

Reckless Paper Birds

The poem Flamingo is a surrealist slice into an evening spent at a nightclub. Lines point to a topsy-turvy Lear-like world (‘The powder cakes say EAT ME and we do’), vivid with imaginings of dressing up and being refashioned by another’s gaze.

The speaker, ‘standing on one perilous leg’ evokes the flamingo of the poem’s title and also the first line of a protest poem by John Agard, ‘Excuse me, standing on one leg…’

I realised, reading the poem, ‘Flock of Paper Birds,’ that poetry – as opposed to story – can allow a writer to self-disclose in snapshots, without biography.

It seems to be all about creases – reams of paper birds folded from pages of the Hebrew Bible. Is this a poem about ritual and forgiveness or are we being told that a transformed sheet may ‘sing’ while a different, human, unfolding occurs? Certainly the unfolding we witness in this book is transformative.

When I bought this collection, I asked the bookseller on Piccadilly about poetry sales because it has always baffled me how under-read books of poems have been, among other genres, historically.

A well-written volume of verse seems to me both balm and wake up call, an antidote for the inside while the outside world insists that certain things are absolute.

Reckless Paper Birds contains the most beautiful of salves, connecting in its talk of difference, celebrating the fragility of the physical, swooping to pick up and examine the pretty – sometimes harrowing – pieces that the slipstream of modern life leaves behind.


Reckless Paper Birds is published by Penned in the Margins, available to purchase at all good book shops.


This blog recommends pairing a reading of Reckless Paper Birds with another incredible poetry collection, The Perseverance by Raymond Antrobus.

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