Robert Cooperman’s Reefer Madness, Reviewed by Dan Cuddy

Robert Cooperman, Reefer Madness, Kelsay Books 2021, ISBN :978-1-954353-68-8, 109 pages

Robert Cooperman is a storyteller who tells his tales in poetry. Recently I heard criticism of his work because he isn’t Emily Dickinson. Excuse me? There was one Emily Dickinson in American poetry. Cooperman’s inspiration and experience are a whole century different than Dickinson’s. Cooperman is a very social writer. He has a sharp eye for society’s quirks and odd characters. He has his own voice as well. You can recognize it in every book he has written. Humor, satire, drama are integral to it. His work, no matter the subject, is entertaining. It is also thought-provoking in its subtle way. Cooperman is not the lyric poet that Emily Dickinson is, but he doesn’t try to be. He is himself. Narrative and the vagaries of human personality are his strengths. Besides, who else is the late Emily Dickinson but Emily?

Cooperman’s latest book is titled Reefer Madness.  The title is taken from the notorious and ridiculous film of the same name. The first title of the film was Tell Your Children. It stars among others the B-film cowboy star Dave (or “Davey”) O’Brien. The film is an exercise in moralistic hyperbole. Its purpose, besides making money, was to warn society against the evil weed marijuana. Cooperman’s book is not a retelling of the movie or a spoof, but a more realistic memoir about the 60’s and 70’s, and it is a satire of the present day’s attitudes toward pot. The book is really two books complimentary of each other. The first part is about Cooperman’s experiences as a student and young adult in New York City. The second poem in the book is titled The First Night I Tried Weed: Brooklyn College. Having the consciousness of a poet he embroiders his reminiscence with literary allusions.

One night of aimless driving,
I ran into Mark, the class hippie
He held up a joint, as if Lady Liberty’s
Torch. In high school, it was gospel
That one “puff” would turn us
Into groveling heroin addicts.

But now, in commuter college,
Curiosity won. In his attic room,
Mark toked up and handed me his joint,
My lungs a forest fire; a second drag
Ended in Keats’s tubercular spasms.
By the third, I felt smoke mist down,
Though still nothing, even with the trippy
Guitar solo from “Dear Mr. Fantasy”
Sizzling the stereo’s speakers.
An hour later, sober as a mortician,
I thanked Mark and left, shaking
my head over what the big deal was.

My parents’ Ford a brontosaurus,
My knuckles full-moon-white
To maneuver into a street narrow
As one of the alleys in Dickens’ London,
Footpads with truncheons blocking
Both exits; somehow, I drove home
Without smashing into a telephone pole.
And wheezed up the Matterhorn
To my parents second floor apartment.

Giggling at a joke only I could get,
I fell into bed, the room a tilting merry-
Go-round in a Hitchcock mystery,
but no desperation, thank God,
To shoot smack.

The poems in this section are made of memories told with a bit of color and humor. These memories are somewhat celebrated by the persona of the author who admits that part of the enticement was the fact that pot was illegal for a long time. That risk made partaking more of an adventure. He does write about the coughing and his wife’s balance of tolerance and disapproval.

The writing is always heightened and interesting, not prosaic. Like I said above, Cooperman can be criticized for not being a lyric poet. However, that criticism isn’t fair because he is writing a more social type of poetry rather than the individual intense lyrics of Emily Dickinson. In the poem quoted above, you will see metaphors like the brontosaurus or the alleys of Dickens’s London. They add color, and, though not tools of metaphysical genius or a halberd used to assault for a social cause, they accomplish what the author set out to do—relate his experiences. Cooperman is a mature writer and looks back on his youth with fondness but also the mature wisdom he has gotten living a full life. The readers share in the adventures. Some of the poems were created from wisps of imagination like the poem ‘Got Pot’ in which he imagines billboards advertising it as the dairy association has billboards and advertises “Got Milk?” Others are reminiscences of a time and people gone. One of those poems is “The Drug Unit—Schermerhorn Center, New York City Department of Social Services.”

They were the caseworkers
Who made sure junkies got into rehab
And stayed as clean as scalding showers,
That they got jobs, and didn’t get fired,
Which happened all too frequently.

But the temptation was hypnotic:
Four of the caseworkers were mesmerized
By heroin’s hooded cobra.
Only Carolyn resisted: the woman
You’d buy a lid from, if she knew you.

The others? Simon and Rick lost
Their jobs in a skag fog, went on welfare.
Marilyn turned tricks, did time, got clean
And worked in a halfway house.

And Peter? Best not to ask about Peter.

Carolyn? She left Social Services,
And went into teaching, swore
She’d never do or sell grass again,
Claimed she didn’t miss it, though
She never missed our Friday night
Pot parties, her eyes prancing
At the air heavy with weed.

The first part of Cooperman’s book is alive with memories and impressions of the pot scene back in the day. The second part of the book is a fictional creation of the contemporary marijuana scene in Colorado where recreational pot is legal, just like an alcoholic drink. The inspiration was a newspaper story about girl scouts selling cookies outside one of those legalized pot shops. Cooperman creates a cast of characters, relationships, histories of adults and children in this setting. The world, at least parts of it, has changed. Cooperman creates contemporary views of the innocent and not so innocent. Everyday life is brought in the purview of these two odd bedfellow businesses. The titles of the poems create a summary view of Cooperman’s creation and fictional investigation into contemporary society’s attitudes and daily life: “Wilhelmina Larsen with Her Daughter. Outside the Wild Weed Dispensary;” “Melissa Larsen, Age Ten, Girl Scout;” “Gary Auger, Proprietor of the Wild Weed Dispensary;” “Gary Larsen Has Doubts About Letting His Daughter Sell Cookies;” “Leonard Millstein, Father of a Girl Scout, Outside the Wild Weed;” Marissa Millstein Thinks of Her Husband Leonard.” Those poems are only the beginning of the relationships and stories that Cooperman weaves with his characteristic humor and poetic conciseness and imaginative reach.

The book is a delightful read. Perhaps some always serious people may say to themselves “Is the poet making too light of addiction and social ills?” No, woven throughout the book is the shadow of substance abuse and possible consequences. Robert Cooperman is not a child writing fart jokes. He has a very responsible attitude and view of American capitalism, consumer culture, and human relationships. However, he is not a dour reformer, but a gifted writer with a sense of humor who sees the foibles of society for what they are, a grandiose pageant of absurdity. And many readers will identify with his protagonists, and remember the odd personalities, not always lovable or admirable, but often so, that whisk through our lives, but leave lasting footprints.

© Robert Cooperman and Dan Cuddy

Robert Cooperman‘s latest collections are Go Play Outsdie (Apprentice House) and Reefer Madness (Kelsay Books). Forthcoming from Futurecycle Press is Bearing the Body of Hector Home, and from Kelsay Books, A Nightmare on Horseback.

Dan Cuddy is currently an editor of the Loch Raven Review. Most recently he has had poems published in the End of 83, Broadkill Review, Welter, the Twisted Vine Literary Journal, the Pangolin Review, Madness Muse Press, Horror Sleaze Trash, the Rats’s Ass Review, Roanoke Review.

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