by Robert Cooperman
Press: Brick Road Poetry Press
Reviewed by: Barry Marks
So what happens when a nice Jewish boy takes a job driving a taxicab in New York City? (After his mother’s heart attack, that is). Jews do have a tendency to show up in unexpected vocations, including Hall of Fame pitchers and generals in the U. S. military, but driving a hack in Manhattan? Seriously?
As Robert Cooperman tells it in his compelling new collection, Just Drive, being a Jewish cab driver means bringing an outsider’s critical eye to the taxi stand and shining a keen intelligence on a world where it is not always welcome. His driver is as much observer as participant. Cooperman offers his reader tales that are at once intimate and jaded, cynical, and empathetic. His persona is perched in the front seat with a hawk’s eye view of drunken conventioneers looking to cheat on their wives, faded actresses, hitmen and “ladies of the backseat.”
Cooperman tells us about Sid the vicious and verbose driver and Nicci, the female driver who takes none of his bullying. We sigh for the poor schmuck whose wife left him (he just wanted to be driven around, anywhere) and seethe at the racist, anti-Semitic fare who goes postal when thrown out of the cab. The characters parade through the taxi and each one tells a life’s story or presents an epiphany in the space of a single ride.
The driver debunks myths (“In fiction, cabbies are loquacious/as barbers, wise as bartenders…”), endures the cruelty of a tough job (“…he’d beat me silly/and knew with even more certainty, none/of the other hacks would lift a finger”) and keeps his quiet dignity.
His world is intermittently boring and downright dangerous, as when he narrowly averts sliding into an icy lake, crawling along and still facing:
treacherous drive through the enemy
territory of falling snow
Good deeds don’t go unpunished, as when he rescues an old Chasid from muggers, only to be berated for not laying tefilin and being a better Jew. At least, he notes, his cab wasn’t stolen. There is something familiar, traditional, almost orthodox in his attitude toward his and others’ suffering. It is a Jewish world-view imposed on a dirty, down-stroking world. It is what a man needs to accept that a widow will leave an urn containing her husband’s ashes in the seat and just walk away.
Yet, somehow, Cooperman’s cabbie is never cold, never dismissive or condescending. He remains, through it all, caring and involved, even when he is incredulous at the Mr. Peepers character who can’t resist graphically describing a sexual encounter with two (yes, two) porn stars. He remains “leopard-alert” but still slips into fantasies of beautiful fares who, against all odds and logic, will find him cute.
The poetry itself is accessible but never boring. Cooperman writes with the assured hand of a poet who has published fourteen prior books. His free verse is neither cerebral nor sentimental. The important thing here is not flashy technique or a surprising image that stops you mid-poem. He knows that his strength is in the narrative and his effort is to take you where he has been. His cab-driving observer imbues every mundane detail with intelligence, but resists the opportunity to digress into judgment or philosophy. His imagery is neither overblown nor unnecessarily dark:
At a certain time of night
almost every corner of Midtown
is adorned by a shivering woman
in hot pants, earrings that dangle
like wind chimes, and heels Babel-high.
At the end of the day, Just Drive is not for the purist or technician. It isn’t for those who want high-sounding sentiment or to be shocked by violence and verbal degradation. This book is for those who want a poem to take them somewhere they haven’t been and introduce them to people they haven’t met…and a few who are all too familiar. We are not talking philosophy here. In fact, as Cooperman notes at the end of the last poem:
You wanted advice?
Listen to your mother.
We drove, we just drove.
Barry Marks is a Birmingham attorney, and the author of two books of poetry. Possible Crocodiles, his first book, was named 2010 Book of the Year by the Alabama State Poetry Society. Sounding, his second book, is an emotional but unsentimental examination of grief, loss and recovery. Sounding was a finalist for the Grand Prize in the 2013 Eric Hoffer Award for Independent Publishers. He is former a member of the Big Table Poets and has participated in that group’s anthologies. Barry’s chapbook, There is Nothing Oppressive as a Good Man, won the 2003 John and Miriam Morris Chapbook Competition. He is the author of three other chapbooks and his poetry has appeared in over 100 journals and anthologies. Barry was Alabama’s Poet of the Year for 1999. He is a frequent reader, lecturer and workshop leader. Barry’s new book, Dividing By Zero is scheduled for publication late in 2014.