Poetry review – GO PLAY OUTSIDE: Charles Rammelkamp reviews a basketball-themed collection from Robert Cooperman
I affectionately think of Robert Cooperman’s latest collection, Go Play Outside, as “Coop’s Hoops,” his love songs to the game of basketball. The book begins appropriately with mock biblical solemnity. The poem, “Genesis,” starts out:
In the beginning was the peach basket, or rather, the void of the Springfield YMCA in the bitter Massachusetts winter of 1891…
After detailing the challenges James Naismith encounters as he invents this new athletic pastime, Cooperman concludes the poem:
So I think of those peach baskets as the Great God Naismith proclaiming, “Let there be light,” and that ball, the sun in its firmament; and his rules, the flora and the fauna of the Fifth Day; the game itself the Garden; and seeing it all, Naismith must have been well-pleased.
Cooperman continues the origin story of the game in “Basketball and the Jews” before going on to recount his own introduction to the sport on the public school courts at P.S. 217 in Brooklyn.
Though it was invented by James Naismith, to help scrappy young Christian men through that particularly brutal winter of 1891, and to teach them the virtues of teamwork and selflessness, the first professionals were landsmen, Jews; the first basket was scored by one of us. You can look it up.
Poems springing from childhood fascination with the game follow – street ball, three-on-three; pretending to be Elgin Baylor shooting at the clothes-hanger basket with rolled-up socks with his brother while the downstairs neighbor, Mr. Moskowitz, fumes and hammers the ceiling with a broomstick; going to Madison Square Garden in the early 1960’s to see the Knicks and the Minneapolis Lakers, for whom Baylor, Cooperman’s childhood god, played. In “The World’s Greatest Job” he remembers
Stan’s father had the world’s greatest job: recording every play at Knicks games: made baskets, misses, turnovers, assists, rebounds: so sportswriters could write accurate and vivid descriptions, for us b-ball addicts to devour over lunch.
Part Two, “Throwing the Rock,” includes more nostalgic reminiscences of shooting hoops, from childhood and into adulthood: “Shooting Hoops at the Young Israel of Flatbush Schoolyard,” “At the Basketball Courts: Athens, Georgia,” “Playing Basketball with My Nephew: Levet, France,” “Talking Basketball Somewhere in Holland, 1970,” and “Lay-Up Drills Before the Game” are a few of the titles of wistful memories. “At the Baltimore Athletic Club” begins:
Charles and I would go one-on-one, but once, a guy – tall as a telephone pole, powerful as an Olympian – was shooting treys, another guy feeding him. We stopped and watched: he didn’t miss, I swear: one swish after another from beyond the arc, a machine; then it hit me: he was an NBA player I’d often seen on TV, maybe prepping for a trade to the old Baltimore Bullets.
Part Three, “What Got Me Through,” continues the memories, but the stakes are a little higher. In “Cab Ride from Madison Square Garden: the NBA Playoffs,” he recalls going to a game with his father, as a teen, and drinking beer after beer with him, enjoying the game, yes, but also to forget “that Vietnam / was crowding me with its full-court press.” In “I Could Understand: Knicks Vs. Celtics, Madison Square Garden,” he and his wife Beth attend a game between the archrivals, and when the Knicks lose on Larry Bird’s buzzer-beater, they witness a savage fistfight break out between two guys sitting in front of them, and they flee with their friend Dave as security swarms.
Outside, Dave, Beth and I found a diner, for coffees and pies, to wash away the taste of defeat, and the sight of flailing fists.
“Taking Beth to the Denver Nuggets Game Against the World Champion Golden State Warriors” is a humorous poem in which, his attention fastened on Steph Curry, “sinking treys like dropping sugar cubes into coffee,” he misses the real action taking place in the seats in front of them. Beth tells him about it later. A man’s wife and daughter go to the restroom, and while they are gone, the wife’s gorgeous friend scooches over, “her skin like hot caramel, and abundant // under the halter top she wore.” She caresses the man’s face, “then a quick kiss / from pillow-lips, before she returned to her own seat, // the guy staring as if Adam’s last glimpse of Eden.”
“What Got Me Through” is a tender paean to his wife, Beth, after his hip replacement surgery. Rather than take the Oxycontin for pain management, terrified of becoming addicted to the opiod, he’d watched the NBA championship on television, “though I can’t remember who won / the championship that year.”
But what I’ll never forget? You, darling Beth, taking care of everything, always smiling, as if nothing in the world you’d rather do, and to reassure me I’d be perfect again soon, as if I ever was, while you tried not to show me your worry, seeing me in pain and helpless…
The final section of Go Play Outside, “The Elgin Baylor Chronicles,” amounts to a sweet elegy for Cooperman’s basketball idol: “When I was a kid, / he was my god of basketball,” Cooperman writes in “Elgin Baylor.” “My Full Height” begins:
As a kid, I prayed to be 6’5”, the height of my sports idol, Elgin Baylor, who had me gasping “How’d he do that?” amazement, until his knees went brittle as drought-dry kindling.
“You Bet Your Life” is another humorous poem, a memory of seeing Elgin Baylor and his wife on Groucho Marx’s quiz show, as a kid. When Elgin reveals to Groucho that he and his wife had had two kids in three years, “Groucho leered,
“I like my cigar too, but I take it out of my mouth every now and then,” to the audience’s knowing laughter, and Elgin’s chuckles, though I wasn’t quite sure what he meant.
The nine-poem Elgin Baylor suite – and Go Play Outside itself – ends with “On the Death of Elgin Baylor”; the final lines read:
There was only one of you, but you died on Monday, the god I worshipped, and still do, as only a kid can.
“Coop’s Hoops” is a slam dunk.