Tuesday, November 02, 2010

My Shtetl, by Robert Cooperman

My favorite poem in Bob Cooperman’s My Shtetl (Logan House, 2009) is “Machatonim,” his memory of attending a family reunion as a young boy and being approached and sloppily hugged by a distant relative. The poem begins:

     A friend defines
     that verbal mouthful
     as “the extended family stretched
     like a polite smile at a social
     function you’d almost rather
     be dead than have to attend.”

     They’re the distant kin we’d greet
     with, “It’s wonderful to see you again!”
     and wonder afterwards, “Who
     in God’s holy name was that?”

Everyone has experienced such a hug. It is the general appeal of the situation in this poem, and others like it, that makes these poems so readable and affecting, that allows us, whatever our heritage, to find ourselves and our own memories in the events and people and feelings described.

Cooperman tends towards short or medium-length poems. Most of the poems here fit individually on one page, so that each page of the collection encapsulates a discrete memory of a family personage or experience. As one reads these poems, individually, a page at a time, they take on a cumulative force, so that in the end one understands and feels the importance of these recollections. They are frequently poignant, often humorous, sometimes angry and biting.

My Shtetl is organized into sections, each with a loosely specific theme or focus. Many of the poems concern Cooperman’s parents, his memories of his father, who died decades ago, and of his mother, infirm but still living in NYC. He muses over the fact of his father’s departure from his life, and the prospect of his mother’s departure as well.

In Yiddish shtetl means my little village, or my home town. It’s a term that names Jewish settlements in Eastern Europe. Cooperman’s paternal grandparents immigrated from Poland, escaping the horrors of the Second World War, and in a quiet way Cooperman brings the impact of life in Poland, of the move to America, of the holocaust, into his own presentations of family memory and identity. Some commentators see the word Shtetl as associated with a sense of nostalgia, as something vanished forever. There is certainly nostalgia in these poems, not so much for a vanished way of life (one which in the literal sense Cooperman never experienced) as for a nearly vanished family existence. In writing about experiences from childhood, parents and other relatives, of people he knew when he was younger, Cooperman is indeed writing about a vanished reality, yet it’s a reality that is captured in his memory and embellished in the imaginative evocations in these poems.

The poems in My Shtetl are infused with comedy, sadness, longing. By looking back to relatives, family, and early experiences, Cooperman defines himself in terms of his religious heritage and also in the broad terms of a shared experience of memory and loss that is the curse of all human experience. He touches on the shared nature of this experience in “What I Would Sing for the Romany,” where he seems torn between the English and American traditions of the ballads and songs he loves and the

     Yiddish song
     my grandmother sang
     to get me peacefully asleep:
     a song of the Old Country.
     She escaped with her life
     and little else.

As with many of Cooperman’s other collections, his poetic biographies of Keats and Shelley, his collections set in the 19th-century Colorado mountains, even in his reminiscences of The Grateful Dead, whom he loves, the accumulative effect in My Shtetl is of a coherent narrative that is evocative, moving, powerful.

My Shtetl was named winner of the 2009 Holland Prize by the Logan House, given for the “best unpublished book of poetry in American English.” Cooperman lives in Denver, CO, with his wife Beth, a business professor at the University of Colorado/Denver.

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