Thursday, December 3, 2009

On Dick Lourie and The Confluence of Cultures

On Dick Lourie and the Confluence of Cultures

I met Dick Lourie after he had edited my first book of poems The Elephants of Reckoning which was published in February 1993. I had no idea then of the man’s own poetry, his blues sax, the musical magic tricks he played in once smoky bars in Cambridge and other Massachusetts towns. Lourie helped sharpen my poems of love and war in a hot far away island—now far better known to citizens of the globe as Sri Lanka, manufacturer of the suicide bomber, blithe practitioner of confronting terror with terror, and unhappy recipient of the Tsunami. I am grateful for his scalpel, his vision for the overall shapes of both my Sri Lanka books, the most recent The Splintered Face: Tsunami Poems.

Now,Lourie shows his metaphoric invention and his ability to write history as poetry in If The Delta Was the Sea—a product of a very experienced craftsman who has honed his art as writer and editor over decades preparing himself to compose some of the most compelling poems of our time. Now I am not a fan of the whole book. The Camel Chronicles were lost on me. But so many poems here will be read through the generations by the curious who want to learn about Clarksdale, yes, but also fellow poets interested in Lourie’s techniques in writing history via the poem, and ordinary readers who just wish for the entertainment of metaphors metered into a compelling story line. In my library, I place Lourie’s Delta next to Spoon River Anthology, Under Milk Wood and other classics of a particular time and place, and cultural, physical and psychological geography.

Here is Lourie’s disquisition on ribs in “Notes From the Future: Taken From the Journals of Imaginary Researchers Exploring Ancient Clarksdale, MIssissippi. “
“A recent discovery confirms that this last observation about the significance and status of “ribs” has not been exaggerated. Artifacts and census records make it evident that, as noted above, many parts of the city are predominantly occupied by one “race” or the other. Nevertheless, no matter where we dig, we always find, everywhere, these well-chewed animal bones—along with traces of what appears to be some kind of powerful ceremonial sauce.”

I love that ceremonial sauce. I am delighted that Clarksdale has found its chronicler. I am moved that he is a questioning, not fully practicing Jew, a migrant, and a close observer of sheepish, careful human beings who do not want to rock the boat, who want to move towards the meeting of cultures with all deliberate speed. In “Pinteleh Yid” a poem that contains history, he comments in one section about Jews in Clarksdale in the 1960s:

they were caught like others in the civil
rights conflicts of the 1960s: a
rabbi talks in the film about the tough
dilemma those days had presented to
him and his congregation in a town
near Clarksdale: he is a refugee from
pre-war Vienna where a rabbi could
just leave but those of his flock whose whole lives—

professions businesses were rooted there—
could not they stayed not knowing of course what
was about to happen this memory
stays with him as he angrily defends
his decision not to endanger his
congregation by speaking out against
the white power structure in such times when—
as Jews well knew—they could become easy

targets understanding one person says
that “ it was not periods of calm and
prosperity they had to be wary
of but times of turmoil” thus it might not
have been a surprise when one influential
member of a Delta congregation
advocated joining the White Citizen
Council reasoning that otherwise

the more excitable among those folks might
“begin to remember that we are Jews and
not Southerners and act accordingly. “….

There is more as Lourie then weighs the hate crimes against Jews and tries to present such decisions and revisions in all their complex, sifting horror.

I will not pretend to write definitive criticism of Lourie’s Delta here. The task escapes me. I have read and reread the poems over many months. They are very strong. They stick like glue, like sap, like a line that will not go away. I will sign off this first attempt by quoting his verses on a sandwich. New Yorkers take note that Lourie will read at the St. Mark’s Poetry Project on December 16.

The Sandwich As Metaphor

if you visualize every life as
a sandwich you could imagine endless
variations: with or without onions
hot cold lives sliced thin or just all mashed up

beyond recognition the delicate
the familiar the unsavory crisp
or soggy easy to chew but hard to
swallow dry or absolutely perfect

a lunch to end all lunches or a fast
food snack certainly best forgotten and
so forth from the long view of history
the “sandwich” of a particular life

might be seen as one crucial period
bounded by others less transformative:
an essential substance spread squeezed enclosed
between slices of “before” and “after”

this metaphor applies to the life of
a place as well: I think that for Clarksdale’s
life and Aaron Henry’s the crucial time is
the mid-nineteen-sixties when everything

changed because whites and blacks began—compelled
by history and themselves—to change their
behavior toward each other so that
from then on nothing was what it had been