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Pages Rustle: Featured Poet Kevin Rabas

Second in the series Pages Rustle is a poem by Kevin Rabas. Each week through April (possibly longer!) I'll be featuring a new poem, my thoughts on the work, and a conversation with the poet. I hope you'll enjoy and come back again for the next installation!


Featured Poem "Mermaid and Drowing Sailor" from:

Bird's Horn & Other Poems

By Kevin Rabas

Coal City Review Press


Mermaid and Drowning Sailor


Tonight, under the full moon, she has gone
underwater, her red hair thick and flowing
just above some underwater jet stream, billowing
up, her fingers touch, naked, she looks into the drowned
sailor's eyes, waiting. Will he awaken? Behind her,
the glass, placid face of the water.
Above, shining through, the cosmos,
and some galaxy she feels tonight, forming, nascent,
behind her, lit also by the lights of his boat, overturned,
spectral highlights warming her kelp hair. She descends,
tracking the drowning man, watching, praying.


Clown fish gather, sea horses,
anemone move their porcupine quills.
No luck. More bubbles escape
the side of the sailor's mouth, a pearl necklace
of air, escaping; one half of the lung going.
This does not faze her, his body softening,
the body giving now to the underwater jet stream,
gaining speed, drifting quick. She follows quickening,
tracking, her eyes darkening, sensing he may awaken;
he may awaken, before his corpse settles at the edge of the abyss.


There is a sense of strangeness and wonder in this poem: the telescoping view of the ocean, sky, cosmos, all acting as concerned but unhelpful witnesses; the artful details of the sailor's death; the uncrossable abyss, the otherness, that divides the inhabitants of the ocean and the drowning man. I'm intrigued by this mermaid, another of those mythical sirens who draws men down to where they cannot survive, with her (almost) innocent, prayerful curiosity, her desire to see him awaken in her realm, her universe.

I can't comprehend all this poem offers on the first read; there's more to see, there's more to think about than the gloss of "mermaid watches man drown." The poem holds a myriad of possibilities, explanations, avenues of approach. Perhaps the easiest way to understand the poem is as a tale of lovers who cannot bridge their differences despite their best attempts. She is beautiful, he is swept away, he cannot thrive in her natural environment, though he's tried. His boat attests to his attempt.

But it's that idea of otherness, that prayer, that repeated "he may awaken;/he may awaken" as invocation, those hints that there is even more to grasp in this poem that makes me want to read the poem again. I feel the pressure of that sky, that galaxy over her shoulder, the man on the cusp between the vastness of the cosmos and the abyss of the sea. What is a human body? We are minutia, comparably.

We soften, we change, we age, we die. What more could the mermaid do? She knows no other way than this way of the sea, gill and fin. She cannot understand why the sailor (so alike her, yet so different) will not awaken. Aren't we as humans as strange to one another as the clown fish and anemone, and often as prickly? And when it comes down to another person's death(no matter how much they are cherished or loved) or even just in moments of crisis in another's life--what more could any of us think to do, besides watch and pray and hope and follow? And so often, we fail to comprehend what the small thing is that we could do to make things right. We miss the signs that would show us and allow us to reach out in help, one to another.


Q & A with Poet Kevin Rabas

Q: This poem is one of a few poems about the sea in your book. I'm reminded of the old joke about the sailor who takes his anchor and walks, finally settling where someone asks him "what is it that you're carrying?" How does a poet from Kansas end up writing poems about the sea?

Kevin: As you know, Kansas was once underwater. Almost everything we see in terms of the land is made out of oceanic sediment, and so perhaps the sea is still with us here, although the water has left. We can’t help thinking about it. My parents are from around Lake Wilson, and during their childhoods they could walk out into a field and find shark teeth. It reminded them of what the land they were standing on once was.

For this particular poem, I found inspiration in the foreign film Sex & Lucia. If I remember correctly the film opens with a male novelist naked and underwater in the ocean. It is night, and he is committing suicide. They surface together and make love. So, my poem, unintentionally, is a version of that opening. On the special features of the film, there is a still photo slide show, and from one of those slides I found the image I was looking for in the poem. There is the woman who “saves” the novelist, her hair spread out around her, underwater, and the lights behind and above her looks like stars and a glimpse at the universe. I thought she looked a bit like I imagine a mermaid might, and drawing upon the classic tales of sailors and mermaids, I started my poem. Also, of course, as a young person I was very taken with the Daryl Hannah/Tom Hanks movie Splash, about a mermaid who follows a man onto the land. So, I guess all of these things came together, much of it subconsciously, in the poem

Q: I know that many of your poems are jazz inspired, and maybe I'm just not enough of a jazz aficionado to see it, but is this poem linked to a particular jazz song?

Kevin: You know “All Blues” comes to mind as a jazz standard (“The sea; the sky; you and I”); however, I don’t know if I was thinking of it. I do try to get at jazz phrasing, when I can. I often write runs that are long and spur-of-the moment, as a bop player might, but there is a difference. I can go back and change them. I can revise.

Q: "Mermaid and Drowning Sailor" is in a section of your book that is titled "A Thousand Ways of Holding." I'm reminded of Derrida's idea of the supplement, that in a way we create objects (especially writing) to help us substitute for something that has gone missing in our lives, even though the created object also acts as a (sometimes unhealthy) reminder of that missing piece and prevents us from moving forward. How do you see the "Mermaid" poem and "Ways of Holding" interacting with each other?

Kevin: I was focused a lot on breath in this poem, thinking what would it be like to lose your breath gradually as you sunk? I swam competitively in high school and was a lifeguard for three summers, and so I remember that feeling, of losing your air and sinking, during extreme exercises and while wrestling underwater. Also, I was diligently practicing yoga in Lawrence when I wrote this poem, and part of my practice was to do exercises where I controlled and watched my breath. My yoga teacher was a good friend, and when I learned I would soon leave Lawrence, I knew I would miss her and the practice of yoga. So, breathing intentionally became attached to thoughts of separation and loss. I did focus on the ways of the breath, and yoga, when I wrote this poem. The bit about the lungs in the poem came right from what I was learning from that practice of intentional breathing.

Of course, the loss of anyone is a bit like a drowning. They sink into memory, and all I often remember are memories that are locked as images and words, as scenes—as sequences that mimic the episodes we see when we think we might lose everything, those snap shots or videos of our last moments that the brain triggers with its intense chemicals.


Three Poems More Poems to Note:

"First Evening"

"Tiger Shark"



Poet's Biography

Kevin Rabas co-directs the creative writing program at Emporia State University and is co-editor of Flint Hills Review. He has two books of poetry, Bird’s Horn and Other Poems (Coal City Review Press) and Lisa’s Flying Electric Piano (Woodley Press). He is the winner of the Langston Hughes Award for Poetry.

More about Kevin can be found at the Map of Kansas Literature and at the author's website.

Purchase Information: Amazon.com and elsewhere on the web.

Pages Rustle: Featured Poet RJ McCaffery

First in the new series "Pages Rustle" here at Small Branches Poetry is a poem by RJ McCaffery. Each week through April (possibly longer!) I'll be featuring a new poem, my thoughts on the work, and a conversation with the poet. I hope you'll enjoy and come back again for the next installation!


Featured Poem: "The Raptors" from:

Ice Sculpture of a Mermaid with Cigar

by RJ McCaffery

three candles press


The Raptors

Come to the conservatory bloody and tangled
in wire, wings crushed by cars, or with a .22 gouge
through membranous mesh.

They come in milk cartons, washtubs, strapped
by belts, shrouded, tea towels over their heads.
They would break themselves further to escape.

There is no shame in the fight, the blood-spattering, the lash.
Their bodies, bound, fail--and there is no shame
in the slow slide to rot, as the rind over hollow bones
softens. Some die. And some entrenched, beat
against a dulling pain--and wait, and wait.

On the far wall, a light table casts a forest
of whitened branchings with darker breaks.
A large black bottle, the smooth instruments shine.

In her heavy gauntlets, the doctor leans over a hooded hawk.
Gray bones still showing, its unbound talons twitch.
Guess what? she whispers, reaching for a needle--You,
you get to live.


Many contemporary poetry books tend towards narrative, not necessarily a boldly announced plot, but sub-plots that act as anchors to the greater themes of the book. I'm a great believer in reading poems in context and enjoy the play between the individual poem and the larger stories presented in the book. It's fascinating how seemingly unconnected poems start to weave together to say something more, to tell a story. Or perhaps I'm just a reader who always looks for those threads.

"The Raptors" at first read seems to be a straight forward descriptive poem that tells of an encounter with an injured hawk during treatment. The description provides good detail--it's easy to envision yourself there, opening the box with the injured bird, hoping for the best. The comparison of the x-ray in black and white with the negative image of the bird with its gray bones works particularly well. It's a poem that deserves to be read more than once, and specifically, aloud. One of the excellent attributes of the poet's work is his attention to sound evident in this poem and many others throughout the book.

Perhaps the first clue that there might be more to the story is the ambiguity of the opening line's "Come." Of course, it can be read along with the title "The Raptors/Come to the . . ." but possibility of the imperative "Come" opens up the poem nicely to secondary interpretations which tie this particular poem in with one of thematic elements of the book: the death of a lover, early in life. Read with knowledge of grief--that which wounds, that which must be allowed to healed-- the poem opens deeper into an exploration of emotion and the long, difficult, process of recovering that cannot be rushed.


Q & A with Poet RJ McCaffery

Q: The Raptors" has a set of great images: the x-ray in contrast with the image of the bird itself. Any thoughts to why you decided to present the negative (static) image before the image of the live bird?

RJ: That's an interesting observation. I'm sure it wasn't conscious as I was writing the poem. Which isn't to say it was unplanned, as I have a very general-to-specific arc in the poem. I'm certain that I wanted to work through the inhumanity (or inbirdanity) of suffering/pain before settling on the human interaction ("you get to live") towards the end. So many ways to arrive in distress, so many things to cause pain. Then the one moment where the doctor focuses on the one bird, the one moment of speech/communication. And, often, the healing/treatment is a mixed blessing - the bird gets to live, but at further cost. A cost we as rational humans might have no qualms in paying. And so, too, perhaps the bird - just the basic will to live.

Q: In context with other moments from the book, I read the poem as an expression of the difficulties of healing from grief. How does this compare with your idea for the poem?

RJ: Yes. See above, also. The cure is also painful - what of the birds that died? Is it a reward to live in such distress? I chose not to answer that kind of question here.

Q:I like the attention to sound in this poem and others throughout your book. Is there a particular author that you read that helped you to develop your ear?

Lux as a tutor, and as for poets - Hopkins, Thomas are my mainstays. Lux taught me how to drive a long sentence - and while his works are musical, I tend to make mine a bit more ornate than his. Hence the Hopkins/Thomas. But not only and exclusively them. You know I think poems are an oppertunity to speak carefully and fully - to load every rift with ore (as Keats would say). There's no one source for speach in which all the tumblers line up. You hear it (not often) everywhere, from anyone. You just have to be attentive to it - the allied consonants/vowels, the stress rhythm in tension with the grammatical rhythm, etc.

Q: Anything else you'd like to add about the poem, a bit of the back-story, etc?

RJ: I knew a harpist who worked at an animal conservatory for birds in Georgia. I had been thinking about doing something in the wounded animal realm - the emotions of animals are so much purer in certain contexts. It just kind of all came together for me. I had been recovering from a debilitating illness myself (chronic, unfortunately) and had been reflecting on pain, giving up, not giving up, and the cost of all of it.


Three Poems More Poems to Note:

"The Angel of Sleep"

"This Book in Human Skin"

"Causes of Death in London, 1632"


Poet's Biography:

RJ McCaffery was born in Manchester, Connecticut. He attended Providence College from which he graduated magna cum laude with Distinction in English Literature. He subsequently completed his M.F.A. in Writing at Sarah Lawrence College. Since that time he has lived in: Providence, Rhode Island; Athens, Georgia; Hartford, Connecticut; and Washington, D.C.

Following the tradition of many writers whose loyalty is first given to writing, he has held a bevy of jobs, working as a technical writer for an environmental engineering group, a public librarian, an immigration interviewer, a census taker, a handy-man, a mortgage processor, a receptionist for a health center, a teaching assistant, a student loan counselor, a warehouse palate-jockey, an eggplant picker, a car-deliverer, a book binder, a photo-developer, a web-site designer, book-store clerk, an office manager, a night shift connivance store clerk, a comic book editor, and a theatre manager.

An avid bicyclist, he builds his own bicycles which range from junkyard recumbents to fixed-gear uprights.

In the fall of 2004, he entered Georgetown University Law Center in D.C., in pursuit of a J.D., and not being able (or willing) to escape from poetry, he's recently been as pleased as punch to take up an editorial position at the New Hampshire Review.

More information about RJ can be found on his blog at http://scoplaw.blogs.com/


Purchase information:

Ice Sculpture of Mermaid with Cigar is available through the publisher: three candles press and elsewhere on the web.


Comments & Conversation always welcome!

Announcing: Pages Rustle: A Reading Series

I'm proud to announce a new series "Pages Rustle" here at Small Branches Poetry. Each week through April-Poetry Month (possibly longer!) I'll be featuring a poet, a poem from his or her book, and a bit of conversation, too.

If you'd like to be featured in the future, please contact me at the email address listed on my profile. I'm particularly interested in work by poets in the Mid-West. Suggestions appreciated!

Upcoming Featured Poets:

RJ McCaffery, Carole Weatherford, Kevin Rabas, Jeanetta Calhoun Mish, Tim Mayo, and more.

Poetry & Rain

I'm really happy to announce that another couple of my poems are available online. The first is at The Pedestal Magazine (I thought I mentioned this already, but perhaps only on FB.) "A Day Beginning and Ending in Crows" This poem was written after one of the best days I had teaching my introduction to literature class; we went outside as a class and observed the world after reading Henry David Thoreau's essay on walking. Ah, good memories that.

The other can be found at ouroboros review. (If that link doesn't work try: here) The journal has a nifty "faux book" interface which is fun to play with. I forgot to see which page my poem is on, although I did go read it and noticed fellow blogger Dick Jones has several poems there as well.

It's another bird poem "Interviews for Spring." I do write about more than birds. Really. But this month it's birds when I'm growing tired of the real ones. Tired of their bickering on the back porch over the plentiful seed. It's spring, almost, they should be moving on, building their little nests, and sitting hunched over the eggs. I'm tired of the marauding robins, too. They used to come in pairs, now they flock like starlings or grackles.

But it's spring, one shouldn't complain. The grass turns green blade by blade. It's only raining poetry, and that is a blessing.

So, not only have I been writing and actually placing a few poems here and there, more poetry conversation is forthcoming. I am working on a series of conversations and interviews with poets over the next few weeks. If you'd like me to read and possibly talk about your work, please send a note. And check back soon!

Three Candles in Archive

Some detective work today (ok, so it wasn't that hard!)

Three Candles has been moved to Archive and is now located at this link:
Three Candles in Archive all of the content should be there, waiting.

You can stop in and read several of my reviews there as well.

Mystery Solved.

A day of ebb and flow

It's been a day where the bad and the good intermingle, sorrow tempered by joy, a pleasant thought balanced by unhappy news. It has been much like standing at the fulcrum of the teeter-totter, trying not to tumble down, trying to say the right things, trying not to retreat into the hollow of the self. Disappointment & happiness, such temporal things. There is often no clear path, no two roads diverging into a happy woods, only thicket and underbrush followed by unbroken plains of snow with no signpost pointing "this way." We just muddle through and keep our eyes turned to the light.