By Charles Rammelkamp
The title of Robert Cooperman’s latest chapbook of poems refers to the fiftieth anniversary concert series the surviving members of The Grateful Dead performed in 2015 – a couple of decades after Jerry Garcia had already died. Like the concert, this chapbook is at once a sweet goodbye and an almost palpable blast of memory. Of course, it’s saturated with nostalgia. Cooperman’s previous chapbook, Saved by the Dead (Liquid Light Press) likewise revives the memory of the famous jam band and similarly addresses the fleeting nature of youth.
The collection begins with the poem, “Ask Amy,” set in contemporary times, the narrator and his wife, Beth, who is an integral part of the whole sequence of poems, reading an advice column question over breakfast, from a woman whose feelings have been hurt by her brother, who plans to attend a rock concert rather than celebrate his sister’s 65th birthday. The advice makes Bob and Beth smile, though not without a passing sorrow over what cannot be recovered.
“Unless,” Amy replies,
“that gig involves
Jerry Garcia returning
from the Other Side,
your brother has no excuse.”
The next set of poems takes us back in time, first to Cooperman’s youth in New York and the Dead’s legendary performance at Fillmore East, “all of us roaring for the music never to end, // as all things must.” A suite of four poems set thirty years ago in Baltimore and D.C.’s RFK stadium follows, bringing us to Jerry Garcia’s last days and, almost as a consequence, the end of Cooperman’s youth. “Seeing the Grateful Dead, RFK Stadium, July, 1993,” ends:
“Jesus, he’s a wreck,” I said,
frightened for a favorite uncle,
though his fingers flew
along the frets, and tunes filled the air,
two years before he went still
and silent forever.
We’re next taken to that Fare-Thee-Well concert in 2015. At this point, Bob and Beth concede their age has become an issue. “Watching the Last Show Ever of the Grateful Dead: Pay Per View TV” starts:
Who could afford tickets and a hotel room?
Not us. So Beth and I settle for live TV
and not a joint or pipe: Beth frowning
on my imbibing, and nowadays, my lungs
rasp like stripped-down gears, after one toke.
The concert’s a treat, though if we’re honest,
we admit something’s missing: Garcia,
gone twenty years, but still indispensable…
Just as in Saved by the Dead, Cooperman encounters kids who weren’t even alive when the Grateful Dead were prominent and reacts to their innocent ignorance, reflecting on his own geezerhood. In “The Grateful Dead Dancing Terrapins Baseball Cap,” he encounters such a person in a health care facility, home away from home for the elderly. The poem starts:
The receptionist at this urgent care center
compliments my baseball cap when I sign in.
“Thanks,” I smile, despite the urinary infection:
my urethra barbwire every time I piss.
“We’re everywhere!” I chime the code
to a fellow Deadhead, but she throws a look
blank as the black boards I’d dusted
and washed, at after-school detention.
“Jerry Garcia?” the name, in my nostalgic universe,
should be clarification enough.
“Who?” her young brow’s furrowed, as if considering
the most confusing math problem ever devised.
In “A Question in the Buchtel Boulevard Post Office: Denver, Colorado,” it’s a postal clerk who makes him feel his age.
“Winter Cold,” “The MRI Machine” and “At the University of Colorado Hospital Spine Center” are other poems involving the frailty of age. This final one is about the results of the tests, the X-rays and MRI, the next steps, the next treatment decisions. It ends:
Still, it’s nice to dream of walking,
even slowly, around the park’s lakes,
and not teeter and tap with my cane,
while listening to the ghosts
of Jerry Garcia and Pigpen
harmonize on an old blues number,
when my generation believed
its birthright was to stay forever young.
Ah, youth! But there are also moments of redemption, as when, in “We’re Everywhere,” he encounters a couple of fellow Deadheads at a fundraiser at the university where Beth teaches. In “License Plate,” he notices a car’s vanity plate as he drives through Denver running errands. “GR8ful-1” it proclaims. Bob wants to salute his fellow Deadhead, but the car turns left, and he’s not so sure the driver would understand anyway.
Better just to savor his plate, of tasting
the delights of once being young,
when we thought music could save the world,
or at least make it more bearable.
In the final poem, Bob and Beth consider attending a concert in nearby Boulder featuring three surviving members of The Grateful Dead, but they decide against it.
“Now if Jerry’s ghost were to show up,”
I joke to Beth, “or if the man himself
were still alive, that’d change everything,”
like all those hopeful sightings of Elvis.
All Our Fare-Thee-Wells is full of wit and an honest appreciation for a musical act that means so much to Cooperman, and with its insights into aging and the exuberance of youth, it’s a collection anybody can enjoy.
You can find the book here: ALL OUR FARE-THEE-WELLS by Robert Cooperman – Finishing Line Press
Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. His most recent releases are Ugler Lee from Kelsay Books and Catastroika from Apprentice House.