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Robert Cooperman

Robert Coopermn. Just DriveJust Drive
by Robert Cooperman

Copyright: 2014
Press: Brick Road Poetry Press
ISBN: 13:978-0-98988724-0-9
Pages: 100
Reviewed by: Barry Marks

 

Being There

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:

…the long,
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.

Jamaal May

Hum coverHum
by Jamaal May
Farmington, Maine: Alice James Books, 2013
Paper, 74 pages
ISBN: 978-1-938584-02-2
Reviewed by: Susan Cohen

 

Jamaal May has a fine-tuned ear for the music of machinery, as you might expect of a poet who hails from Detroit and is also a performance artist. But he writes about more than the decaying Motor City in this debut collection, which won the 2012 Beatrice Hawley Award from Alice James Books. In poems notable for their sophistication, intelligence, and inventiveness, as well as their attention to sound, May explores the shifty boundaries between man and man-made world—a world that rarely shuts up.

The machines in Hum threaten both nature and people, and don’t remain under the control of the humans who manufactured them. The speaker in “Detroit Hum Ending with Bones,” for example, laments the lack of bees in the city, and then notes that his cell phone can confuse the signals in a hive and “make a drone go haywire/and spiral into the grass.” A group of men spend hours tinkering with a car before they must acknowledge they can’t fix its digital parts in “On Metal,” and: “No one is happy to learn what an afternoon of chafed/knuckles, metal on skin, no longer solves.” Hum depicts broken people surrounded by broken engines.

That May’s concerns are as often philosophical as sociological is clear from the opening poem, “Still Life,” set in an inner as well as an inner-city landscape, “the shuttered district,/a factory of shattered vials.” A child plays in this wreckage, his internal life “kept quiet/by humming a lullaby of static and burble” as if the voice in the boy’s head belongs to an old television. He wears a towel cape, stashes an exacto knife in his sock and cradles rocks, yet he’s more threatened than threatening. The poem plays with these notions of internal and external, seen and unseen—recurring themes in Hum—and ends with these stanzas:

The boy in the boy’s head
watches sparse traffic
from a warehouse window

and takes note on where
overpass paint hides rust,
where the cyan bubbles up

into a patchwork of pock
and crumbling disease,
a thief in the bridge’s body

he doesn’t see, but knows
is coming tomorrow
to swallow his song.

It doesn’t matter whether the poem is autobiographical and told from the distance of time or from the distance of an unidentified observer. Throughout the collection, May appears less interested in the narrative of memoir and more interested in the lyrics shared between people and their crumbling surroundings. He dubs seven poems “hums,” but the gadgets in them also buzz, clink, rattle and whir; they may be as tame as a sewing machine or as menacing as a helicopter above a desert battlefield. Sometimes they only begin benignly, like a coughing snow blower just before it slices off a father’s finger in Detroit. Throughout, there’s an undertone of menace.

For example, the sestina “Hum of the Machine God” starts:

There isn’t much to discuss with the Machine
God, though its voice is hard to ignore;
it speaks in planks of wood shaped for the sea,
sputters smoke, eats grass. It speaks in snow
spit into piles, commands the motion of a needle
through a hem. It hums. It waits.

Debut books these days often begin as projects, but Hum doesn’t read like one. Rather, a diverse collection of free verse and received and invented forms, it relies on sequences for a sense of unity. Besides the scattered hums, a second imaginative series with equally creative titles rifts on phobias like “Athazagoraphobia: Fear of Being Ignored” and “Chionophobia: Fear of Snow.” In a third sequence, origami creatures speak. Folded paper frogs or tigers aren’t mechanical, but they are products—manmade versions of nature.

These recurring images as well as themes also hold the book together. So, the speaker in “How to Disappear Completely” advises: “Become origami./Fold yourself smaller/than ever before. Become less. More/in some ways but less/in the way famine is less.” In another poem, a man stopped by the police and shoved against a car with a gun against his cheek so that he has no way to reach for his ID, tells us: “and my name is asked again—I want to/screech out, Swan! I am only a swan.

Frequently, this wish for visibility or invisibility occurs in the context of violence. One of the strongest poems recounts a fight that cost the speaker part of his vision, which is gradually diminishing in one eye. He recalls how viciously he beat the boy who clawed up at his face. He stares down from a bridge, closing the bad eye “like aiming through a gunsight,” and studies his blurry reflection. “Horns sprout from the head of my silhouette/rippling dark, dark, dark against the haze of water/and I try to squint that monster/into the shape of a man.”

As Hum investigates appearances and disappearances, and the mechanisms of the human head and heart, May repeatedly blurs the boundaries between people and their machines. In the last poem, “Ask What I’ve Been,” the speaker has been a construction crane with “balled fists” that “toppled buildings of boys,” and “rifled through the pockets/of their ruins.”

May’s transmutations and pronoun shifts keep readers off-balance. Yet, he retains such control in this mature first collection and crafts such beautiful language that his poems exhilarate rather than exasperate. They demand to be re-read. May, who earned an MFA from Warren Wilson and a Cave Canem fellowship, also works as an editor, filmmaker, and teacher. Most importantly, he’s an acute observer who has a tremendous amount to say.

  –––––––– 

Susan Cohen is the author of Throat Singing and recent poems and reviews in Poet Lore, Prairie Schooner, Salamander, Sou’wester, and Tar River Poetry, among other publications. She lives in Berkeley and has an MFA from Pacific University.

Sue William Silverman

Sue William Silverman book coverThe Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as A White Anglo-Saxon Jew
by Sue William Silverman
Press: University of Nebraska Press
Date: March, 2014
Pages: 248
ISBN: 978-0-8032-6485-4
Reviewed by: Kelly O’Toole

 

Sue William Silverman’s The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew is a collection of thematically linked essays, mini-memoirs that retell myriad events in Silverman’s life that reflect her struggles with identity, primarily with being a Jewish female in White Anglo-Saxon, Christian America.

She opens with a letter to the reader, describing herself as a gefilte fish, “Swimming Upstream with Nary a Fin. . .a Sorrowful, Utterly Lost and Sad Little Gefilte, far from her Glass Jar.” She appeals to the reader directly, pleading, “Turn these Pages. Understand.” What follows is Silverman’s journey to “Knowledge, Identity, Enlightenment,” the stories of swimming upstream in the sea of American culture, trying to reach herself and trying to reach home.

The title essay describes how a teenage Sue studied with a magnifying glass a Life magazine photo of Pat Boone, his wife and their four daughters riding a tandem bicycle. “I fantasized living inside this black-and-white print, unreachable,” she writes. “This immaculate universe was safe, far away from my father’s all-too-real hands, hands that hurt me at night.”

Silverman has written about her father’s hands hurting her at night in her first memoir, Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You. Now she confides how she found safety and refuge in Pat Boone’s WASP-y image, his “crisp, clean unchanging certainty.” By replacing her Jewish father in her mind with Pat Boone, she was saved.

Pat Boone isn’t her only refuge. In “The Wandering Jew,” Silverman describes her fascination with a local tramp while living on St. Thomas as a girl. She follows him to his shantytown, believing he is safe, while her father is not. When she watches Charlie Chaplin films in which his characters save young women, she wishes to be those women. She finds safety in objects: handkerchiefs, garnet rosary beads, marbles (“Concerning Cardboard Ghosts, Rosaries, and the Thingness of Things”)

The best memoirs map an author’s journey of self-discovery, making readers feel they are traveling alongside the author, exploring her psyche with her, witnessing her activities and emotions. By the end of the best memoirs, readers are transformed, having embarked on their own journeys to self-discovery. That is certainly true of The Pat Boone Fan Club. The more we learn about Silverman’s identity confusion, the more we question our own identities; the more we see her finding answers to those questions, the more we want to find answers to our own questions.

Many readers will relate to “The Endless Possibilities of Youth,” in which Silverman reflects on her feelings of alienation as a teenager. She fantasizes that if only she looked less Jewish, the boy she’s smitten with will reciprocate her feelings. And sadly, far too many people have felt betrayed by their very bodies and later, by the very physicians entrusted to treat their ailing bodies, as Silverman did when she felt abdominal pains that evolved into severe intestinal distress when treated with antibiotics (“See the Difference”).

The book’s cover image is a teal phonograph needle on a 45 RPM vinyl record. A fitting image, since The Pat Boone Fan Club reads very much like a great rock ‘n’ roll record. Our singer, Ms. Silverman, impresses with the range of her voice. Sometimes she writes in first person, sometimes second. She experiments with form, as with the mosaic of “Galveston Island Breakdown”, the screenplay of “I Was a Prisoner on the Satellite of Love” and the comic book-style narrative of “An Argument for the Existence of Free Will and/or Pat Boone’s Induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.”

Also like a great album, its various “tracks” connect thematically, but it never feels repetitious. Silverman varies the beat with metaphor, dark comedy, irony and other literary devices. Her choice of details brings her descriptions to life. And her poetic language gives her prose musicality.

The Pat Boone Fan Club is a rollicking road-trip of a book. It’s a trip worth taking, again and again.

 ––––––––

Kelly O’Toole is a Community Columnist for the Grand Haven Tribune in Grand Haven, Michigan. She is working on a memoir.

Tarfia Faizullah

Tarifa Faizullah book coverSeam
by Tarfia Faizullah
Press: Southern Illinois University Press
Pages: 65
Date: 2014
ISBN: 0-8093-3325-2
Reviewed by: Paul David Adkins

 

A Cleansing and Breaking Water: Tarfia Faizullah, Seam,
and the Genocide of Bangladesh

Water breaks, and so does the body. But while water reclaims and heals itself from its trauma, the human body remains torn, severed, polluted by the violence inflicted upon it. Tarfia Faizullah’s debut poetry volume Seam is not for those easily sickened by inhumanity and brutality, but rather is written for women and men galvanized by compassion and empathy to record outrages and genocide, continuing in the tradition of Never Forget. And like any responsible genocidal document, Faizullah’s writing is unsparing in detail, unrelenting in intensity, and breathtaking in scope and vision.

But so many of us have forgotten. It was 1971, the year of Bangladesh’s Liberation War: also the timeframe of Vietnam, Biafra, Attica. Who knew Pakistani military forces killed, murdered, and/or raped approximately 3.5 million Bengalis in less than twelve months? Who remembers this systematic attempt to completely annihilate a country, a culture, a people? I didn’t, until I picked up Seam, and then assumed, alongside the author, the staggering grief of a nation.

Water permeates Seam, making an appearance in 22 of the 33 poems. In Bangladesh, a land averaging seventeen feet above sea level, a land of frequent, disastrous cyclones, the idea of water is always near. Faizullah creates, however, a human geography effuse with water breaking in all its forms: ocean, river, pond, rain, and tide. It flows through the rape victims torrentially.

In Interview with a Birangona (#5) an attacker inquires ,: “Over milk tea and butter biscuits, the commander asks / what it feels like to have dirty blood running through our / veins.” (34)

Sometimes the water cleanses, for instance, just before the onslaught of rape begins, as in Interview with a Birangona (#1): “Gleaming water sweeps over / Mother’s feet.” (25) Other times it forms a weight: “Each week I pull hard / the water from the well.” (28). Regardless of its function, however, water assumes an omnipresent force in the lives of the victims, with its shifting shape, its deceptive gleam, its once cleansing, and then polluting properties.

In many ways, the Bengali rape victims assume the identity of Bangladesh. Officially recognized by the government for their sacrifices in 1972, authorities bequeathed a woman violated during the conflict with the honorary title of Birangona, or War Heroine.

In 1971, a victim literally dons her nation’s identity:

. . . don’t tell
her the country of her birth
became a veined geography inside

you, another body inside your own. (10)

The speaker then reinforces this possession, this ownership, in the first of three poems entitled Reading Willa Cather in Bangladesh:

Each map I have seen
of this country obscures:
each blue line, each emerald

inch of land cannot claim
such cloudy veins, these
long porous seams between

us still irrepressible. (14)

As the speaker records water’s breaking and the complex dynamics of human geography, she also pays close attention to the breaking of bodies, of the human spirit, of a culture exposed to such extreme trauma. In Elegy for Her Red-Tipped Fingers, the author notes, “Bangla: language I speak / now to your grieving daughter, this language / / the bodies of women were once broken / open for.” (19) Later, she incorporates this brokenness into the form of the poetry itself, presenting the reader with the disjointed lines of Interviewer’s Note IV:

Today there is no drinking
water today there is no
light today there is only
kerosene the hmm hmm hmm
of a generator pulsing deep (41)

Nothing seems to escape Faizullah’s eye.

Throughout the volume, a sense of disassociation weaves within the pieces. Seam takes a decided and necessary shift in voice as the speaker assumes the role of interviewer.

She begins to refer to herself in the second person in her Interview Note (I through V).” She observes in Part I: “You walk past white high rises / seamed with mold.” (27). Part V retains this dissociative state: “But wasn’t it the neat narrative / you wanted?” (46), she asks her disembodied self. This state of disassociation is a direct result of vicarious trauma the speaker experiences through reliving the victims’ stories. It is an involuntary self-defense mechanism creating space between herself and the Birangonas she questions. And while this distance is necessary to protect the speaker’s sanity, it also adds a compelling layer to the volume’s fundamental question, “How much can I possess, can I experience, of your traumatic story?” By assuming the second person in the Notes poems, Faizullah brilliantly navigates the horrors of systematic rape, while not intruding on the devastating details with her own opinions, reactions, and responses.

Faizullah’s speaker travels from the United States to Bangladesh to interview victims and explore her own history, while gaining an understanding of the underlying source of her mother’s trauma. Lorraine Healy, writing in her 2010 poetry volume The Habit of Buenos Aires about the Argentina Civil War, conveys a similar compulsion in her piece The Country I Flee From Daily:

Everything there needs me back:
the floods, the starving, the dark-souled.
To witness as the coffers
are covered in black velvet

and disappear.
To go behind the funeral procession
and wail. So many gone. (21)

What is so commendable about these personal journeys embarked upon by Healy’s and Faizullah’s speakers is the amount of personal courage it takes to initiate them. The risks they assume to relive these traumas is immense, and life-altering.

In 1971, the mother asks Faizullah’s speaker, “But tell me . . . / why couldn’t you research the war / from here?” (10) Aubade Ending with the Death of a Mosquito provides the answer:

because I woke
alone in the myth of one life, I will
myself into another – how strange

to witness
nameless, the tangled shape
our blood makes across us,

 my open palm. (60)

Seam is devastating in its courage to fully examine a family’s history. The trauma Faizullah willingly confronts is deadening in range, yet she still decisively steps forward to meet it headlong.

In her closing poem, she sums up the uncertainty, yet eventual victory, of her journey: “The moon filled the dust-polluted sky: a ripe, unsheathed / lychee. It wasn’t enough light to see clearly by, but I still turned my / face toward it.” (65) In the end, this is all we can hope for: a little light as we move forward, a touch of light which helps draw and focus the wandering of our vision.

 

As noted:
Healy, Lorraine. The Habit of Buenos Aires. Huntington Beach, CA: Tebot Back. 2010. Print.

  ––––––––

Paul David Adkins served in the US Army for 21 years. He earned degrees from Mercer University and Washington University, St. Louis. His chapbooks include The Upside Down House (Yellow Jacket Press), The Great Crochet Question (Kind of a Hurricane Press), and Stick Up (Blood Pudding Press).

Helène Aylon

Helen Aylon book coverWhatever is Contained Must be Released: My Jewish Orthodox Girlhood, My Life as a Feminist Artist
by Helène Aylon
Press: The Feminist Press at the City University of New York
Pages: 287
Date: May 2012
ISBN: 978-1558617681
Reviewed by: Lenore Weiss

 

I stumbled upon Aylon’s memoir in the Jewish Museum of San Francisco. I was on a Jewish reading jag, had just finished drunken angel by Alan Kaufman about his struggle with alcohol addiction and how he came to embrace his Jewish roots as the son of a Holocaust survivor. Essays by Abraham Joshua Herschel were stacked on my night table. However, Aylon’s book helped me name something I needed to understand. Hers is a beautiful work of art all by itself, illustrated throughout with art from different periods of her life.

The artist was born Helène Greenfield in Boro Park, Brooklyn the firstborn (although she explains that if the oldest child happens to be a girl she is never referred to as the firstborn, an honor reserved for male children), in an extended family of Orthodox Jews who were conversant with Hebrew, Yiddish and other languages. Her grandmother Baba, keeps a shisel of water under her bed  “…so when she awoke every morning she could immediately bend to dip her fingers into the dish to say the morning prayer…”

Aylon’s early life is marked by ritual: every Friday night, silver Shabbos candlesticks decorate her girlhood, followed by the fragrant spices of Havdalah boxes to usher in the new week. She receives an observant Jewish education at Shulamith School for Girls where she memorizes poetry by Hayyim Nahman Bialik, who came to be known as Israel’s national poet.  But throughout her early years, Aylon is troubled by how women don’t exist as equals in observant Jewish life, unclean when they are menstruating, also termed as nkava (hole).  Her questioning gathers in layers: a rapist may stay with his victim if he does not come near her for three days so as to become holy to his god; men recite a prayer every morning to thank god that they were not born a woman.

She marries a rabbi and becomes a rebbitzen (rabbi’s wife).  They move to Montreal and have two children.  But tragedy strikes. After five years of marriage and at age twenty-five, her husband Mandel dies of cancer. Aylon now begins to die to herself, sells her husband’s Yiddish books that allows her to purchase an encyclopedia set for her son. She anoints herself with a new last name. Instead of being Mrs. Fisch, she creates:

“…my new name would also be my old name: Helène Aylon.  Aylonna is Hebrew for Helène. I shortened it to Aylon.”

This is the author’s first step toward feminism and claiming her role as an artist. She also struggles with her dual role as mother and visionary, how do you find time to dedicate to each? Helped by the support of a growing women’s movement to reconcile these roles, she signs up for art classes at Brooklyn College where her teacher, Ad Reinhardt, an abstract expressionist, introduces her to Mark Rothko who invites her to his studio in Manhattan. They talk about the work of other Jewish artists like Barnett Newman, and the philosophy of Martin Buber. The accomplished artist and the young student discover a similar vocabulary based on a shared vision of Jewish spirituality. Three weeks after their discussion, Rothko committed suicide.

Aylon continues to form her vision.  Her first commission is to paint a mural for the Jewish chapel at JFK Airport. “I wanted to paint not blue and black and red but blueness, blackness, and redness.”

Her children grow up and she keeps working. Her relationship with her mother, Etta, remains at her directional center; she pushes art toward new boundaries.

Although she marks new feminist ground as a Jewish artist; it is Aylon’s roots and knowledge of Judaism that allows her to stretch the cord as far as it will go before breaking, which is what her early work explores—the place where things change and turn into something else. On a fluke, Aylon moves to Northern California and stays there for ten years where she explores materials like oil and tar –materials that change on canvas.

One of her influences is Georgia O’Keefe. In discussing her own process Aylon says, “The empty spaces in between the breaking are joined, one negative space is merging with another to create a new form.  These spaces are like the pockets of silence the Kabbalah speaks of.”

She collaborates with other women including the writer and poet Grace Paley on projects like Sand Gatherings, works with Palestinian and Israeli women to create stone sacs, and hangs pillowcases at army depots with anti-war activists. Her project, The Liberation of G-d where she redacts the Five Books of Moses to highlight words, sentences, and sections that she finds questionable in light of a more progressive ethical world-view, becomes part of a group show at the Jewish Museum in San Francisco and travels to other areas, including Baltimore where in 1997 her work is viewed by Leah Rabin, Yitzhak Rabin’s widow.

Aylon’s final redaction is the hyphen in G-d’s name that Orthodox Judaism requires to be written as such because the maker’s name is not to be uttered or spelled out.  She allows light to pass threw the hyphen which is covered with a pink filter and comments:

“This delicate pink dash sums up my striving for the inclusion of women. It is what has been missing since Abraham discovered monotheism. I had inserted a feminine presence into the Godhead. If I had to summarize the essence of my twenty-year endeavor to liberate G-d, I could point to that one small dash.”

 ––––––––

Lenore Weiss serves as copy editor for the Blue Lyra Review. Lenore has published two books of poetry: “Cutting Down the Last Tree on Easter Island” (West End Press, 2012) and “Two Places” (Kelsay Books, 2014). Her blog resides at www.lenoreweiss.com.