Category Archives: 3. Literature

Real History Is Never Made

Photograph by Jose Padua
Real history is never made by those
with the incredible machines, but by
those with the beautiful words. The first
moon walk would be nothing if there
were no one to say “one small step
for man, one giant leap for mankind,”
even though we sometimes have trouble
remembering the exact words. The well-
oiled machine of our nation wouldn’t have
felt so new if Lincoln had said it was
begun eighty-seven year ago by some
white guys, instead of declaring, “Four
score and seven years ago, our fathers,
brought forth on this continent, etc, etc.”
A war epic would be a just another
long film with explosions and Martin Sheen,
and the Philippines standing in for Vietnam,
without the words “I love the smell of napalm
in the morning.” Machines you can make
with numbers and tests and prototypes.
There’s no use in trying to write a prototype
for the sonnet you want to write, you
simply have to try to write it. Poetry
has no smell, you have to feel that victory,
that loss, the language. It can wrap around
you like a bandage, it can pierce your
heart like a knife. And close the skin you breach.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Lowlife

Photograph by Jose Padua
I have suffered through one million
broken hearts; been slain countless times
by convulsions of laughter brought about
by the clever absurdity of puns, jokes, and witticisms;
kept my left and better ear pressed to the grass
in the hopes to gaining knowledge that was
both arcane and beneficial to my well-being;
and have even seen in the forest something more
than just the conglomeration of individual trees.
Then on Sunday it was one o’clock
when the odor of skunk entered the house
because of an incident on the street outside,
the air thick like the innards of clouds
and still as mysteries buried in closets
or underneath creaking floorboards.
In the summer praying mantises crawl
the vines growing on the worn-down siding,
their light green blending in with every
crack and crevice. And I pledge my allegiance
to everything that lies beneath the surface
of things, each gesture that destroys the idioms
of wealth and its indifference as I remember
all the low lives, honor all bottom feeders
everywhere and anytime who have lost
the battle yet continue to wage this slow,
deliberate war of worlds.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

To the Old Man Walking and All the Other Scary People in the World

Photograph by Jose Padua
Today I discovered that the guy
I always see walking down
my street, a friendly looking old
man to whom I’ll nod and wave
and who always waves back,
is listed for the sex offender
registry in my zip code and
is on probation for sexual battery
involving a minor, indicted just
two years ago meaning that he was
already an old man when this happened
unlike the guy with the run-down shop
off of the Avenue who was
convicted of rape over thirty
years ago. I share my neighborhood
with them, my town, my world.
There are scary people everywhere
I look, walking, working, living in
apartments on Main Street, drinking
coffee quietly while reading the
paper, sitting at a bench by the gazebo
admiring the beauty of the fall’s colors.
The boy I used to see walking past
my house would always say hello,
now he says nothing, with age sometimes
creating nothing more than distance,
distress, crime and a million other things
both great and small to be afraid of.
The handyman with the long hair who
fancied himself a lawyer at heart
because he loved to talk and
who didn’t want to disturb the grass
looks down to the sidewalk, his mouth
shut tight because like rocks high
upon the mountain, everything has
the tendency to fall, turn frail, or make
horrible mistakes. We sit at night sometimes,
listening to the wind knowing it’s the process
by which brightly colored leaves drop
to the ground—or do they float, and are
we all just lifting to a new existence,
a dimension where every strange movement
we make will be understood? On some
nights the owner of the beauty salon
on the quiet side street will leave
the shop lights on. No one’s inside,
and the memory of each gone day
seems more beautiful each time we
walk away, the people talking gently
amongst themselves behind closed
windows, lowering themselves to brush
the dirt off of the floor, then lifting themselves
up at the knees, believing with all
the strength of each worn, tired muscle
that this is what it means to have a soul.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Coming Home

Photograph by Jose Padua
When the policeman tells me
to pull over to the curb
because the woman
with the pearly white
smile just told him
that I nearly ran
someone over when
I’m simply waiting there
while another woman
pushing her grocery cart
walks past me is
when I remember
how hard it can
be sometimes just
to get home.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Rice and Mirrors

JosePaduaPatPadua_1972
If you substitute rice for potatoes
you would have my version of
growing up in America. When I
was thirteen and had high blood
pressure the doctor said “no gravy
on your potatoes,” but we didn’t eat
potatoes that often and to make
a difference in my diet it would
have had to be less adobo juice
on my rice or less salty soy sauce.
How, exactly, do you tell a doctor
when you’re thirteen that the example
he gave is a bad one, that it may apply
to him but not to me? Then there were
the things we used to do like cover
all the mirrors in the house with blankets
when there was a thunderstorm, practices
that carried over from the old world
that took decades to fade from our lives.
I don’t remember the first time we left
the mirrors uncovered during a storm
but I imagine my mother and father
felt tense, wondering if our house
in America would get struck by lightning,
that maybe the old superstitions
were still right after all these years,
and after all the things they left behind.
I wonder about the first time
my mother and father had a dinner
here without rice.
Did they still feel hungry afterwards,
did they feel slightly lost, standing
as tall as they could on uncertain feet,
in this strange, exotic land?

-Jose Padua

The photograph of me and my brother Pat was taken at the family house in Washington DC in 1972.

Jump

Photograph by Jose Padua
I’m five, in 1962, jumping over
and over from the sofa to the rug
in our apartment on the second floor
at 19th and S Street, jumping
to the orchestral explosions at the end
of Tchaikovsky’s The Year 1812,
Festival Overture in E flat major
.
It’s not like twenty years later
when I’d hear the force of
Van Halen playing “Jump,”
or thirty years later
when I’d hear the House of Pain saying,
“Jump around, jump around, jump around,”
but I find out later that day that my jumping
has made the plaster on the ceiling
of the apartment below us—
where Eleanor (who, because of polio, walks
with leg braces and crutches) lives humbly, quietly,
no husband, no children, alone on the first floor—
collapse all around Eleanor while she’s trying
to relax with a cup of tea,
and for the first time in my life I know
what real guilt feels like.
So many times I’d looked out our apartment
window to see Eleanor limping
her way to the front door, holding
her crutches, making what to my
five year old mind were the most
awkward movements I’d ever seen
and now this happens.
But she doesn’t complain, just mentions it
this once, and I don’t get spanked,
and no one ever talks about it again,
and I don’t really think about it again myself,
until today,
trying to help my young son
learn to walk,
put one foot after the other,
his hands out in front of him,
as he takes a few steps,
leans down to the wood floor,
then crawls the rest of the way
to me.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

On the Road with Tom Jones to All the Usual Places

Photograph by Jose Padua
In some of the best scenes
I’m on the road,
heading toward a purple and orange sunset
during our rice and canned tuna for dinner days in the 60s,
on a night when supper was something else.
The radio is on and in between tunes
I don’t mind the asshole a.m. DJ
with the used car salesman’s voice—
I even think he’s cool,
though I know enough
not to ever trust anyone like that.
I’m at an age when
everything is slow,
from every boring trip to the store
to two sweet minutes of Tom Jones
singing “It’s Not Unusual.”
With the voice, the horns, the beat,
I’m singing along with my lips
and keeping time with my memory.
Decades later, my daughter,
when she’s three,
will say that listening
to Tom Jones, “makes me feel
like I have pink hair.”
She almost blushes to say so.
This is the movie of my life,
the one that gets shown
after midnight,
when everyone is sleeping
and I can’t.
When my mind prowls the landscape
like a fast car changing lanes
on the Interstate
before making a quick exit
down the ramp because
the man inside driving wants
to get to the library
before it closes to return
his overdue books.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Love and Theft

Photograph by Jose Padua
The last time I took the train out of New York was
after my brother Tony had called me one morning
to say that Mom had had a heart attack and had just
gone into the hospital. I packed a few things and
went right to Penn Station to catch the next train back
to DC, and after buying my ticket I’m
in the center of the main concourse standing with one

or two hundred other people like a flock of flamingos,
tilting our heads upwards from time to time, waiting
for the announcement to appear on the board above
us which will reveal the number of the track
the Silver Star to Miami will depart from. I’m
all hangover nerves and neuroses mixed with coffee,
and to try to take my mind away from worrying

about my mother I daydream about what it would
be like if one day I were to take this fast train all
the way to Miami, as if I were living
in that scene from Midnight Cowboy where Jon Voight and
Dustin Hoffman take the bus down to Miami,
leaving their dingy squat behind, but instead of
the bus it’s the train, and then I remember that, oh

yeah, it’s on the bus to Miami when, not long
after peeing himself in his seat, Dustin Hoffman’s
Ratso Rizzo character dies, and I’m thinking, yeah
great, I’m trying not to go crazy worrying
the way I usually do and I have to think
of Ratso Rizzo’s open-eyed, sitting-in-his-seat
death scene, and then I look up or out of my self-

defeating attempt at auto-distraction when I
see Chris Farley, the fat guy from Saturday Night Live,
pacing back and forth nervously like a junkie who’s
a day late for his next fix, away from and then back
towards an older woman who I figured must be
his poor mother, and I catch his eye while I’m thinking,
“What the fuck are you doing here?” and “Why the hell are

you acting so goddamn nervous, your mother’s right there
with you, fucker, quit pacing around like you’d rather
be somewhere else, forget about your recreational
drug cravings for a minute and give her the attention
she deserves you big fat asshole,” though maybe he was
already a full-blown addict by then, and he looks
away and I look back at the board ready to run

to the gate as soon as the train gets into the station.
My mother was in the hospital a couple of weeks
before they let her go home and I was in DC
for about a month watching her recover, but she’d
had a mild stroke, too, and it was difficult for her
to get her words out, so I was impressed with the little
things she managed to say, like “she’s pretty,” while we watched

TV and Sherilyn Fenn appeared on the screen as
Curley’s wife in the John Malkovich (cool)/Gary Sinise
(snore) production of Of Mice and Men, and one night she
was in the kitchen trying after her stroke to make
a dessert for us and said “macapuno,” which means
coconut and after a while I realized she
was trying to make halo-halo, which I didn’t

like that much, or anyway I liked the coconut
in it but not the jackfruit and especially not
the kidney beans, but OK, I thought, if she’s going
to all this effort, yeah, I’m going to eat this fucking
halo-halo and I’m fucking going to like it, and
I was unemployed so it seemed like it was time
for me to go back to New York and try to get work

again, plus I’d been scheduled to record some poems
for a radio show up there, so I took the train
and went straight to the recording session which was
at a studio in the offices of Shiny
Wildebeest Records, and I can’t say the real name
of the record company because another poet
who was recording his poems for the show, too,

suggested we swipe whatever CDs we wanted,
and I remembered that another poet had told
me before a reading for which we were getting paid,
“Don’t bother with this bloody nonsense unless there’s
decent money involved” and since we weren’t getting paid
for this gig by Shiny Wildebeest Records or by
the radio show or by anyone else I thought,

“What a smashing idea,” so while waiting for our
recording sessions to begin the other poet
and I didn’t quite ransack or plunder but we stuffed
our bags with anything that seemed even remotely
interesting, and what I remembered was a record
by Grant McLennan from the Go-Betweens, a musician
who some twenty years later would die suddenly

of a heart attack, and sometimes I would worry when
I panted my way up the stairs to my apartment,
after another dinner of cigarettes and bourbon,
that I would have a heart attack one day like my
mother had had and like I suspected Chris Farley
would have one day, and when it was finally my turn
to read my poems I spoke into the microphone and

my voice sounded dead and alone and two weeks later
I was riding back to DC for good in a rented
U-Haul truck. I was smoking then and I always sat
in the smoking car on the train even though there was
always so much smoke there it made my lungs feel like
fingernails across a blackboard, like Ratso Rizzo
on a coughing up blood day, and after all these years

when I open a box of the things I had in New York
the smoke comes back out, the smoke that filled my
apartment, the smoke that filled my rides from North to South,
South to North, but now my friend Eddie is driving
the U-Haul, and I have the window open a crack
and I smoke and flick my ashes out the window
and the window gives me air in return, like a gift

from the road, and my eyes are wide-open like Ratso
Rizzo on the bus except that I’m not just awake,
I’m alive, and I’m hoping that if I make it that
far, when I’m older and wiser with a wife
and kids who love and accept me despite how fucked
up I feel sometimes, I’m hoping one day, when we’re
visiting in the cemetery across the street

from where I’ll return the U-Haul truck, when the winter
geese are flying and making sharp noises that stretch
then bounce away from us and back, I’m hoping
it will feel warm in the sun, and that we’ll shield
our eyes, making shadows over our faces so we
can see each other, as we hear each other in our
fading, in the blue and yellow afternoon light.

-Jose Padua

Photograph, taken outside Penn Station in New York, by Jose Padua

Pulp Fiction

Photograph by Jose Padua
This afternoon a bum on the street mistook me for a drug addict.
“It’s that CRACK that’s making you sweat,” he advised me.
I nodded and said, “Yeah, I really ought to quit,”
as people walking near me picked up their pace to get away from me.

Later, I’m crossing the street when a carload of scraggly haired kids pulls up beside me.
“Hey, man, you got any rolling papers?” one of them asks.
“No,” I say, “I just drink, that’s it.”
“Come on,” he says, “just give them to me, all you Filipino motherfuckers smoke reefer.”
I keep quiet and walk ahead as they start to jeer and yell at me.

It’s been said that the meek shall inherit the earth.
But I’ve got bruises on my arms from running into people
on the street who expect me to scurry out of their way like a rat.
I’ve got dark patches on my soul from people who move out of my way
because they think I’m going to kill them.

People always either see me as the lamb who’s ready to sacrifice himself
to the gods of their ambition
or as the wolf who’s going to set his fangs upon them,
tearing them limb from limb, eyeball from eyeball,
when the truth is somewhere in between.

“Do you speak English?” people in bars often ask me.
“No,” I tell them, “I’m from France, I speak French.”
“You’re not from around here, are you?” other people say to me.
“No I’m not,” I answer. “I’m from Saturn and I’m here to mate with Earth women.
Is that your sister who’s sitting next to you? Nice tits.”

It’s been said that he who makes a beast of himself gets rid
of the pain of being a man.
So I drink straight from the bottle till the hair grows on my cheeks.
I steal the drinks from in front of other people
until the fur forms on the back of my neck.

“I was born here,” I used to say to people,
“I ate my first McDonald’s cheeseburger when I was 4,
recited the Pledge of Allegiance for teacher when I was 6,
and by the age of seven I could speak the language better than you do now.”

It’s been said that the truth is what sets you free,
but whenever I speak the truth no one believes it,
and whenever I hear the truth it makes me feel like a prisoner
on death row.

So I tell stories to keep the truth alive without telling it.
I create history to keep me from becoming history:

“I was raised by flying cockroaches until the age of seventeen. Could you lend me a buck?”
“I’m a crack-head pimp from the planet Liechtenstein. Would you like a job?”
“I’m a millionaire from Muffberg, Ohio. I came here two years ago with a dollar
in my pocket and a smile I could pry open doors with. Would you like a tip on
the stock market?”
“I’m vice president of a mid-sized consulting firm making
two hundred grand a year tax free. Can I pay for your groceries?”
“I’m Johnny Depp’s garbage man, wanna go out?”
“I’m Conan O’Brien, wanna fuck?”

This is the way I spend my days.
This is the way I earn my nights,
walking the earth telling lies, spreading rumors:

“And blessed is he who in the name of charity and good will
shepherds the weak and ignorant through the valley of darkness
for he is truly his brother’s keeper.
But I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance
and furious rebukes those who attempt to poison and destroy
my brothers
and you will know my name is The Lord
when I lay my vengeance upon thee.”

It’s been said that that which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
I think that that which doesn’t kill you simply lets you live longer.
There’s a difference.

-Jose Padua

The film, Pulp Fiction, is twenty years old this year while this poem is about eighteen years old. I took the photograph of the Ontario Theater when it was in the process of being demolished last year. The Ontario was where I saw The Sound of Music when I was about six years old. When I was around twenty-five was when I saw The Gang of Four play there. And it was across the street from the Ontario, when I was about thirty-nine, where I was mistaken for a crack addict, which was what inspired the poem.

Every Man for Himself

Photograph by Jose Padua
The brother nods back silently to me
as he places my jar of honey with ginger
in a paper bag at the monastery store
in Berryville. Why would such a man
ever want to speak to me, also a man,
but of such noisy, grunting spirituality,
would any one in his right mind
ever call it spirituality? Not me.
Meditation for me can be a single
key struck on a piano in a darkened
hallway, but just as often is a scream
toward the menacing, expanding drift
of the bending trees above me. It’s
the screaming they call the distance
for those too remote to see me. It’s the
case for being we’ve each selected,
his in silence and mine in cacophony.
It’s the way my lack of mastery of
everything in my head dissolves itself
into a thousand beautiful fragments of grace.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua