Robert Cooperman A Nightmare On Horseback, Kelsay Books, American Fork, Utah 2022, 130 pages ISBN 9781639801688 $23.00
Robert Cooperman specializes in narrative poetry. He creates stories, scenes, and characters on every page of his books. This narrative is about a ruthless gunslinger and killer John Sprockett. The time is the 1860’s, the American Civil War. The place of most of the narrative is the border state of Kansas. Sprockett grows up with a crazed, violent, jealous stepfather who is a preacher and who discovers that John is not his son. This enflames him to kill Sprockett’s mother. Sprockett’s girlfriend dies giving birth to his son. Since the couple ran away from their respective homes, both fathers are maddeningly furious with him. Sara’s father hires a posse to chase him down after murdering his younger brother and Miz Wilton, a kind lady who took them in and gave them refuge. This is the story only after the first poem.
The narrative throughout the book is a combination of Cormac McCarthy and Sam Peckinpah. Sprockett gets attacked by a bear, who permanently disfigured him. His face was a horror to look at and caused revulsion and fear. Sprockett guns down most of those chasing him. Later he joins up with William Quantrill a Confederate guerilla leader who terrorizes Missouri and Kansas. Quantrill’s gang of Confederates murder any northern slave sympathizer they come across. They murder men, women, and children. Sprockett kills men, armed and unarmed, and male teenagers but won’t shoot women or young children. This is one redeeming virtue, perhaps.
The story is told by the main protagonists, Sprockett, Quantrill, and those in that group, plus their victims. After a massacre at Lawrence, Kansas, Sprockett picks up a runaway slave, Sylvia Williams. He teaches her over time to read and write and they, as far away from a Hollywood couple as you can get, become companions to each other.
The narrative is complex and many characters narrate the poems in the tale. Quantril is a historical character, probably as evil as Cooperman portrays him. Sprockett is in one sense a murdering devil full of rage. It is not a happy tale. In fact, the narrative sounds like contemporary American society to a degree. There are nuances of character but there are a lot of characters who dine on hate and revenge.
Since the book is a series of connected tale-telling poems the words that Cooperman uses are key players for the reader. Here are two stanzas of a poem on page 68, John Sprockett speaking:
I want men to fight back, want io smell
Black powder heavy as a spring storm,
To feel my blade rip a man’s gut, before
He can do the same to me, not an old timer,
His hands too crippled to fire a musket,
Or women or girls begging for mercy
Of not being done over by men whose’s blood
Wild as a splay-taloned eagle on a mouse.
I want to make men suffer, for that grizzly
Raking my face like a plow breaking up clumps
Of winter soil ahead of the spring planting,
Want to feel the wind of musket balls crease
The air like April’s sweetest breezes,
Want to ride into battle like a Comanche warrior
And count coup against a worthy enemy,
Not be a marauder slaughtering innocents,
To bring Jesus ‘ wrath down on me for all time.
To illustrate the command of language Cooperman has in telling his tale here are two more stanzas. This time the speaker is Ellis Townshend, mayor of Chatham: The runaway slave is the aforementioned Sylvia Williams. This is from a poem on page 122.
Why a runaway slave woman
Would ride with that Secesh murderer,
John Sprocket, I couldn’t figure.
And why she’d defend him against us
That wanted to exalt him all legal,
To avenge the good, slave-hating citizens
Of Lawrence, an even bigger mystery.
Them two should’ve been more natural
Enemies than coyotes and sheep dogs,
But they seemed cozy as broke-in boots.
Wouldn’t surprise me if they weren’t more
Than traveling companions: evenly matched
In looks, or lack of them: her squat, bow-legged,
And her face more wrinkled than a windfall
Apple that’s sat on the ground all winter.
Each poem is rich with such language. I’ve never seen the word “Secesh” before. It is an archaic, informal word referring to Secessionists, Confederates. Cooperman knows how to make his characters sound authentic as well as giving the common speech poetry.
I think the book is an interesting read and relates in many ways to contemporary America—the violence, the hate. The psychology. There is much ingenuity in the poet’s craft of telling his tale.
© Robert Cooperman and Dan Cuddy
Robert Cooperman is the author of over twenty poetry collections, most recently A Nightmare on Horseback (Kelsay Books) and Bearing the Body of Hector Home (FutureCycle Press). Forthcoming from Aldrich Press is Hell at Cock’s Crow. Also forthcoming is Cooperman’s third and probably final love letter-chapbook to the Grateful Dead, Youth’s Joyful Noise.
Dan Cuddy is currently an editor of the Loch Raven Review. In the past, he was a contributing editor of the Maryland Poetry Review and an editor for Lite: Baltimore’s Literary Newspaper. He has had a book of poetry published, Handprint on the Window, in 2003. Most recently he has had poems published in the End of 83, Broadkill Review, the Pangolin Review, Madness Muse Press, Horror Sleaze Trash, the Rats’s Ass Review, Roanoke Review, the Amethyst Review, and Gargoyle.