Dec 9 2022
Poetry review – A NIGHTMARE ON HORSEBACK: Charles Rammelkamp admits to a fondness for the flawed protagonist in these poem-stories by Robert Cooperman
The last we heard of John Sprockett, Robert Cooperman’s nineteenth century wild west outlaw, was in his 2019 collection, The Devil Who Raised Me, the origin story of the poetry-spouting desperado. John Sprockett was actually killed in The Badman and the Lady, written back in the twentieth century, but he’s just too good a character to leave in his grave.
So for the last quarter century Cooperman has been sporadically filling in Sprockett’s backstory. A Killing Fever and The Widow’s Burden are other titles featuring John Sprockett. In The Devil Who Raised Me, it’s Missouri before the Civil War, and Sprockett is tormented by his stepfather, the Reverend Jeremiah Sprockett, while his mother teaches him to love poetry. A complicated DNA. John finally reaches his limit when he finds Reverend Sprockett beating up his mother. He kills his stepfather, technically a patricide, and this sets the rest of his life in motion.
This brings us to A Nightmare on Horseback. The Civil War is underway, and Sprockett’s origin story continues. We learn about Sprockett’s encounter with the grizzly bear that left him disfigured, his face mauled, ripped apart, a horrifying, defining trait with which we’ve been familiar since we first met John Sprockett so long ago. He may be a cold-blooded murderer, but he still suffers pangs of conscience.
The grizzly was Pa’s vengeance from beyond the shallow grave I put him in, and for dispatching the posse that came after me: I woke in my camp to that monster’s hell-breath: his claws curious, then ripping while I screamed and slashed his belly, and that Pawnee appeared out of nowhere, us two finally killing the beast.
Here he blames himself – or rather, it’s “Pa’s revenge” – for the disastrous encounter. Still, we understand the inner torment that plagues Cooperman’s anti-hero his whole life. A Pawnee Indian, Gone-Nose (Cooperman’s names for his characters are a little delight of their own – Big Bob Tolliver, Millie Spangler, B.J. Pettibone and the rest), helps slay the bear. Gone-Nose tends to Sprockett as he gradually heals.
But – and this is the meat of the story – Sprockett joins up with Quantrill’s Raiders, the murderous pro-Confederate guerrilla band led by William Quantrill that included Frank and Jesse James. At that time, 1862, Missouri resembles the Missouri of today, stone racist whites at the throats of their more compassionate fellow citizens. We hear the likes of Lydia Watson and Benjamin Potter spewing their pro-slavery prejudices. “Spare no one!” William Quantrill commands his men before the Lawrence massacre. They go on a murderous rampage. Against his better judgment, Sprockett has ridden with the band to Lawrence, Kansas, where they commit genocide. Without going into the details, let’s just say Sprockett has five more lives on his conscience, including a child’s, when he finally parts ways with Quantrill’s Raiders.
Cooperman’s books are always delivered in a cacophony of different, competing voices, like a play composed of soliloquies. Whether it’s an embellishment of Homer’s epics, The Iliad and The Odyssey, tales from his New York childhood and youth, the lives of the Romantic poets or yarns involving his beloved Grateful Dead, the multiplicity of voices in Cooperman’s work is astounding and often illuminating, providing point and counterpoint. It’s true that John Sprockett gets the lion’s share of speeches in A Nightmare on Horseback, but other characters speak their mind and flesh out the conflicting points-of-view. We hear from people like Martin Rice, who resists Quantrill when he demands provisions for his men, and we hear from several in Quantrill’s seditious gang, not to mention Sylvia Williams, who befriends Sprockett in the aftermath.
“I know you,’ she pointed, though hard not to recognize my bear-ripped scars. “One of Quantrill’s murderers,” she spat forceful as a preacher ordering Satan off.
Sylvia Williams is a Black woman. When they ride off together after the events in Kansas, Sprockett finds himself confessing his sins to her. Why he is the way he is, why he did what he did. Her heart softens for him, even as she sizes the brutal white man up.
Him telling me what he done in Lawrence was him asking me to save his soul, what white folks regularly require of us, like saying we got to love them though they keep us in chains and whipped.
A Nightmare on Horseback is not simply a gripping tale of violence, cunning and conscience rendered in the colorful, idiomatic language of its time and place, but it is also a vivid reminder of the forces that continue to divide us a century and a half later.
Almost as if he’s been shrived by a priest after confession, or has reached a deeper self-understanding after hours on the psychiatric couch, when “John Sprockett Bids Farewell to Sylvia Williams,” the Badman seems to have reached a deeper level of self-revelation.
Killing, I’ve learned, is easy; friendship with a butcher like me, well that’s a sight harder.
Will John Sprockett change his ways? Somehow I doubt it, and I really hope he doesn’t! (Also, don’t forget, we already know how his life ends.) We’ll just have to wait for what Robert Cooperman serves up next.