Once you know the history of John Cornelius it’s difficult not to hear his poetry in your head, as you read it, with the deadpan wit, understated emotion and local-accent musicality of the 1960s Liverpool Beat Poets that he hung around with back in the day. That’s no bad thing. Understanding the roots of poetic expression will always bring extra dimensions and depth to words on a page.

Cornelius has been based in Hastings for some years now but first made his mark as a young
poet, lyricist, blues singer/guitarist and fine artist in his native Liverpool. He is well known for sketching the nightlife scene of the bohemian quarter of that famous port in his highly regarded book LIVERPOOL 8.

Combing My Hair For The Hangman, a thirty-six page chapbook of fifty-one poems, was published in 2012 and so I read this first before reviewing Cornelius’ latest collection. Besides, I really like the title, taken from one of the poems therein, which highlights the idea that whatever we do in life may not actually matter that much as (to quote a Tom Waites/Kathleen Brennan lyric) ‘…we’re all going to be just dirt in the ground.’

Trying to make sense of our lives whilst considering its transience, and sometimes seeming futility, is an often-explored theme in both literature and religious or philosophical thought. Many of my favourite writers, such as Celine, Kerouac, Bukowski and the US Beat Poets, have all examined it. Here, in ten short lines, Cornelius has reminded us that sometimes the tiniest of individual actions is not always necessarily that different to the greatest of achievements or most magnificent of deeds – a very Buddhist idea.

This ‘celebration of the ordinary’ crops up a lot in Cornelius’ poems, ‘Curvature’ and ‘Some Achievement’ being two examples. There are nods to people he admires as meaningful because he has noticed a fragility and natural nonchalance within them, as in ‘I Remember Sarah Kennedy’, ‘Daddy’s Girl (Amy Winehouse)’ and ‘Kirsty Wark.’ This latter poem, about the BBC’s Newsnight presenter, celebrates her plain and simple authority, and I’m with him on that.

Exposing the pornography of privilege is another subject Cornelius tackles skilfully, following in the tradition of some of our great protest lyricists and poets of the last fifty or more years. Think of Woody Guthrie and Dylan on the songwriting front, or Heathcote Williams, John Cooper Clarke and Attila the Stockbroker in terms of poetry collections. Examples in Combing My Hair For The Hangman are ‘Judge Ye Not’, ‘Why You Shouldn’t Shoot Birds’ and (my personal favourite for reasons of self-identification) ‘Work Ethic.’

Living In The Mystery, a perfect bound collection of sixty-four poems, was published in 2017 and brings a whole new dimension to Cornelius’ work. The theme of death and rebirth, or what Buddhists may refer to as ‘impermanence’, is revisited here through poems such as ‘Marius The Danish Giraffe’ and ‘Think On Lad’, yet there are also added references to sickness and physical frailty throughout this book.

Knowing little of this writer’s current personal circumstances (which I would not wish to anyway, as my review is based purely on the work) I could not help feeling that this collection looks back to a time when the mechanics of daily life were somewhat easier for him. There are many clues to a compromised physical health, including references to a wheelchair, and most obviously in ‘Hello Old Friend’, with a bracketed elucidation following the title stating “Before I became ill…”

That said; the title poem, which introduces this collection, is a concise and upbeat paean to the open mind. Cornelius is content to observe, dream and feel, without sentimentality or any automatic recourse to whatever we may have been told about the world in which we live. I like that idea as a starting point for poetry. Some of the most enduring poems are born from a perspective of youthful innocence, rejection of conformity, or world-weary rebellion.

Further on we find more autobiographical poems such as ‘What A Life’ detailing childhood reminiscences and emotional revelations, whilst also referencing some of the cultural influences that have shaped and informed this poet’s work. There is a subtext of yearning for his younger years underlying much of this collection and we know Cornelius is at an age (born in 1949) when many of his contemporaries are “…all going down like ninepins”. This is well illustrated in ‘How Am I Supposed To Say Goodbye’, ‘Bongo’ and ‘The Perfect Time Of Life’.

My stand-out favourite poem of Living In The Mystery, however, is the scouse-zen and haiku-like Messiah’s Blues. It was if by some subconscious telepathic arrangement with the author, that I just so happened to read this over the Easter weekend. It felt like perfect timing – poetic philosophy and wit neatly encapsulated into two short and simple lines. As is so often the case in creative expression, less is more.

I enjoyed reading this collection a lot and the variety of the work is refreshing. Here you’ll find everything from droll observations (‘The Hypochondriac’), recollected song fragments, celebrations of our own quirky Hastings (‘Ships In The Sky’ and ‘Winkle On The Stade’), right through to the confessional ‘Dockyard Song’ and the mortality-confronting ‘You Might Well Laugh’. It’s a sobering thought that one day some of us may find ourselves trapped in M & S and shopping hell “…Hiding out in a forest of trousers” (‘Homo Castratus’).

Both of these collections are well worth their cover prices of £4.99 and £9.95 respectively. Edited by Alan Corkish they are published by and available through the prestigious Liverpool-based erbacce-press. Or if you’re in town pick them up from Bookbusters.


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