Pighog Press, 2007 - £6.00 + £2.00 p & p
This is a strangely inconsistent pamphlet—quite brilliant, even exquisite in parts, but all the more disappointing (because of that excellence) in others. The contrast is highlighted by two poems employing extended conceits: ‘The Loft Fire’, an entomological fancy contrasting warm memories of nature with its cruder realities, which despite the title never catches light; and ‘Something Fiercer’, a terrific philosophy of buttons condensing all the delicious possibilities of the physical world into twenty-one lines:
Those devious tones as they bump
into fingernails, those ticks and clacks
are trademarked in the button world
they inhabit when left
to their own devices.
Other aspects of our world are captured with equal grace—cactuses, “each one a fat galaxy/ of spiny stars” (‘On Galileo’s Birthday’), the allure of the chemistry lab (“Chipped oak, a gas tap, scores of powdered specimens”, ‘Known Light’) or most extraordinarily, ‘The Iceberg Marlene’:
You can never take Marlene seriously
because, as she’d tell you, she’s Hollywood
in its enormity, a glassy puzzle
McCullough displays similar mastery of the semi-abstract, in ‘Cold Fusion’ charting the aftermath of the lifting of a drowned corpse in three very different souls:
A passing nurse crossed herself,
two boys dashed for a bus
and I carried on home
trying to skate round your absence.
There’s never any forcible yoking of circumstance, image and meaning in these poems; rather they seem to be crafted of one piece, “when sun is thrown on a wet road” (‘Spell’) or “this floral horde has opened/ for the courting season” (‘Hyacinths’).
This resounding quality leaves the reader nonplussed at the aimless, take-it-or-leave-it development of a long poem such as ‘Reading Frank O’Hara on the Brighton Express’, the anthropomorphism of ‘The Aquarium Party’ or the limp philosophising of the opening poem, ‘Tropospheric’. Perhaps we should not expect perfection—or even sustained quality—throughout a book, but having tasted it the palate craves more. I’m unsure whether this becomes the poet’s problem, or our own.
James Roderick Burns