Reefer Madness by Robert Cooperman

reefer
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By Charles Rammelkamp
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The title of Robert Cooperman’s hilarious new collection comes from the 1936 melodrama about high school students lured by drug pushers. Reefer Madness became a cult classic in the 1970’s among the younger hip generation, for its unintentionally campy humor.  The lurid movie poster, warning ADULTS ONLY contained phrases like “The sweet pill that makes life bitter” and “drug-crazed abandon.” “Youthful marihuana victims. See what really happens.” In part one of this collection, Cooperman shows us what really happened, at least to him, and his experiences are so familiar to anybody born before 1960 and probably beyond.
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After a poem about the meaning of “420,” the code for smoking dope, Cooperman launches into “The First Time I Tried Weed: Brooklyn College,” about his initiation into the rite. Though citing the familiar “Refer Madness” warnings in the very first stanza – “In high school, it was gospel / that one ‘puff’ would turn us / into groveling heroin addicts” – curiosity wins out, and just as the response to the old adage, “curiosity killed the cat” – “satisfaction brought him back” – that first time smoking with a college friend was glorious.  The poem ends with another nod to Refer Madness:
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            Giggling at a joke only I could get,
            I fell into bed, the room a tilting merry-
            go-round in a Hitchcock mystery,
            but no desperation, thank god,
            to shoot smack.
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  Then in one entertaining poem after the next, Cooperman details the whole project of “getting high”: The rituals of rolling joints, the exclamations of “I’m really wrecked!” that came almost like a testimony at an evangelical religious service, only instead of “Praise Jesus!” it’s “I am so stoned!” We read about the psychedelic songs of the era that were a necessary component to the experience – “White Rabbit,” “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” Jimi Hendrix.  There are poems about the various drugs on the menu of our youth – hash, angel dust, psychedelic mushrooms. “Worse” vividly describes a bad trip on mushrooms in the otherwise idyllic setting of the Catskill Mountains. “It’s in the Bag” is a poem about snorting cocaine and the energy-burst it provides – and recognizing how easily one could become addicted to it, reefers or not.
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“Smoking Dope Outside the Keats Museum: Hampstead Heath” tells the story of two friends sneaking a joint outside the building while their wives linger inside, “maybe beside the very tree / where Keats had heard / his immortal nightingale.” Their spouses bust them, making them feel like kids caught breaking a window, but at least they avoid the surveillance cameras!
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As the first section winds down, marijuana has become legal in Colorado, where Cooperman currently resides, though now in late middle-age, a little late to really take advantage. He recognizes his dope-smoking days are over, though he still enjoys the occasional “contact high” from the skunk-stink of marijuana drifting from the pothead neighbors or when walking by the school kids passing joints around. In “The Weed Tree,” he and his wife stroll up a hill after passing the kids,
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            me floating a bit, pointing out to Beth,
            the red-tailed hawk making lazy, lovely,
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            merciless circles above the lake.
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“Got Pot?” and “AAA and the AA” explore the further implications of legalized weed, in the Trump era, when we all needed a crutch to make it through.
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In “Now That It’s Legal” and “Now That Colorado,” he laments the loss of the risk-taking scoring dope used to entail, which added a frisson of “sticking it to the Man” to the alteration of one’s consciousness, an added bonus. “Now That Colorado” ends the first section and sets us up for the equally hilarious second part.
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            In my day – geezer that I am – it took
            some discernment to score primo weed,
            and always the fear that the dealer was a narc,
            or if you sweated sauntering past beat cops,
            they’d stop you faster than Killer Kowalski’s
            professional-wrestler Atomic-Drop-Kick move.
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           And now the Girl Scouts will sell cookies
           outside pot shops! I ask you, is nothing sacred?
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“There are eight million stories  in the Naked City,” the iconic line at the end of every episode of the long-running TV series from the early 1960’s went. “This has been one of them.” Just so, Cooperman gives us over three dozen angles on the scene outside of The Wild Weed Dispensary in Denver as a Girl Scout troop sets up outside to sell cookies, in the second part of this hysterical collection. “The Girl Scouts of Colorado have decided it’s now cool to peddle their baked goods outside marijuana dispensaries,” a story from The Denver Post informs – the epigraph to the section – and Cooperman is off and running!
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There’s the Larsen family, the jilted wife Wilhelmina, chaperoning her Girl Scout daughter Melissa outside the Wild Weed Dispensary, while the wayward husband Ron holes up with his sex kitten Clair. There are Leonard and Marissa Millstein, a public defender and corporate lawyer at ideological (and marital) loggerheads, and their Girl Scout daughter Emily, caught in the middle. There’s the cop, Malcolm Sanders, whose daughter Kelly is also a Girl Scout and remembers the note her mother left when she walked out on Kelly’s father, no longer able to be a policeman’s wife.  Poor Fiona Terry, shoved into the Girl Scouts by her mother, hates being there at all, always the odd-girl-out. Cindy Bartlett, another Girl Scout, is the daughter of Sonny, a Hell’s Angel-style motorcycle gang member whose ex-wife Jo-Jo is having an affair with the tattoo parlor owner Nick Breeze, all here while the Girl Scouts sell their cookies. Each uproarious poem adds a soap-opera-like tale to the afternoon sale.
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Reefer Madness is a rollercoaster high, and the melodramatic warnings about pot? Still potent in the twenty-first century, as little Melissa Larsen tells us:
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            Tiffany’s older brother tried to get us to smoke,
            but our teacher warned us we’d become maniacs
            and have to live in straitjackets, like forever.
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So do yourself a favor and read this collection about “drug-crazed abandon.”  But a warning: read just a couple of these poems and you will probably be hooked!
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You can find the book here: Reefer Madness
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Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. His most recent releases are Sparring Partners from Mooonstone Press, Ugler Lee from Kelsay Books and Catastroika from Apprentice House.
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