Go On … Knock Yourself Out
Dick Lourie’s Jam Session and Other Poems (Hanging Loose Press, 2021) is an extended riff on the nature of genius, as exemplified by humankind’s perhaps oldest form of creative expression — music. That hook comes naturally to Lourie, as he is himself, a musician, an accomplished saxophonist. Couched in cool, conversational tones, Lourie guides the reader through a cavalcade of musical history, using the twinned, entwined forms of blues and jazz as his primary compass-points. Not that he confines himself to those amorphous genres, not even to music, as Lourie’s work is lush with cross-references to visual art, literature, theatre, and philosophy. In terms of music, though — Rock & Roll, Broadway, Folk, American Songbook — the poet calls on us to lend an ear to all the 20th and 21st centuries have to offer in terms of popular music, as we join his quest, if not to define, at least to describe, the essential genius-spark, that elusive grail, that Lorelei-lied, which beckons the creative soul.
“But is this poetry?” asks Mister Jones, lurking querulously in the shadows of the left-hand corner of the grey room. And the only possible rejoinder slouches up to the bar — “Well, what is?” Define poetry at your own peril — this reviewer won’t attempt it. I don’t know quite how, or why, anyone could really separate music from poetry when both forms spring from the same seed. I’m not even sure which came first, though I suspect it was music. Follow the written word back to its source and you discover spoken word — Hear Homer’s ghost bearing news of Troy, or the unknown Hebrew minstrel proclaiming “the song of the turtle is heard in the land”. Wait, did someone say “song”?
Sure, all the ancient works we call “poems” were sung first and written down only later. And not only in the west — the oldest verses of East and South Asian literature were incantations and harvest melodies. The great epics we study are only shadows of tales once chanted and danced to round the fire.
But back to Dick Lourie — As much as this reviewer treasures the heft and feel of a printed book held in his hands, one cannot help but wish Jam Session were a multi-media happening. The reader yearns to hear Lourie’s saxophone wail counterpoint to his words, or the stir of a combo tuning up filling the space between the lines.
Lourie has even organized his book the way a producer might design a record album, with an overture, and inter-mezzo section, and a grand coda. Does the term “record album” still scan in this digital age? Yes, this is a record, an album of sound-images, almost a memoir.
I am in a race with a boy about
ten years old ….
… he’s hurrying home to the mother
he loves who won’t die till he is over
The strongest section of the book may be the series of elegies under the heading “Been Here And Gone”, wherein Lourie writes evocatively of musicians who made a difference, of people and places no longer with us — the great saxophonist Clarence Clemons, Pete Seeger, doo-wop singer Ray Gipson, Huddie Ledbetter — as well as 17 Black school-children murdered in Atlanta, Smoken Joe’s BBQ & Blues club, Lourie’s anarchist uncle Sam Scheiner. These deeply moving anecdotal reminiscences are both touching and true. Reflecting on the portrait of Clarence Clemons on the cover of “Born to Run”, Lourie muses:
… what are you seeing staring it seems
over the viewer’s shoulder at what?
…. sax in your mouth a question mark
aimed at God ….
[“Letters to the Dead: Clarence Clemons”]
Later, imagining a convention of anarchists presided over by the great Leadbelly (Huddie Ledbetter) and attended by his uncle, Lourie describes waking from a nap and feeling sad without knowing why, but then:
the anarchists kind to me in this dream
step out of their own story to explain:
“we know you’ve been dreaming of Sam” they say
“so when you wake suddenly from being
“here with us you realize his absence”
[At the Anarchists’ Convention]
Like a musical Indiana Jones, Lourie digs deep to reveal unexpected treasures. The word “genius”, he proposes in his extended ode to Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns”, bears a relation to the Arabic “jinn”:
(turning up as “genie” in
French and English): a spirit perhaps locked
in bottle jar lamp and if it gets out
all hell breaks loose
Lourie then proceeds to rub the lamp and summon the spirits of Albert Einstein, Emily Dickinson, and Willie the Shake — each exemplifying the concept of genius. But, Lourie asks, what of all those “one-hit wonders” whose “one song was all they had:
… more like flashbulbs or
novas or Millay’s candle burning so lovely
at both ends ….
Lourie goes on to connect Sondheim’s song not only to its direct inspirations, Ingmar Bergman and Wolfgang Mozart, but to biblical Job, to Rene Magritte, and to Samuel Beckett’s hapless tramps, Vladimir and Estragon. Is Godot the genie/genius we strive to summon? Or do we simply yearn to remember our old flame, even when that flame is as ephemeral as Edna St. Vincent Millay’s candle, “her point being not the / vanishing … but the loveliness of its double-edged light” [My Old Flame]?
Where does the quest for genius end? What, if anything, will “last the night”? Dick Lourie closes his book with a lovely tribute to his life’s love, his partner, and then — the coda, an imagined jam session featuring “Jazz” and “Blues” as personified characters engaged in an improvisational conversation. What’s Lourie’s conclusion? To paraphrase the poet:
… go on knock yourself
out you’ve been warned listen …
Go on, then. Give Lourie’s book a read. It’s copacetic!
Jam Session and Other Poems; Dick Lourie; Hanging Loose Press; 2021.
• Luther Jett
W. Luther Jett is a native of Montgomery County, Maryland and a retired special educator. His poetry has been published in numerous journals as well as several anthologies. He is the author of five poetry chapbooks: "Not Quite: Poems Written in Search of My Father", (Finishing Line Press, 2015), and “Our Situation”, (Prolific Press, 2018), “Everyone Disappears” (Finishing Line Press, 2020), “Little Wars” (Kelsay Books, 2021), and “Watchman, What of the Night?” (CW Books, 2022).