Three Poems by Beth Brown Preston

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Birth of the Blues

Was it Miles Davis’ “Kinda Blue” bringing me home to you? Or the musical memories of our mutual histories?
Scott Joplin and Jelly Roll laid back and fingering those piano kevs,
on an instrument played by Langston Hughes, Bontemps, Zora Neale and Countee Cullen while Black women danced a close sweating two-step
with their men in Harlem jook joints?

Were the blues born on sultry evenings under canopies of stars?
Come into this world between dark southern thighs
while our enslaved ancestors danced to strumming banjos, wailing mouth harps and ancient rhythms of violins, tambourines and drums.

Men and women dancing to words become songs:
work songs praise songs
kin songs to the blues?

Were the blues born with the birth of “The New Negro?” or “the flowering of Negro literature”? Or were the blues
more hidden, ever more subtle in the eyes and on the tongues of Harlem?

In the lyric of Billie Holiday crooning “Strange Fruit” at Café Society? Or the crackle of Louis Armstrong’s voice?
or the clarion call of his trumpet?
Was it in the unstoppable Trane: a love supreme flowing from his horn? or in a Black child’s first giant step?

Black man, my lover, I held your newborn in my arms wondering just what he would make of this world,
a world he gazed on with sad, irreverent yet innocent brown eyes.

Black man, my lover, do not ask me how you will survive without the blues.

The Painter

You sat with brushes in hand and the light flowing above and below, the prayer like paper, the light illumined all our sacred trees.
Somehow, we forgot all our raucous and joyous past loves when I asked you to listen for the screen door’s slam
and the call to supper as I brought you the evening meal.

And then there was that folio of your recent sketches. so many similar dark faces filled with joy.

I gazed at the rich, brown texture of a watercolor on the page,
a man’s tortured face, his beard, his glowing tough bronzed skin. You said it was a portrait of your brother,
who died overseas during a rain of fire in the Viet Nam war.

And you put down your brushes to confess we were going to start life all over again
without waging the private wars that keep us together.

You painted your dead brother’s face against a background of blue.

Childhood

Music became a halo, a birthmark, the praiseful signifying voice warning me not to live in the past, nourishing my young mind.
While rehearsing a sonata on the family piano, I forgot the repetition of finger exercises, the scales, the tempo
on an otherwise quiet Sunday evening when no one was listening save my daddy who thought of me as perfect and knew
each note to every song by memory.

When I turned twelve
a backyard party entertained me with a stack of 45s, rhythm ‘n’ blues, dancing, chilled sodas, and the sizzle of an old-fashioned colored bar-b-que. A time for sprouting breasts, long, lanky legs, and knobby skinned knees.
While the Four Tops wailed their sweet soul Motown symphonies on the phonograph,
I looked down from my bedroom window on the second floor as fate come a-knockin at my door. It was all so right.

Years later, memories of being twelve returned to me like the ghosts of failure with the sound of unwritten songs in my ears.

And, my father, who once thought I was perfect, forgave me.

Beth Brown Preston is a poet and novelist with two collections of poetry from the Broadside Lotus Press and two chapbooks of poetry, including OXYGEN II (Moonstone Press, 2022). She is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the MFA Writing Program at Goddard College. She has been a CBS Fellow in Writing at the University of Pennsylvania; and, a Bread Loaf Scholar. Her work has been recognized by the Hudson Valley Writers Center, the Sarah Lawrence Writing Institute, The Writer’s Center, the Fine Arts Work Center at Provincetown, and by A Public Space. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the pages of ADANNA, AFRICAN AMERICAN REVIEW, BIRMINGHAM ARTS JOURNAL, THE BLACK SCHOLAR, CALLALOO, CALYX, CAVE WALL, EVENING STREET REVIEW, FREE STATE REVIEW, HANGING LOOSE, HELIX, ILLUMINATIONS, MUSE, OBSIDIAN, PASSAGER, PATERSON LITERARY REVIEW, PENNSYLVANIA REVIEW, PENSIVE, POTOMAC REVIEW, RAIN TAXI, SINISTER WISDOM, STORM CELLAR, TALKING RIVER REVIEW, THAT LITERARY REVIEW, VOX POPULI, and many other literary and scholarly journals.

Image: Richard from kansas city, united states, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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