If you like literature that looks, sounds, smells and tastes like Mississippi Delta blues and jazz, then Valley Voices: A Literary Review, published by Mississippi Valley State University (MVSU), would make a nice addition to your library. This issue celebrates the journal’s 10-year anniversary with a collection of what Editor John Zheng calls “the best creative works, poetry and stories, Valley Voices has published.” This issue is evidence that the journal has long lived up to its stated dedication to promoting the works of MVSU students and the cultural diversity of the Mississippi Delta through writers from the Delta, while maintaining standards of excellence in poetry and prose.
The editorial staff and the advisory board of the peer-reviewed journal are to be congratulated for their selections, especially the poetry. Anchored by poet and sax player Dick Laurie’s poem “authentic” and two pieces by blues poet Sterling Plumpp, many of the poems in this issue are notable for their musical structures and a shared voice that is part jazz and blues scat, and part narrative story-telling. Combined, these poetic elements sustain and give credence to the myths and legends that hover in the thick, humid Mississippi Delta air, as in the opening lines of “Territory I Explore” by Plumpp:
Mississippi, Mississippi / Clinton I was
born on the seventh
blues with a feeling / Juked at juke joints:
Curly’s or Checkerboards
Plumpp isn’t just providing the reader with a list of legendary blues figures; he is conjuring them up from the mud along the river banks, calling to them in the repetitive almost trance-like tradition of the charismatic songs of Delta churches. In this manner, the ghosts of blues masters such as Son House, John Lee Hooker, and Junior Wells—all of them great wanderers—are summoned and placed alongside the Shango Ogun spirits of West Africa. Ultimately, Plumpp makes the case that at its deepest roots, the blues is the language of his dreams, a spiritual language that connects him to his ancestors whose names slavery severed from their tongues hundreds of years ago.
Dick Lourie actually sits in and plays the blues with Big Jack Johnson, the subject of his poem, “authentic,” which holds tightly to many of the jazz-poetry conventions embraced by Jack Kerouac. Lines in the poem are treated like jazz phrases, repeated throughout the poem but with subtle differences. “Big Jack played it wrong,” Lourie writes in the second stanza, and then in the third stanza he imagines telling Jack, “but I have to tell you: you got it wrong.” Four stanzas later, the phrase is repeated again, but this time as a question: “should I say ‘Jack you’ve got it wrong again’?” The answer to his own question, Lourie discovers, is “No”; not only should he not tell Jack he got it wrong, but rather that he got it exactly right, thereby providing an eloquent twist at the end of the poem, like the surprise lingering note at close of a Thelonious Monk composition.
Prose has also had a place in Valley Voices over the course of the last ten years, and in this issue its place is in the second half of the journal. It is not a slight to be placed at the end of the journal, by any means, for included in this edition are pure gems by an excellent array of writers, including Tayari Jones and Steve Yates. Jones’s entry is an excerpt from her third novel, Silver Sparrow. Yates’s piece, Coin of the Realm, takes up the last 28 pages of the journal. It has been published in bits and pieces in several places, but in its entirety first in a 2008 issue of Valley Voices and again in this issue.
But the most interesting piece, in light of recent news that parts of the Mississippi River are now so low that ferry boats cannot cross in some places, is the essay “When the Mississippi River Dried Up,” by Don George. History, George tells us, makes much of the great floods of 1927-29. But, in a voice that sounds like someone’s grandfather is telling the story, George writes, “I believe it was in 1923 or 1924 that summer came early.” Not only did it come early, but it stayed awhile. And, when it did rain, it rained and rained like it would never stop, levees bursting up and down the river’s banks.
This issue is packed with writing that deserves more attention than can be given here. The great Mississippi River comes alive on every page, and I want it to carry me away.