Their Wars
reviewed by CAROL HAMILTON

Kelsay Books, 2018

In Robert Cooperman's new volume of poetry, he once again taps the rich vein of family stories coming from his Brooklyn Yiddish roots. This time he imagines the fraught days of his parents' early marriage, which took place towards the end of World War II. In this collection, full of rich language and fascinating characters, he leads the reader on a narrative adventure that is hard to put down.

The volume is prologued with a lovely poem, "Wedding Photo: Sam Weissbart, Late 1944." Sam muses about

                        my smile a ballroom globe of surprise,
                        to have tricked this beauty into marrying me.

But he is remembering this the next morning after his wedding night, he on a train. He is on his way to Fort Dix to begin his basic training, the threat of fighting in Europe hanging over him. From the train window he cranes his neck for a last glimpse of his Sarah.

                        I'll give up and sit, stare out the window,
                        the city skimming past, Then Jersey's industrial
                        countryside: refineries shooting steam,
                        the landscape a destroyed war-zone:

                        the winter sky a bright mocking blue.

Cooperman takes us on a series of adventures for the two lovers and the friends and enemies they meet along the way. Through a series of persona poems, he allows us to see their world from many points of view. We read of the subtle way each of us is changed by circumstance and those with whom we must live, for good or evil. Each character takes on life. But the overarching theme of the collection deals with the miseries of military training and the longings of separated lovers. 

So often, when I begin to read a new volume of poetry, I soon drift away, losing my desire to continue, but never with Cooperman's collections. He always writes with a strong narrative drive, each poem, each character coming alive through their vivid reactions to this out-of-kilter world of disrupted lives. With a flood of raw and on-point metaphors, Cooperman makes his characters and his created world seem real. 

Sam and Sarah face more than one war. Sam must adjust to the usual miseries of barracks life and the physical and psychological stress of military training, plus his fear of the future and his longing for his bride. Meanwhile, Sarah is left frightened and lonely and not quite fitting happily into sharing her new life with her family or his. She is now ready for her future to begin.

Sarah decides to follow Sam, live near his base, find work, and see Sam whenever he can get away. And there, they both must face the prejudices and strangeness of the place that seems like a foreign country to them: The South.

Along the way, the text is peppered with Cooperman's gritty or touching, but always apt, metaphors. Sarah reflects on Sam's disappearance on the train after their wedding night:

                        His train's vanished like a magic trick
                        that's supposed to return the purse
                        or watch to its owner, but doesn't.
                        Winter wind rips through my cloth coat
                        as if a worn-out, third-hand blouse.

The two have much to learn in this new and brutal world that must turn young men into killers in a place where many of the same hates and prejudices are expressed as in the world against which the war is being fought. Everything believed in the old life is turned on its head. Even how you normally spoke in the past is challenged.

                        "Bullets?" Griffin shouts. "That's what ladies
                        use in cute-as-candy Derringers. You gentlemen
                        use rounds. Rounds!" he repeats in a whisper,
                        like he's describing the sacred Torah.

Or the new living arrangements:

                        After lights out, it's a symphony of farts,
                        sighs, snores, and sobs: most of us
                        away from home for the first time….

I won't give away more of the story, but I can promise you a good read and a happy ending. But before getting there, there are many poetic delights to keep you going. One last example from Sarah on a frightening dash to the infirmary to see what has happened to Sam:

                        rain flinging at Mr. Gallagher's Packard
                        like volleys of clattering nails,
                        while I wrung my hands in terror,
                        a dishrag that will never dry out.

In recent days I have become a bit cranky about some otherwise fine volumes of poetry that stick poems in because, perhaps, they are popular at readings but have nothing to do with the theme of the book, or books that have intriguing titles, but the poems seem to be all over the place, with little relation to the title or each other.

Cooperman's books, for this reader, always satisfy, as he knows where he is going, and he gets there. And along the way, the reader can enjoy some fine poetry and a lively story woven together to be read at a page-turning pace.  

CAROL HAMILTON has recent and upcoming publications in Commonweal, Bluestem, Southwestern American Literature, Pour Vida, The Maynard, Sanskrit Literary Magazine, U.S.1 Worksheet, Broad River Review, Homestead Review, Shot Glass Journal, Poem, Louisiana Literature, Haight Ashbury Poetry Journal, The Aurorean, Blue Unicorn, Birmingham Poetry Review, Pigeonholes Review, and others. She has published 17 books: children's novels, legends and poetry, most recently, SUCH DEATHS from Virtual Arts Cooperative Press Purple Flag Series. She is a former Poet Laureate of Oklahoma.

ISSN: 1533 2063