Welcome from Amy D. Unsworth

Language, Literature, Learning & Life.

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!


Glenn Ingersoll said...

Nice new feature, Amy.

I like your reading of the poem; and I like the poem.

This line from the interview is good all by itself: "I knew a harpist who worked at an animal conservatory for birds in Georgia."

I'm amused that RJ worked as a "connivance store clerk"! I wonder what the difference in connivance is between day & night shift?

Amy D. Unsworth said...

Hi Glenn,

Nice to see you back at this end of the web. And I'm pleased that you're enjoying the feature. There are more to come!

Re: store clerk night shift
I imagine there's a lot more winking on the night shift.[connive is from the Latin: to close the eyes.]

On convenience vs. connivance: perhaps see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Connivance

But all of this is speculative, at best.

Thanks for dropping by!