Simon MacCulloch


The sky is grey as slate within a wet November dawn
The half-denuded trees hang limp, the air is close as skin
The worms are all a-wriggle in the sloping, squelchy lawn
I venture out and all about the dankness hems me in.

Along the bottom of my garden runs a muddy brook
Deep-cleft and gloomy, swollen by the night’s persistent rain
I struggle through the bushes, half-afraid to take a look
For something wet is crawling yet within my sleep-fogged brain.

I dreamed about a crocodile - it drifted like a log
Along a swampy river where the roots of trees rose bare
With stinking mist to cover, floating clumps of weed to clog
The brownish flow that tried to go where sunlight wouldn’t dare.

The crocodile, unchanging since the dim primeval past
A scaly exudation of the planet’s murky id
A lump of brute survival - as at first, so at the last
Moved slow and sly, well hidden by the ooze through which it slid.

When Blake described the tiger, wondering who could frame its shape
The beast was bright in beauty, though inimical to man
The crocodile cares not - tyrannosaurus, mammoth, ape
A passing slew of two by two since life on Earth began.

When Shakespeare’s Romans claimed that it was bred from mud by sun
They knew that such an animal owed nothing to the art
Of God or man, a thing unique, intransigently One
Itself alone, its form its own, defiantly apart.

But in my dream, the strangest thing! The ancient reptile spoke
To me of all the other cringing animals alive
Disclosing cryptic wisdom in a soft abysmal croak
It told me how, from then to now, a being might survive.

“Cast off your veil of conscious will, let thought and blood run slow
Grow scales of hard indifference, make long your wordless jaw
And drift like death, serene upon the reeking river’s flow
No pang of mind for what’s behind, no hope for what’s before.”

I’ll lay me in the water, I’ll immerse me in the mud
I’ll leave my spirit rotting with the mulch that lines the bed
I’ll let the cold of Cambrian epochs seep into my blood
And when it’s done we’ll be as one, unliving and undead.

The sky is warm and blue above the Spring’s relentless green
I’m basking in the garden, and the heat upon my skin
Is all I need to know of, all that life can ever mean
The rich damp earth, the slow rebirth, a crocodilian grin.


“The sight of the top of the gas tank had proved more frightful than the appearance of the drop beneath. There lay about it a sense not of material danger, not of the risk of falling, but of something removed and inhuman - a sense of appalling isolation.” - William Sansom, “The Vertical Ladder”

At the heart of existence, a hole
And an instant of spite or of pride
Is enough - you’re abandoned outside
On a desert of rust, red and wide 
In the cavity blown in your soul.

And you’re hanging, exposed yet shut in
In a prison of rooftops and sky
With a summit impassably high
Beyond who, beyond how, beyond why
Beyond reach of the guilt for the sin.

And perhaps in the end you will fall
From the blind sheet of iron that you face
And your plunge through the echoing space
And your corpse like a doll at the base
Will mean nothing here, nothing at all.

Or perhaps you will die where you cling
Like a beetle, and wither and blow 
With the wind, while uncaring below
The ghosts of the world come and go
And the walls of the emptiness ring.

It began with a wish to excel
Now it’s finished in helpless despair
For we breathe isolation like air
Till we stand in the wasteland and stare
At that rusted old gas tank, our shell.

Whip Hand

“Just like something out of a nightmare this Squaler was, for all his smart, tight-fitting clothes, bow-ties, and thin-soled, pointed yellow boots.” - H A Manhood, “Crack o’ Whips”

A pub yard in Whitechapel’s where he comes in
A spider-mind devil, no friends and no kin
Whose eyes float like poisonous crystals in gin
 - A stolen-dog trainer, alert to begin
The war with the world he’s determined to win.

The crack of his whip, never missing a beat
Asserts his command through the yard’s dirty heat
To train his new dogs till the troupe is complete
But urchins come peeping from out in the street
And soon they have improvised whips to compete.

The dogs are confused by this medley of cracks
The urchins evade all his furious attacks
He flails with the whip at their runaway backs
Defeated and raging, retraces his tracks
To make up in cunning the speed that he lacks.

He kennels the dogs, leaves the door of the yard
Enticingly open to those he had barred
So Redhead, the foremost with whom he has sparred
Peers in and is captured; the whip lashes hard
And Redhead is reeling and shrieking and scarred.

But wall-scaling friends scramble in to assist
The door is burst open; with boot and with fist
They fell him; he strikes out again but he’s missed
And fingering weals where the trainer’s whip kissed
Their leader stamps down on each well-pinioned wrist.

That’s all: an old Adam who doubled as Cain
Provoked an encounter as ruthless as pain
And came out the loser; such victories are vain
For bones may be broken but cruelty’s bane 
Endures, with the cracking of whips its refrain.

Simon MacCulloch lives in London and is a regular contributor to Reach Poetry, The Dawntreader and Sarasvati.