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John McCullough – Flock of Paper Birds

John McCullough’s first collection of poems, The Frost Fairs, won the Polari First Book Prize, and was a Book of the Year for The Independent, as well as a Summer Read in The Observer. His 2016 collection,Spacecraft, published by Penned in the Margins was named as one of The Guardian’s best books for Summer and was shortlisted for the Ledbury Forte Poetry Prize. His most recent poetry collection,Reckless Paper Birds, published by Penned in the Margins in 2019 was shortlisted for The Costa Book Awards. John teaches creative writing at The Open University and the University of Brighton. Here John recites his poem Flock of Paper Birds to the rushing sounds of squalling birds, wind and sea.

Transcript

Flock of Paper Birds. 

I needed the God of my childhood to be useful
        so I folded him,shaped his pages into wings. 

Cranes at first,then more challenging roosters,                        
      swallows, owls. I pinched edges, split clauses 

to make word plumage.I fractured Leviticus with             
     pleats.Now toucans mount doves 

on the kitchen counter, near an unholy pile
    of geese,cloacas gaping,beaks jabbing everywhere. 

Birds plummet from shelves without bothering
    to flap, remember nothing.Ink blurs 

feathers yellow.They drown in baths, rip luridly,
    turn up mangled in the hallway, footprints 

across their necks.Mostly, they’re individuals,
    smoothly indifferent to each other’s fates, 

though now and then some prop up neighbours
    if they topple, and when I lie with a visitor 

beneath my quilt,incubating his glorious buttocks,
    the flock discover their throats and sing together 

while I guide my tongue along warm creases
    and the tight sheet of his body unfolds. 

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