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Summer 2010 - BOOK REVIEW by Carol Hamilton
"A Dream of the Northwest Passage"

by Robert Cooperman

Once again, Robert Cooperman of Denver, Colorado has woven a tale worthy of the ancient roving bards in this volume of poems full of crowd-pleasing music. This teller of poetic tales brings the reader his version of the final voyage attempted by Henry Hudson in his obsessive desire to find a Northwest Passage to China. Like Amelia Earhart, Hudson is one of history's mysterious characters who simply vanishes, leaving behind friends, family, historians, and curious history buffs to wonder, investigate, and imagine. Cooperman creates the events of this tragic journey with verve and a gritty sense of horror.

His hero is one of those who chooses to push to the limits of human endeavor. Such characters seem perverse and strange to most, but they are always fascinating. Those who disappear without a trace hold a special fascination. So, of course, Cooperman, a natural storyteller of those who live on the edge, could not leave this one alone. The timing of this volume of poetry is fortuitous on this 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson's disappearance.

Cooperman brings his story alive through the use of pithy metaphors, fresh and consistent to each man's character and to the desperate story at hand.

I have a problem with most volumes of poetry that cross my desk. I begin enthusiastically, enjoy reading a few poems, lay the volume aside with hopes of soon returning, and then, months later, I find the book piled up with other similarly waiting treasures. Not so with Cooperman's works. I always turn his pages ... so full of plot and character, setting and suspense... quickly ...like a novel, in fact. I can never lay down one of his books until I have read the very last line.

So, too, have I read his latest offering, A Dream of the Northwest Passage, a 56-poem account of the mysterious final voyage of Hudson, published by March Street Press of Greensboro, North Carolina.

Hudson disappeared after being left behind by mutineers on his fourth trip searching for a route from Europe to the wonderful spices of China. Cooperman presents us his version of what might have happened through a series of persona poems written from the various perspectives of a colorful cast of characters. Chief among these is Hudson's son, John. Then there are Hudson himself and other crew members abandoned by the mutineers and left to sail aimlessly in their shallop in the icy waters of the northeastern Americas.

This is a hard story to lay aside, and I can assure prospective readers, there lies a little hope at the end.

Henry Green, the chief mutineer, and his fellows are seen through their victims' eyes, his story grim, too, as we know from his fellows who lived to be tried and released on their return to England. But Cooperman is more interested in what we do not know.

In this absorbing work of narrative poetry, Cooperman creates Auliqaq, a character who manages to forestall Hudson's dance to doom for a short while. This native is an outcast from his own society. He provides a hint of light and hope to this otherwise dismal series of events.

Cooperman's skill at drawing character is displayed as the reader comes to know each speaker. The author develops unfolding events through the views of his diverse cast of characters, each with his illusions, hopes, doubts, and despairs.

The central narrator, John Hudson, has never had a chance to really live his own dreams. As a child, his father escaped from his son's desire to know him by going off, over and over, into dreams of adventure and glory. John's memories of his dead mother are shared in passages full of his longing for a more normal life:      
    I dream of you when I'm gripped
    by starvation's melancholia:
    when I was too young for the sea,
    we'd stand and wave Father farewell
    as his ship slid past Gravesend.
    You'd sign that waiting was worse
    than any privation of a sea voyage.
    When Father proposed me for a cabin boy,
    you lamented you'd end a lonely widow
    with no son to prop your old age.

When John and his father return to find she has died:    
    Father paid for a stone carved
    with an inscription fitting and handsome.
    I wept while he gazed to the west
    already plotting a new course.

There is much of Shakespearean and Biblical themes in this tale. John and his father both remember attending Shakespearean performances as they compare their fate to those of the tragic heroes of the stage. Henry sees John as one as “wind-driven" as Hamlet, blames him for not putting down the mutineers. He remembers shouting "Avenge your father!" at Hamlet on the stage back in England, and John remembers standing in the pit, rotten fruit at the ready, which now he knows:      

    would be Paradise next to this starved drifting
    through fog freezing solid as a curtain
    behind which only Death applauds.

Like Columbus before him, whose delusions of heaven-inspired mission were left for us to read. Hudson sees himself marked and duty-bound for greatness. He addresses Christ in petition before he leaves on this fourth journey:      

    I will find a Passage to Cathay,
    and I will nail your sacred dogwood
    to my mast, a guide more sure
    than the compass, fickle ---
    in Polar waters --- as a whore.

Cooperman brings his story alive through the use of pithy metaphors, fresh and consistent to each man's character and to the desperate story at hand. Ship's carpenter, Phillip Staffe, laments that his captain has changed mates      

    like wind shifting in a squall
    blowing up big as Leviathan,
    And as for him being a navigator,
    the Passage flies from him
    like dolphins and mermaids.

The crewmen are haunted by the mysterious world around them. Thomas Wyndham sees the Northern Lights before he dies and speaks of them as witches dancing:    

    If those dancers weren't sent by Lucifer,
    I'd call them beautiful beyond anything
    I've seen in London or on the sea,
    except that boy in that special brothel

    I can see the witches dance:
    poxy sluts sailors can't stay away from.

Exiled from his people for murdering his wife and her lover, Auliqaq, who encounters the sufferers near their end, speaks of the suffering seamen using the images best known to him. On his wanderings he:      

    ...expected isolation,
    not men snarling like sledge dogs,
    no leader to bully them into a team.

Cooperman fashions each character and the grim story through terse lines, vivid images, and language which carries the dark emotions and events which are here presented. We read of cannibalism, death, treachery, and greed, but also of a gentle dreamer, one whose illusions of a heavenly destination never quite leave him, even in his darkest hours. Hudson's dreams carry him on to the end:     

     This time, I can smell
    the Cinnamon and Nutmeg Isles;

and he still visions "crowds waving, court ladies in rare and gorgeous silks" awaiting his successful return. But he is tired:      

    Oh, it is sweet exhaustion
    to reach this port
    I have searched for longer
    than knights vied
    for God's Grail.

This is a hard story to lay aside, and I can assure prospective readers, there lies a little hope at the end. And surely Henry Hudson, who in this account never completely despairs, found in his dreams of grandeur, a place where      

    I pluck the fragrant gold
    as if common English flowers.

There is much pleasure and treasure to be found in A Dream of the Northwest Passage as well.



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