Sunday, August 18, 2019

The Devil Who Raised Me By Robert Cooperman

The Devil Who Raised Me
By Robert Cooperman
Lithic Press
ISBN: 978-1946-583116
104 Pages

Review by Dennis Daly

If you like old fashioned western stories, where hard scrabbled virtues and youthful spirit go unrewarded and tragedy begets more tragedy, you’ll love Richard Cooperman’s The Devil Who Raised Me. Cooperman’s fictional antihero, John Sprockett, brought up by a doting mother and Jesus-loving hypocrite father, devolves from childhood innocence into a stone cold killer in antebellum Missouri. Along the way Cooperman breathes vitality into a cast of larger-than-life characters, some of whom abet evil, some who cherish goodness, and some who do both.

Cooperman conveys his story through colloquial verse. The episodic poems center intensity on individuals or actions and then gallop at breakneck speed to the next tale. Each character is thickly lined, so thickly lined in the way of cartoons or myths that the reader must choose his or her path of perception. Myth wins out. Cooperman’s dramatis personae rise to lofty and detailed heights or fall to nightmarish destruction.

Schooled by his mother in poetry, protagonist and future bad man John Sprockett courts Sarah, his true love, despite parental ignorance and cultural bigotry. Here, in Cooperman’s piece entitled John Sprockett, Seventeen, in Love, Sarah’s father speaks his mind and John envisions escape in a Romeo and Juliet redo,

I blame those poems
your Ma filled your head with!”
Mr. Gilchrist declared:
Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day
dirty as French postcards,”
though Sarah smiled, took my hand,
and kissed me, each time I recited it;
her knowing one feller, at least,
who’d stay true-in-love with her forever.

Still, a plan’s drumming in my head
like a fine horse rode fast and hard
over baked-dry prairie.

Satan’s work!” Pa would’ve sworn,
had he known. A good thing
he don’t suspect a thing.

One of the more complicated of Cooperman’s characters is Joseph Hawk Wing, a Kiowa and the tracker for the Sheriff’s posse that chases Sprockett and company on two different but continuous occasions. He nurses his own racial resentments and has come to a different conclusion on who the good guys and who the bad guys are. In the poem The Tracker Joseph Hawk Wing, Hawk Wing deliberates and comes up with an initial plan during the first chase thusly,

I’d have left this posse in circles
and when bedded down,
slit their throats, scalped them,
and helped Sarah and John find
a safe place in the wilderness,
or pointed them toward some city
where folks won’t root around
in their love business.

But I’m just white enough
to believe in the sanctity
of contracts and business deals:
well-paid by Henry Gilchrist,
I’ll find young Sprockett
and while Henry or the Sheriff
tosses a rope over a tree limb,
I’ll press knees to my mount’s withers
Before the killing starts.

One rhythmical action follows another in quick succession in Cooperman’s verse. Even the protagonist’s internal thoughts spin from scenario to scenario, expanding our understanding of the character. After his getaway, in a piece entitled John Sprockett Escapes, Sprockett considers a bleak future,

slung low in the saddle,
lead hornets buzzing past my head:
one nicked poor Mrs. Lydia Smith,
howling whilst I slapped leather,

to pay Ma and Neddie a last visit,
tell ‘em we’d meet in Heaven, though
I fear I’m heading down the hot chute,
knowing if they send the tracker after me,
my only chance is to kill him:
no one else can pick out my trail
like it was clear as a page of poetry.

Saddens me: I’ve sunk so low,
preparing to murder a man,
just for doing his honest job.

Unusually in a story like this, Cooperman gives voice to the collateral damage inflicted by the combatants—both good and bad. In the poem Mrs. Millicent Gilchrist, Hearing of Her Husband Henry’s Death, Mrs. Gilchrist bemoans her own fate this way,

You’ve gotten yourself killed, Henry,
on this manhunt I warned was doomed
when Young Sprockett escaped, first time.

You’d’ve given our darling daughter
to the banker’s rapscallion son;
I’d not let him near a mangy cur,
let alone our Sarah. Well, he’s dead too,
and good riddance to the vermin.

Young Sprockett rounded on your posse
like a grizzly. For that, I hate him
almost as much as I do you, Henry,
getting yourself killed, leaving me to mourn.

Cooperman even fleshes out an oracle in the guise of a local midwife to issue cautions to the rather ignorant menfolk running the show. In the piece The Midwife, Hannah Macalester, Months After the Sheriff Returns Alone, Macalester speaks as follows,

the Tracker and Sheriff
the only two to escape, and Sheriff wounded
so bad, he still ain’t fit to protect this town.

Leave that boy be, or he might kill
the whole state,” I’d warned him and Gilchrist.
Him and Sarah just dumb kids in love,
running off the best idea since canned peaches,”
but men never listen to sense, especially
from a woman they scoff is demon touched.

Like the fictionalized outlaw supermen Billy the Kid and Jesse James, Cooperman’s John Sprockett provides the antidote to this iniquitous age of class-governed legal systems and mythic neediness. Applause to Cooperman. Long live the cowboy anti-heroes, and their attendant legends.

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