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.

I review books I’ve loved. All views expressed in my posts are my own. This blog is not affiliated to any other individual, company or advertisement. If you’d like to get in touch, please visit my contact page, here.

Your comments as always are welcome…





‘Take your broken heart…’ What happens when tears fuel art


The most common question people ask when I tell them I’m writing a book is:

‘What’s it about?’

So I say:

A journalist goes to Madrid and discovers that the death of a celebrity is not what it seems.

‘But what’s it really about?’ The bookish or the curious inquire.

Trying to describe a deeper ‘Story’ is much harder. Like hinting at the essence of a song.

‘It’s a Mystery. With some thriller turns.’ doesn’t really do it, for a novel’s ‘big idea’ is something like its soul. Hard to put into words.

Last week a relative asked me the same question. I managed, in the end, to share the idea.

‘My book, I hope, will be about mourning.’

Dear reader, before you close this page, run out the room or start yawning, there will -fear not – be a plot.

But what I had in mind, beneath the action, is this:

It’s about what happens when we don’t grieve our losses – not just of loved ones – but the smaller deaths of everyday: disappointments, old resentments, pains, misunderstandings. How something softens when we allow ourselves to cry, the walls inside come down. And generation by generation there may be no progress until we fully mourn the difficulties of our own – and collective – past. 

Sadness is not fashionable. Public crying in Western culture is still taboo. Last year I spent some time in the UK and I remember speaking on the phone while sitting in a cafe, with tears streaming down my face. My sadness was soundless but the couple on the sofa in front of me stood up like they’d sat on a scorpion. They balanced their newspapers and their lattes, awkwardness seeping from their brows, and legged it.

The idea of facing and feeling sorrow can frighten folk, but I like to think of our histories – however wonderful or painful (often both)- as a hidden alchemy.

Much of the time it stays buried, beneath our habits and opinions. It lodges with the child we left behind. But when acknowledged and used right, it can change lives. The Midas touch of tears has the power to transform past pain into the greatest art on earth.

During his long and creative life, the German composer JS Bach suffered loss on almost a permanent basis. Both parents died when he was young, then an older brother. And in 1721, his other brother, the one who had brought him up, fell ill and passed away.

His beloved wife Maria followed, leaving him with many young children.

What did Bach do?

He wrote the Goldberg variations. A language through which he felt and shared life’s joy and pain. A vehicle for his grief.

The novels of Thomas Hardy are not for the fainthearted but read his poetry and you’ll meet a different man. In his ‘Poems 1912-13’ on the death of his wife Emma Gifford, it’s Hardy’s tears which touch the reader.

Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me

Saying that now you are not as you were

When you had changed from the one who was all to me,

But as at first when our day was fair.

Can it be you that I hear? Let me view you, then… From The Voice, by Thomas Hardy, December 1912

Grief has many guises. It is said that the Prophet of Islam would often walk with his face moist, that he cried easily. Babies and children don’t need to be told to let it out when they feel pain.

But what about men and women? I wonder what would happen if crying became not only socially acceptable but encouraged. After all, laughing is, so why not its watery cousin? How cleansed we might feel from our collective past. How avoidable the repetitions, addictions, tyrannies borne of buried grief.

Trapped unconscious energy makes us bend into weird shapes which aren’t who we are at all. In the world it burns bridges, fuels wars, builds walls so wide we cannot see each other anymore. We cannot see ourselves.

When traumatised holocaust survivors formed the state of Israel, successive governments unconsciously began the re-enactment  of a torture that they, or their parents had endured in 1930/40s Europe. The persecution of their fellow land-dwellers continues to this day because the personal work of the traumatised, the act of mourning has not properly taken place.

At the recent golden globes, Meryl Streep spoke about the tragedy for the Arts in the United States that is the new president. But fully mourning such ill-fortune could transform it to something else. It was her friend, Carrie Fisher who said :

‘Take your broken heart, turn it into art,’

Art could mean anything here: work, energy, scientific endeavour but it’s the process between the broken heart and its product that matters. It’s the very act of crying that opens the floodgates to renewal. The river which may take us – and those with us – to a very different place.


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