Dec 7 2023
Poetry review – HELL AT COCK’S CROW: Charles Rammelkamp savours a rattling good poetic yarn by Robert Cooperman
Robert Cooperman has always written fanciful tales involving treachery, violence and matters of the heart. His series about the wild west desperado, John Sprockett, is a case in point, as are his re-imaginings of the Trojan War and the adventures of Odysseus. Hell at Cock’s Crow feels familiar in that sense, as do the multiplicity of voices telling the tale, a technique Cooperman is expert at in building suspense and intrigue. What’s unique about this sequence is the fact that the whole narrative is related in sonnets, those compact, lyrical, fourteen-line verses that seem custom-designed for romantic tales.
And Hell at Cock’s Crow is nothing if not a suspenseful romantic tale, taking place in colonial America, sometime before the Revolutionary War, when pirate ships roved the waves along the coasts of the still uncivilized continent. The story opens with a band of pirates, led by the ruthless James Raven, overtaking and looting a merchant ship, The Peacock, as it makes its way up the coast. Raven explains their modus operandi. He and his men “waylay
fat, cargo-rich merchantmen on their way up the coast; we sell crews as indentured slaves in the Colonies, if they don’t fight. If they do, we put them all to the sword, heave their bloody carcasses overboard, punishment for resisting, not for spite.
All in a day’s work. Speaking of which, Cooperman’s cast of characters, the motley crew that does Captain Raven’s dirty work, is a colorful bunch of misfits with their own hidden agendas. There’s Raven’s second in command, Matthew Steyne, and Philip Farr, one of the pirate seamen, both of whom have misgivings about Raven’s methods and ambitions.
There’s also Samuel Wallace, the cook of the Peacock, who exacts revenge on the marauding pirates. He muses
I fear I grow too fond of taking the lives of the brutes who murdered The Peacock’s crew.
One of the members of the Peacock crew, Billy Butcher, realizes his odds of surviving are better if he takes the deal to join the pirates rather than becoming chum for sharks, even as his crewmates scorn him. ‘Life’s too fleeting to be a righteous fool.’ But Billy is a man with a conscience, and this proves significant as the plot develops. He may not feel the sting of guilt so much as a simple desire to “start over,”
a new, honest life in the Colonies and forget I ever was a pirate, though forced into that scoundrel’s thieving fate: my choice: death or a life of butchery. I’ve had enough of pillage, blood, and rape. If my scurvy crewmates blink, I’ll escape.
Billy, indeed, is key to the romantic love theme that drives the plot of Hell at Cock’s Crow. He falls in love with Kathleen Munro, Captain Raven’s captive concubine. Miranda Iglesias, Raven’s consort, meanwhile, has her own private views of Raven and his relations with Kathleen Munro.
If I ever scent that cunnie Kathleen on him again, I’ll cut off his pizzle and burn it before him until it sizzles and shrivels down to the size of a bean.
Toss in the corrupt government official, ‘The King’s high-governor,’ and you have a deliciously complicated set-up for mayhem, a powder keg whose imminent explosion keeps you turning the pages. Indeed, in “The Governor’s Business Arrangements” he tells us –
I sailed away to this sweltering hell to make my fortune, and not by the book, no one over me to take a hard look and report to the King and all his swells. Nothing here but to sweat, sleep, whore, and take a wolf-cut of every vessel’s cargo…
The Governor makes it his mission to track down Raven, punish the scoundrels, restore order to the colonies, and, of course, to line his pockets, just as Billy, Kathleen, and Miranda, cogs in the wheel of more powerful forces, plot their own escape from inevitable destruction; they recognize the situation is way out of their control.
But there are no spoilers here. The reader will enjoy watching the plot unfold herself. But the fact that Cooperman tells us this tale in a series of sixty-seven sonnets deserves some attention and praise. While the sonnets function much like the dramatic monologues Cooperman generally employs in his other poetic narratives, furthering the plot and fleshing out the characters, they are particularly effective in Hell at Cock’s Crow in imbuing the story with the romantic aura of a tale of the high seas, an idealized yesteryear of swashbuckling sailors and seductive femmes fatales. The verses roll down the page like lapping waves in their rhythmic cadence. The opening sonnet, “The Pirate’s Oath,” illustrates this perfectly in its ABBA CDDC EFFE GG beat:
Fat, comfortable men sneer we’re Hell’s blooms, Satan’s foul droppings, foes to all mankind, fit only to be hunted, necks and spines wishbone broken by the hangman at noon, when the most boisterous crowd is gathered to witness and cheer, victuals and drinks sold for a profit by enterprising souls, our corpses gibbet-caged; then bones scattered or crossroads-buried, for all to trample, a plaque stating, “Here lies one forever damned, a brigand on the sea, a doomed man. May his sufferings below be ample.” Fools, there’s only this one life for us all. Heaven? Hell? Pictures fading on a wall.
Hell at Cock’s Crow is a delight to read, as if Cooperman casts a spell and conjures a world from a murky, half-imaginary past.