Two poems by John Challis

 
 

The below poems are taken from John Challis’s debut collection, The Resurrectionists, forthcoming from Bloodaxe this month.

 


 

    There’s been talk

 

                               of a child born on Cheapside
with a wolf’s tail and goat’s breasts,
of Quakers down Cannon Street with pans of fire on their heads,

and months ago, in June, the city suffered
an eclipse. Now it’s Popish emissaries
throwing flames into the homes of Protestants.

They may ban our Merry Andrews, Jack Puddings, puppet shows,
or create the fasting days as though it pleased the Lord to see
the walking bones of children. Though men who work

neck-deep in death, who pawn the rings and talismans
robbed from those they lay to rest, still walk and breathe,
their skin un-judged. We’re yet to build Jerusalem.

 
 
 

    Deadman’s Walk

 

The last man to be hanged in public,
Michael Barrett undergoes a quiet word with Christ
and walks the narrow passage through
the bowels of Newgate Prison, his mind fixed
on the populace gathered in gin shops
where bookies calculate odds on whether
he’ll survive the drop, while Jack Ketch
swings from Gimonde’s fit-up, that’s the way
to do it! as a galloping in his gut begins,
the scene already pencilled in for the Illustrated
London News, the instant when his neck
will stretch like a chicken’s, his legs invite
a yanking from the crowd to end it faster,
and bartering for inches of the hanging rope

begins. No matter the crime,
rats arrive with sicknesses, and London’s
lost rivers rise to flood the cells
with sewage. Lucky for the hapless Fenian
to have made it from the cruciform
buried under Clerkenwell, that shape
of Roman punishment we dangle
from our necks, where darkness siphons
fat reserves, sharpening every edge.
To earn a place by God they come
at soiled dawn to watch the workmen
build gallows and line roads
with barriers, a nervous cheer
escaping those who like to hear rope

tautening, the singing chord
of the noose. Right hand man
of Christ behind him, Michael
Barrett almost buckles, ducking
through gradually narrowing
arches. Drowning in the curses
seen fit to coin by God, ahead
the doorways taper, diminishing
to focus him on this backwards
birth into the dark. He is so thin
he hardly needs to turn his waist
to fit through the concertina
of upright coffins that size
him down to fit the waiting

hole. If cruelty
were an architect
this passage
is its masterpiece.
Michael Barrett
steps to meet
the noose’s
open mouth
that wants
to weed out
Michael
Barrett’s spine
with a short
sharp

snap.
Then voices
calling through
the silence:
fresh fruit
and
cockles
and
eel pie
and
mussels
and
oysters
alive

 
 

John Challis

About John Challis

John Challis is the author of 'The Resurrectionists', due out from Bloodaxe in June, and the pamphlet 'The Black Cab' (Poetry Salzburg, 2017), which was a 2019 New Writing North Read Regional title. He is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize and a Northern Writers’ Award. His poems have appeared in Poetry Ireland Review, Poetry London, The Rialto, Stand, and elsewhere. He gained a PhD in Creative Writing from Newcastle University, where he currently works as a Research Associate. www.johndchallis.co.uk.