The Frost Fairs – John McCullough
John McCullough’s book The Frost Fairs is being launched tonight in that London and I’m delighted to post three poems from the book here to tide us all over till then.
You can buy the book direct from Salt here and until the end of May you can get a 30% reduction by becoming a fan of Salt, here. You really should, you know, he’s a bit special is John…
Reading Frank O’Hara on the Brighton Express
I might believe we are stationary.
It’s only everything out there kindly
hurtling past, the grey verticals of Clapham
revealed as bars of a song. I might lend my ear
to catch cirrus chit-chat then touch down
at Gatwick and watch parked cars nuzzle
in tidy rows. Which reminds me to sort
my manners out, to raise a hand to waving trees
whizzing backwards, plastic bags in their branches
brilliant flags announcing carnivals
in Balcombe, Wivelsfield, Hassocks.
I could trill like a starling myself, bless everything
outside and within this case of human fireworks:
the silver-chained lads probing Burger King bags
like lucky dips; the Tannoy woman who is Our Lady,
surely, with a mobile altar of Ribena and Coke;
the suits with Guardians hiding Heat magazine.
I might realize Brighton doesn’t exist,
is being invented for our arrival,
the shops plugged in, the prom laid down,
the smiles carved in random pebbles
there where buses have names
so we can get knocked down by Dusty Springfield.
I could conjure up crowds auditioning
for the North Laine, all dreadlocks and posturing,
benefits and big schemes, with different kinds
of queen walking different kinds of dog –
vital clutter that dashes or repairs
Brighton dreams, that brings death or a boon
for the West Pier, swaying over the surf.
It all glides on towards salt-caked houses
and the united panes of Betjeman’s station,
though it’s not him but you, Frank, who I picture
in the station café, coughing your lungs out
above a latte as you eye the black waiter.
In just a moment I shall pass the gates
of heaven and find you,
my memories of travel left in the ticket machine
as we stroll out down Queens Road,
the sun on our skin, the sea shining so whitely
that we stop and stare and keep on staring.
where we turned off the dissolving path
to chance uncertain territory. High dunes
like hills of sugar, so smooth we lost whole feet
but found ourselves again, defied dense sky
by making our own light. We followed
the roaming fence and, like the rabbits
darting over marram, were never caught out.
We reached a new country, the sea
at first too far and blocked by swerving
channels – mercury in the dimness –
but we weren’t afraid to innovate,
rolling up trousers for running jumps,
splatting down with a squelch to write names
in sand among the casualties
of starfish, bladderwrack. Messy letters,
our fingers digging past the first resistance,
our only witnesses the wind turbines way out –
a sleepy, inaudible crowd, two so close
to each other from our perspective, we swore
they must have occupied the same dream.
The Other Side of Winter
Overnight the Thames begins to move again.
The ice beneath the frost fair cracks. Tents,
merry-go-rounds and bookstalls glide about
on islands given up for lost. They race,
switch places, touch – the printing press nuzzling
the swings – then part, slip quietly under.
Still, there is no end of crystal weather.
I hoard coal, stare mostly at the chimney’s back,
fingering the pipe he gave me on the quay.
Even now it carries his greatcoat’s whiff:
ale, oranges, resolve. I remember his prison-ship
lurking out from shore, huge as Australia.
I’ll write, my dear sweet man, he said
then squeezed my thigh and turned, a sergeant
again, bellowing at a flock of convicts.
I do not have the nerve to light it.
The mouthpiece is covered with teeth marks, sweat.
I look out at my museum-garden,
the shrubs locked in glass cases,
the latticework a galaxy of frozen dew.
There is no snow in New South Wales.
I cannot put the pipe down. It makes things happen.
Last week I heard a crash and ran outside to find
a jackdaw flat on the lawn. It must have fallen
from the sky, its wings locked together
by hardened sleet, its neck twisted as though broken
from straining to see the incredible.