“Just That” by Robert Cooper

Robert Cooper and I met at a vast Midwestern university as graduate students in a doctoral program. I am a Southerner by birth and am now a professor in Virginia. Cooper is a Southerner by choice after having accepting a professorship at McNeese University in Lake Charles, Louisiana, where he has lived, taught for decades, and is still teaching. I did not realize he was a poet when eons ago we wound up in academe. And yet, over the years, he has produced several volumes of gripping poetry, his latest, Just That, under review here.

Upon my first reading of Just That (Knight Media, 2022) I assumed that Cooper was recapitulating his usual wide range of lyrical and narrative poetry, but something nagged at me—something seemed different. So I consulted with the author and he enlightened me: the geographic loci of these new poems spanned the planet. Mostly lyrical, their panorama now encompassed global revelations and epiphanies. How had I missed that?  I also sensed a looser, easier and more relaxed writing style, as if Cooper had taken off his shoes, laid back and let it all hang out in a deluge of his most mature, self-assured poetry—poems without strain, without tension. I had long admired the tight, dense lyrics of his Eighty-Six Love Songs Without Music, so I would have to readjust my expectations. Like moving from a tempest in the Atlantic to a peaceful, still surface in the Pacific.

Not that the content of the new lyrics lacked density or intensity. The Cooper I know has always been as intense and serious as they come. But the more relaxed style challenges readers to thrive on understatement and casual diction. Insights and epiphanies come when you least expect them as if reading the book amounts to an exercise of slowly sinking into quicksand. Consider this final stanza from a short lyric entitled “Mary,” an older woman sitting and reminiscing among white orchards, drinking tea:

Maybe she recalls an old friend,

Somewhere looking back,

Remembering her,

Among the white orchards,

Drinking tea.

The elegant simplicity of the language is deceptive. Lacan and Nabokov come to mind—the reciprocity of memory and the hazy nature of self. Who, at the end, is doing the remembering?

The international cast of personae in this volume serves to remind us that mankind is indeed homogeneous, that we all suffer but also thrive as the days pass. We meet, for example, Ramon of Cartagena who “had fantasies about the little Belgium girl / Who lives down the street and plays the violin . . . .”  The Belgium girl, meanwhile, lies in bed reading Sartre’s No Exit.

Or the Brits of Tobago—a blond with spider bites on one leg and a husband in Wales. She introduced the narrator to her date, “a German who builds houses for Russians in Majorca.”

Robert Cooper is an academic who wrote his dissertation on the poet Crashaw. Yet the plain diction of his poetry speaks to a contemporary audience of both academics and non-academics. We find modest academe in numerous intellectual references or allusions to Camus, Sartre, Chekhov, Sophocles, Bolano, Yeats, Waller, Calderon, and Renoir; and scientific references to the Big Bang, Einstein and Chaos Theory. But these poems are for the people, not academicians.

While Just That steers mostly clear of politics, its subtle Marxist implications are clear in its depictions of poverty’s impact upon many of the characters of the sketches. The book does contain, however, one more overt political lyric, “American Election Logic,” among my favorites:

The yardman

Rakes up leaves in my backyard

And says he’s for Trump.

He says he doesn’t like gays,

And “those gays”

Support the other side.

Therefore he’s for Trump,

“Because he tells it like it is”—

which may also explain why

He’s a yard man

Raking up leaves

In someone’s back yard.

 

The irony! This yard man, motived purely by homophobia (and probably racism), will vote against his own self-interests. Who can explain?

Cooper is an astute, passionate observer who documents what he observes; and much of what he observes is salt-of-the-earth people, the impoverished, the downtrodden, the proletariat and the lost. Implicit in these observations is compassion and sympathy and even astonishment—as well as often stark, horrifying detail, such as this stanza from “2020,” echoing Bolano’s Tres:

Now the garden, the tree, the wall, the poor.

Shadows of the girl in a ragged dress,

No paper flowers

In the sun of plastic bottles,

Abstract through shop windows.

Imagine the rusty pickup truck.

The rapist watching.

The girl alone.

 

Beyond a garbage dump

The poor collect bottles—

 

Or this barebones vignette (“Requiem”) of two elderly neighbors whose house has been destroyed by I presume a hurricane. The two poke through the rubble for anything they can salvage:

 

They are too old to outlive this empty shell

Of wood and bricks. They took what life would allow

And nothing much more. Now there’s nothing left

To give back memories of some lost yesterday—

Except maybe a doorbell that won’t ring.

Cooper supplies the images and we readers infer, deduce, induce, suppose and imagine.

 

Consider these final lines from “The Nice Beach at Santa Rosa.” The narrator recounts how nice the beach was before the storm, but afterwards the category 5 wiped out hundreds of people:

 

I walked the once nice main street,

Nothing, only the town school bus,

Buried nose down, half way

To the rear wheels,

Nothing else in an empty gully.

 

I walked down to the beach where the storm came in,

Walked in the breeze, the lap of waves, the shoes.

The storm had washed away the people.

The tide brought back their shoes.

And I stood on the nice beach in a field of shoes—

And had nothing to say.

Everything in the poem implodes down to the shoes, that explosive image. The scene is so grim, the narrator cannot speak of it, an almost Wittgensteinan utterance by default. Speechless. The shoes.

Cooper’s other books include The Camp, a Memory Book 1942-1945; Eighty-Six Love Poems without Music; Mere Song; three academic books on the seventeenth-century metaphysical poet, Richard Crashaw. His work also appears in the anthologies, American Poets on the Holocaust and Anthology, A Collection of Poems.

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