Spacecraft by John McCullough

Reviewed by Penny Boxall

Spacecraft is John McCullough’s second collection, following his lauded The Frost Fairs in 2012. This is a work of quiet song, one whose affecting tenor insinuates into cracks in the reader’s mind. Moreover, it has the definite feel of a collection; the poems share resonance, and McCullough’s interest in etymology, memory and gaps filter through the pages, gathering their resources even as they promote melancholy. This is a work from which to gain strength, rather than by which to feel depleted.

The book is divided into four sections – Flying Machines, Navigating a Space, The Space Age and Living Space. We are, of course, not dealing just with ‘space’ as the extra-terrestrial here; these poems are very much rooted in the domestic, too, in living- as much as outer-space. The opening poem, titled an artist-formerly-known-as-Prince-like unvoiceable ‘!’, flits between two dimensions – the 2D and the three-dimensional. In it, the exclamation mark is an event in and of itself, silently signifying shock.

It appeared without warning like an angel
or injury, this tall mark of havoc – a pillar of fire.

The speaker is, on the one hand, a monk-scribe startled by his own transgression in being the mouthpiece of the punctuation mark; on the other hand he is the contemporary poet, finding words for the explosion that ! demands. The punctuation mark also stands for the rise of HIV and AIDS, whose presence will be tragically felt throughout the rest of the collection: ‘Already it is intimate with bishops, philosophers. / I watch it flout borders…’ Here, already, is a voice to be reckoned with; and at this stage McCollough hasn’t even given us the word.

In the third poem, the poet is ‘Visited by a Church of Rain’; first visiting the physical church building, but later – in the rain – discovering the meaning of ‘church’. He ‘recall[s] / how only through forgetting can the church arrive’: and this line could serve as a sort of strapline to the book, which deals so affectingly with building things from memory. The past here is heavy, tangible. So we come to the central sequence, which deals with the aftermath of the death (from an AIDS-related illness) of the poet’s first partner – and the wonderful metaphor in ‘I’ve Carried a Door On My Back for Ten Years’.

You lugged it from the builder’s yard.
Now it’s my turn to know its stiff weight…

‘The problem is you died’ continues McCullough, with pathetic simplicity; and goes on:

All day we continue our back to front tango,
this dance where I almost but never arrive,
where I’m shut off to visitors for hours
then, with one touch, swing wildly open.

It is as raw and perfect a metaphor for grief as I have read.

There are many moments of heart-stopping rightness in this collection, but ‘The Mathematics of Plovers’ is of particular note for its matter-of-fact pain, its clear-sighted anger. It begins with an epigraph from Alan Turing – ‘A computer would deserve to be called intelligent if it could deceive a human into believing that it was human’ – and opens with a perhaps slightly heavy-handed description of ‘the Machine… playing on the beach’. However, the Machine image is justified by the second line: ‘He’s reconfigured the sky. Each cirrus is a thought charging’. Indented stanzas briefly tell the story of Turing at Bletchley Park and, later in the poem, his sexual encounters and subsequent hormone ‘treatment’ for homosexuality; but it is the ending of the poem which really hits the mark.

A plover hops closer
that isn’t part of a brain. The tiny head cocks

and they assess each other – the bird-like bird
and the man-like man, traversing the stone-like stones.

This poem-like poem does not merely resemble a poem; it is just what a poem should be. I know that this collection will, like a good wine, mellow in the memory, and demand my returning attention.