BOOK REVIEW: Panic Response by John McCullough

May 23, 2023

Review by Eric Page

This fourth collection of poems from Brighton poet John McCullough impresses. Circled by grief and seaside living as they are, like hungry wolves waiting the gutting flame of the protective fire to go out so they can rush you and sink unforgiving rhyme into hard mind bone.

He’s a dark bird is McCullough, setting his words aflight, leading us on, flying out across expansive landscapes of his mind then slamming us up against a wall, all beak, claw and frantic flapping wings. I’m Tippi Hedren on Hove seafront, the poet’s insistent breath on my neck, panting words, stealing ice cream. Swoon. It’s an unsettling read, threaded with humour that makes me laugh in spite of myself.

His metaphors continue to inspire and worry at you, exploding like textural origami in the mind. Phones become tigers, plankton twists into glowing agonised terror, he asks us to step inside mind and skin to feel first relationships, old scars, hope, joy and sadness – shared with us with proud savage lines. Oscar Wilde cavorts with worms, Noel Coward whispers vital encouragement to live hard, fast, wild, the rain dissolves whole architectures and coats regress to phantoms. McCullough is lush.

It’s everyday but dizzy like staggering along a busy well-known street with no one seeing you. The poems feel so simple, but their deft heave of emotion belies great craft and engineering in these apparently simple lines. I image the poet with chisel, picking out their words from inside a quarry block. He turns a walk along the beach into a worrying Orpheum mediation on goose barnacles.

His writing hangs about my memory, sidling up at night, teasing me with a half-remembered line, looking for a way in. One poem addresses the danger of books, of phrases kept in lead lined mental boxes of radioactivity lurking in the notebooks of researchers. Brighton (and Hove) is a living character in this book, the very filling of the walls of great Regency terraces given over to a poem all its own, asking us to think about what’s behind our own crumbling facades and reassuring us.

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Poetry should shift the mind, hard nudge it into a different place, leap chasms of reason in a single simile and blur the boundaries of emotions, places, physical states. Panic Response does this in a myriad of ways but with McCullough’s trademark brilliance. His cocky tart style of understated elegance serves us raw poetry. Wrapped in clever balanced prose, allowing us to enter the poet’s mind with ease, but occasionally wishing we’d not stepped across that portal.

His queerness is unequivocal, but don’t let that put you off – these poems sing of the body electric, harking of love commonplace and the pain we all share, these words grasp at meanings beyond print and text, and the trembling poet’s careful placing of them, deliberate one after another, trusting us to follow their lead, bring great reward.  Do I gush, then I gush..

This is superb LGBTQ+ poetry, poems from a queer voice of the highest quality, a book to return to, to open at random, to let into your mind to cavort. McCullough is also (and I’ve said this before) a bloody good read.


Out now, paperback £7.99

For more info or to buy the book see the publisher’s website here: