Singing the Blues
The Blues. Like rain falling softly on hydrangeas.
A longing. A sadness as weighty as scripture.
A bride’s quiet sobs on her wedding night,
A mother’s melancholy after her newborn,
A neighbor’s fight with her not-so-true-blue husband.
Or yours with a recalcitrant child. The heightened
Tension. The plate on the kitchen floor, shards of glass
Glinting in corners. The blows. The bruises.
Picasso, Elvis, and Robert Johnson felt the blues. I have. Likely, you,
Too. When we plunge into despair and sell our souls;
When we’re in our blue period, fashioning an old guitarist, blind,
Poor, and as somber as church communion; or when we put on
Our blue suede shoes and make soulful sounds on street corners.
In juke joints. In churches. In solitary realms. When we gut
The heart and, like Louis A, spill out its recesses in song.
I’m so forlorn. Why was I born?
What did I do to be so black and blue?
Here’s a story I heard once.
About prisoners. About family. About the human heart.
It made me ashamed. Dirty.
As blue as a candle’s flickering flame.
Convicts, conscripted into public service to build roads and bridges,
Perusing their surroundings for a way of escape;
A guard, heavy with tradition and self,
Watching the prisoners like a pelican eyeing the ocean,
Rifle slung across his shoulder, pistol, trigger-ready, on his side;
A kinsman, having trained dogs to hunt rabbits, to tree coons,
Reasoning that running the blood-thirsty hounds to track his
Own children through the swamp would teach the dogs to hunt
A prisoner; jubilant when the convict makes his escape,
When the dogs are loosed on the trail, when they follow the
Human scent down the river banks through the soggy sloughs.
The next scene feels ancient, prehistoric.
At the foot of a tree, the canines, mouths foaming like the sea;
On the ground, the crouched convict, hands covering his head,
As lifeless as Baal’s prophets; the guard, calling off the dogs,
Ordering the prisoner to his feet, landing a punch with the heat
Of a July Fourth celebration; the prisoner lunging forward,
Sputtering, gurgling, withstanding kick after kick until
The guard is satisfied.
There’s blood on the leaves and blood at the root.
That’s the blues. They’re raw. They keep us up at night.
They’re conviction that demands action like –
Like going down to the river to wash seven times
Or penning another poem. Or Two.
All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful.
– Flannery O’Connor
It’s the dog days of summer. Funeral fans swish. Guitars hum.
Banjos and fiddles screech and whine.
But with good ears and vigilance, pickers tune and tighten,
And song bursts forth with a waterfall’s force.
“In the sweet by and by,
We shall meet on that beautiful shore.
In the sweet by and by,
We shall meet on that beautiful shore.”
Then he moves in.
With eyes like coal-tar pitch and as penetrating as bullets, he scans
The crowd, and waving the Good Book as if he were conjuring a spirit,
He begins his diatribe on sin and the judgment to come.
Before long, his face reddens;
On his tiptoes, with a volcano’s fervor,
He thunders of hell’s eternal fire,
Of a burning sulfur, never consumed,
Of God’s wrath as destructive as a tsunami.
When the prophet pounds the podium and points his crooked finger,
Chastising, condemning, shaming,
The place quakes with amens and hallelujahs.
Sometimes, though, judgment occurs in the here and now
As one moving from the fringes
Releases a scream, interrupting the faithful like a sonic boom.
With flailing arms and sunken eyes, she speaks of dreams and visions
And prophesies of a death by water, another by fire,
The frenzy finally subsiding into fatigue and a hushed tone,
As other women mumble, mutter, moan and weep.
With hands clasped as tightly as a pendant storing a lock of hair
And with forward gaze, they appear trance-like, touched.
And I am afraid.
Since then, decades have ambled towards forever,
And sin’s repercussions have rushed our lives like tidal waves.
But today as the memory congeals and the figures take shape,
I, too, am touched.
There’s a kind of fear that precedes faith
And an awe that comes with surrender.
Elijah (“My God is Jehovah”)
When I was a child, he seemed worn, but ageless,
Tall, lanky, a bit stooped,
In khaki trousers and khaki shirt buttoned to the top,
Billfold snuggled in his breast pocket.
Partly bald, he often wore a hat,
Sometimes felt and small, other times straw and large,
But always turned upwards on the sides.
His belt prong took in the last hole, the extra one, ice-picked,
And the belt’s end drooped like a disciplined child.
He was the last of the mule farmers.
Tending a sixty-acre tract,
He turned up the sod, fresh and cool,
As he plodded, brogan-shod, behind the two-horse plow,
Often allowing the children to ride on the seat
He had rigged up on the cultivator.
In drought he prayed for rain but then walked worried
As he commanded the mules with his Gee and Haw and Whoa,
Taking pride in rows as straight as forthright talk.
One almost always sees him in the field,
Dusting the cotton to rid it of weevils,
Shucking an ear of corn to inspect its maturity,
Thumping the melon to check its ripeness.
Sometimes we see him placing his mail-order biddies in the brooder,
Anticipating the Sunday delicacies they would become,
Or buying a mess of mullet with the extra cash from the cotton seed,
Even splurging on a lemon sody for himself
And on neapolitan cream for the family.
He was our father
Protecting, instructing, correcting,
Believing that a dose of Castor Oil would cure every ailment,
That swallowing Vicks Salve would cure the common cold,
That sparing the rod would spoil the child.
Like Vulcan, he awoke before day to start a fire,
Stoking it with splinters from fat lighter stumps.
As the blaze roared, he would rub his calloused hands together,
Satisfied that the house was waking to new life.
He was a man who had God’s heart,
Who commended his first-born to the Lord, bargaining
For His presence and a heavy allotment of the Holy Ghost.
In the middle of the night, he spoke in tongues
As mysterious and strange as the phoenix’s rebirth,
Sometimes dancing thru the morning’s early hours
On the creaking, wooden floors.
And then he was finished.
Sitting by the flame, legs purple and thin,
Mouth as dry as the embers of the fire,
He blessed God’s name and then passed the mantle to his sons and daughters.
Recognizing its power, they rolled up the cloak
And struck the water,
But when they asked for a double portion of his spirit,
The sea did not part for them,
And they did not cross the Jordan on dry ground.
Jo Taylor is a first-year retired high school English teacher from Georgia who enjoys reading, traveling and spending time with her two grandsons, all three loves contributing to her poems about art, family and faith. She has published in Silver Birches and in The Ekphrastic Review.