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.
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