If the Delta Was the Sea
Bill Christophersen

Dick Lourie, If the Delta Was the Sea (Hanging Loose Press, 2009; 165 pp.; paper; $18)

Dick Lourie, blues saxophone player and poet (Anima, Ghost Radio), has been to the Crossroads. The intersection of Highways 49 and 61; Clarksdale, Mississippi, where Robert Johnson, as legend has it, sold his soul to the Devil for the uncanny guitar chops that made him an iconic Delta bluesman. Lourie, a white New Englander, has gone there annually for the past decade to play the blues and soak up—and suss out—the scene. Early in If the Delta Was the Sea, his seventh poetry collection, he pays his respects to the spot where, as he puts it, “Robert Johnson is said/ to have taken the most costly guitar/ lesson in the history of the blues” (“Development at the Crossroads” 21). Lourie’s soul, though, judging from the poems, has only been enriched by the encounter.

The Delta is his subject, but the poetry is no reverential stroking of musical touchstones. Lourie nods toward Red’s juke joint and the Ground Zero Blues Club but spends his days investigating places like Eugene Hicks’s grocery store and Sarah’s Kitchen. Nor does he base his poems on facile assumptions about the area. He tells us in a preface that he had initially expected to find grinding poverty, a dying blues culture and a legacy of racism, but that he was, at best, half right. The Delta he plumbs is poor but infrangible; the blues still thrive there; and the region’s racial legacy—as gnarled and complex as a sentence by William Faulkner—defies parsing.

If the Delta Was the Sea starts with good reporting. Lourie has met and talked with a range of Clarksdale residents, and in syllabic, loosely stanzaic verse that is by turns narrative, dramatic and meditative, he introduces us to them: Chafik Chamoun, Lebanese café owner and schmoozer; Aaron Kline, a Jewish dry goods merchant who left Lithuania in 1937, just before it became, as Kline puts it, “Hell on Earth” (“Pinteleh Yid” 86), to relocate in Alligator, Mississippi; James Hicks, the city commissioner, who, when he was a bus operator several decades ago, was threatened with death by fellow whites for allowing black civil rights protestors to charter his bus; Big Jack Johnson, a (black) blues singer/guitarist who insists that blacks were better off in the Jim Crow South than they are today; Lin Pang, the canny, 92-year-old retired real estate dealer who had to outsmart deep-pocketed cotton planters to make his way in business and who, between jokes and anecdotes, tries to talk the poet out of writing poetry and into manufacturing plastic place mats (“The Wisdom of ‘Pap’ Pang, or, Typecasting in the Delta”). The resulting portrait—quirky, cross-grained and inclusive—deconstructs the simplistic black/white opposition Lourie had envisioned before spending time in the Delta.

But Lourie is more than a free-verse reporter who plays against expectations. His approach follows Thoreau’s in Walden: he scrutinizes the local, deliberating on what he sees and hears and following any resulting associations, then peers through it to the universal. So it is that the speaker’s cornbread and cabbage lunch, as he mashes it together on his plate, becomes “A Story About Desegregation,” and the history of Clarksdale’s once-oppressed Italian community, as detailed in “So Italian,” improbably refracts that of its blacks.

Race, plainly, is the collection’s underlying theme. Lourie came of age as the civil rights movement began to roil the South’s snaky political waters. He remembers the murders of blacks and, later, of white civil rights workers; the culture of ax handles and firebombs; the acquittals of good ol’ boys incriminated in lynchings; the increasing militancy of blacks. How, he wonders, has the town integrated integration?

…[I’m] seeking to understand
how people awash in this history
have managed now to live together here

because—as much as a stranger can—I
felt the life of the blues community
but outside of it were all those other
Clarksdales I could not find a way into….(46)

The passage occurs in “Rhetorical Interlude in Three Stages,” a poem within the extended sequence called the “The Camel Chronicles.” And it is in this sprawling, garrulous, intercut sequence—based on an online sitcom of sorts set in Chamoun’s kibbie cafe and featuring its patrons as characters, into which the poet, having breakfasted there as well as read the blog, inserts himself—that the collection’s most inspired probing of the question is to be found.

“The Camel Chronicles” features an ongoing argument between Chamoun and the Preacher over whether the camel or the horse is the faster beast. The Preacher summons up Biblical quotes on behalf of the horse; another patron points out that even in Arabia, horses are ridden for speed, while “Camels…carry/ the baggage” (31). But camels, a fourth participant points out, have longer legs. The upshot: “The Preacher impatient says he’ll get a/ horse and dares Chamoun to find a camel” (43). The argument is never resolved, because the proposed race never takes place. No matter: beyond the wisecracks and surreal exchanges, this poem about race is a comic fable about race — one lit by inconspicuous ironies and insights, then mulled over and finally set aside like a diary rather than neatly resolved.

Lourie’s collection, by contrast, achieves a natural closure. By the end, we sense that Clarksdale, with its ethnic mix, social tectonics, irreducible history and cultural vitality, “encompasses the world” (153), as the “Chronicles” suggests; that its Crossroads is indeed a crossroads; and that race relations there, as in the rest of America, are an ongoing conversation, sometimes abusive or incoherent, sometimes purposeful. Like the blues itself, If the Delta Was the Sea is remarkable for its scope, honesty, wit—and soul.

NB: Hanging Loose Press has also released a CD featuring nine poems from If the Delta Was the Sea, read to the accompaniment of a blues band.