After reading a couple books on this year’s Polari First Book Prize shortlist, I decided to go back and reread the 2012 winner John McCullough’s book of poetry The Frost Fairs. It’s only fitting McCullough received recognition for this book by a LGBT prize because several of the poems describe ambiguous lines of gender and sexuality. In fact the very first poem is from the perspective of someone whose bits are “a mishmash of harbour and ship.” Later a character is vividly brought to life when described trying to apply makeup and contemplating “the logistics of masking your beard shadow in a jerking patrol car when you’ve only one eye.” More than describing the multifarious perspectives of queer and trans people McCullough’s poetry also seeks an idealised space where gender is levelled out and identity blurred. In one later poem which contemplates the sky he writes “Cloud sex – or merging and changing – complicates matters because it makes it hard to remember who they are or were.” With the act of transformation identity is destabilised and is shown to be something that is constantly being recreated.
This also demonstrates another skill of McCullough’s writing which is to reflect the personal and particular in the larger elements like a sky of clouds or a galaxy of stars. Although we often feel bound in our own circumstances and might feel our lives are stationary, McCullough’s poetry reminds us that we are inextricably bound to nature and the movement of the planet through an expansive ever-changing universe. My favourite poem in the book ‘The Light of Venus’ juxtaposes a pairing of Earth and Venus with a separated couple and the memory of when they were together. There is an incredible tenderness described with the couple’s meeting and the energy created from it is set against the proliferation of lightning storms on Venus hidden under the serene haze which covers the planet. There is a sense of threat, but also a tender union borne out of a need for survival.
Other poems in the book also evoke a beautiful sensual connection: “I picture your long fingers caressing the rims of improbable fountains, grasping mangoes from Assam, the sides of a bed that turns into a life-raft” His use of language creates a playful interplay between the erotic and fantastical. Again there is the sense of urgency – that romantic liaisons are both desired and necessary. The more sombre poem “Islands” sees a transformation similar to the above bed/life-raft where a bathtub turns into the sinister image of a boat filling with water. It feels as if these images aren’t only metaphorical but stand for the emotional reality of the narrator.
In a poem that draws the most direct connections between micro and macro worlds ‘On Galileo’s Birthday’ the universe is reflected in a bowl of cacti. Here there is the sense that casting our gaze outwards whether it be up to the stars or to lines of poetry we won’t discover any definitive answers. We can only marvel at the mystery and majesty of the world. This poem also seems to reveal McCullough’s primary mission in his incredibly moving and intelligent writing which is “plotting outer and earthly and inner space”