Before I ever read a poem by Tommy McCaffrey, I had a drunken argument with him about Kanye West‘s song, “Monster“. By the end of the night, we had talked our way from Yeezy to Philip Levine and back again. I found out he was a poet by this happy accident. In the same accidental way, I found out about I Have To Tell You And This Is Not The Right Time (burst and bloom records) on Facebook. During our brief, tangential acquaintance, I knew him best for the “nightly decapitations/at the bars/and the afternoons pig-piling beers” he mentions in “Eagerness”. I’ll admit it: I wasn’t ready for this book when it found me. But as each poem unfolds, unpretentious and concise (many of the verses end before making it halfway down a single page), its as if McCaffrey is arguing with his surroundings in the same way he argued with me.
Where so many poets approach thick emotional content (death, grief, heartache, et al) with a level of fanfare that drowns out the humanity of an individual’s experience, McCaffrey wisely backs off. This impulse gives “Anenome (partial work)”, an eight part study remembering the speaker’s father, enough distance from the loss it narrates for the reader to make her own decision about who the father is, if and how he failed the son, and exactly how important his absence might be when weighed against his presence. None of the questions that come up while reading are answered for you. None of the heavy emotional lifting is simplified by a cue from McCaffrey. The result is an almost airy essence of loss, illuminating a truth very hard to get at: when someone imposing is suddenly absent, there’s a sense of space that’s as invigorating as it is depressing. The speaker moves from “feeling nostalgic about the present” to describing how “being alive asks you for a lot of yourself”, observations which, out of context, seem heavily self-important. Except that these same moments live alongside free pizza coupons, imagining what a bartender “would look like naked and inserting a VHS tape into/her VCR”, and an at-once sad and hysterical characterization of dead fathers as “the pitching coaches of our lives”.
His sense of humor soars in the sparse “Variations on Facebook” where the reader infers an increasingly horrific newsfeed based on a litany of gut reactions. His sense of balance–when we need to laugh, sigh, or change directions entirely–is his best asset. Reading and re-reading the collection, I am struck by how many times the poems are set in bars or speak of drinking. Normally, this repetition of setting and subject would distract me, but in McCaffrey’s case, by the time the collection comes to close, I was only struck by how everything mentioned in the book seemed to have equal weight. The urgency suggested by the title is present, but it is more of a latent tension than any kind of melodrama.
In the collection’s final poem, “The Exit Interview,” McCaffrey’s disarming admission, “I wanted to tell her everything” only reminded me of how much he’d managed to say by layering imagery while withholding most of the facts. I Have To Tell You talks much less than expected, but offers enough insight to keep you considering what is said long after the last page.