Category Archives: 3. Literature

Then I Will Tell You a Story about Blue Butterflies That Fly Higher Than Your Heart Rises Just Before a Great Fall

Photograph by Jose Padua
These are the towns in Pennsylvania whose
names I like the most. Kutztown,
where I am almost clumsy, but not quite,
because this is where I am only a kutz
not a klutz, even with my thick fingers
and what feels like an odd rather
than even number of legs.
Indiana, Pennsylvania, where I lose
my sense of place in this state,
this state I think I am in, where
this text places me, between
all the cracked words. Intercourse,
there is nothing finer that to be
involved, engaged, in Intercourse,
in Pennsylvania among the shrubbery,
by the horse and buggy highways.
Oh, Intercourse, you are slow and sweet,
like old world inspiration. Hanover,
I have never been hungover in Hanover,
as I was in all those other places
when I was young, and could take it;
though I have felt alternately curved
and flat, there, like a potato chip
in a dreary factory where fools
come to watch things frying.
Bethlehem, where when I think
so highly of myself my wife has to wake me
from being too awake with myself.
Because it is during these times
in early winter that I am positive I am
being born here. But until then,
until she wakes me, I say unto you.
Come forth. Praise me. Then take me
to Paradise. And before the season’s
first snow let me down, gently,
upon this wandering soil.

-Jose Padua

Photograph (taken in Paradise Township, Pennsylvania) by Jose Padua


Photo by Jose Padua
I realize I quote her as often as Allen Ginsberg
quoted Jack Kerouac, but when she was three
my daughter said, “It’s not crazy—it’s Baltimore,”
then proceeded to improvise better than a lot of adults
a poem I should have written down but didn’t,
being too busy grooving to the way her mind was
moving to the theme of Baltimore, a place
we’d taken her only once. And we didn’t
get to go to anywhere crazy or cool then,
nothing like a punk show at the Marble Bar
if that’s still around, or an evening drinking
at the Rendezvous where I remember line dancing
one night with the neighborhood drunks. No,
we went to see my cardiologist at Johns Hopkins,
then had lunch at California Pizza Kitchen
at the Harbor, then went to the Aquarium—
a quick trip worthy of the most boring tourists
from the suburbs, or the soccer moms
and cubicle dads and vice versa,
yet my daughter sensed there was a thing there,
a beautiful shining city weirdness,
a Baltimore that rhymed with crazy.
And I am immeasurably moved to be able
to say that it wasn’t Jack Kerouac, or John Waters,
or Divine or Edith the Egg Lady or any of the usual
suspects, but my daughter who first said,
“It’s not crazy—it’s Baltimore,”
and that even though her poem is lost,
we are not,
as we drive west through
the beautiful, aching city to another place
which we, for lack of another word, call home.

-Jose Padua

Photograph of the Baltimore skyline by Jose Padua

Breaking Bread

Although we call it breaking
bread there are few acts of
breaking less violent than this,
and though dinners sometimes
erupt, and lunches boil over
into menace and disgust, the
breaking of bread, if we say it
as such, rarely leaves room
for such resentment. Bread is
broken, butter is spread and
red apples in a bowl between us
shine under the evening’s pale
yellow light. This is how we
break into conversation, recalling
a day’s swift events with slow
movements; this is how we break
into love, each of us falling apart
splendidly, barely making a sound.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

An Elegy to the Month of October as Seen Through an Evening I Wish Could Look More Like a Painting by Robert Motherwell

Photograph by Jose Padua
Into last night’s slight drizzle, we all went trick-or-treating. I wore my usual costume, which is to say the costume I wear every cool autumn day—jeans, t-shirt, and a beat-up black sport coat. Heather dressed up as a character from a steampunk novel, wearing a black top hat equipped with high powered goggles and a long overcoat; Maggie put on a curly black wig, a glittery jump suit, and painted various scars on her arm and face so as to become a disco zombie; and Julien had an apron that covered him on the front and back and that turned him into Thomas the Train.

Julien, though, wasn’t really getting into it, and got rather frightened by some of the costumes he saw. So, after walking up to the end of our block—to the house whose occupants look like they stepped out of one of Larry Clark’s old books documenting his drug addicted friends—Julien and I headed back home and let Maggie and Heather go on ahead. On their way back, they picked up something for dinner. By the time we were done, it was already late and time to get ready for bed.

Part of Maggie’s routine involves each of us sitting with her in her bedroom before she falls asleep. Heather always sits with her first before taking Julien to bed, then—usually around half an hour after Heather and Julien have gone to bed—Maggie calls me from the top of the stairs and asks me to come up. By that time I’m usually at the computer working, which means it’s time for a break. Last night when I went up Maggie wanted me to tell her a story. This time she gave me three things to include in the story I was to make up on the spot: a rainbow, the city, and Adam Sandler’s movie Bedtime Stories.

I made up a story about a rainbow that could only rise over the city when it was still raining. This was a rainbow whose appearance didn’t mean the rain had ended or was even about to end. No, whenever you saw this rainbow, it meant the rain was going to continue for hours, even days. Because of that, this rainbow was the most unpopular rainbow in city. Unlike the other rainbows that the people in the city welcomed and celebrated, this rainbow was hated. “If only I could figure out how to get the rain to stop,” the rainbow thought, “then I would be welcomed and celebrated as well.”

The rainbow thought and thought about it, then came up with an idea. “I bet the answer is in the Adam Sandler movie Bedtime Stories. If I watch this movie carefully, I’ll discover the secret to ending the rain that keeps falling whenever I appear in the sky.” The rainbow then watched Bedtime Stories in its DVD player. It watched the movie carefully, several times, but after having done so it still had no solution as to how to stop the rain. Then another idea occurred to the rainbow, “Maybe if I watch it backwards, that’s how I’ll find the answer in the movie.” The rainbow figured out a way to make the entire movie play backwards in its DVD player with the sound on and watched and listened. Somehow, when the rainbow heard Adam Sandler’s voice going backwards, what it heard wasn’t just garbled, nonsensical sound, but real words—words the actor Adam Sandler had no idea he was saying. It was in these words that the rainbow found the secret to stopping the rain, and the next day when it appeared in the sky over the city, the heavy rain turned into a drizzle, then into a mist, and then, finally, it was all gone. And the rainbow stretched its colors from one end of the city to the other as the people welcomed it and praised it, saying it was the best of all the rainbows. The End.

Maggie liked the story, but she wanted more. I told her I was too tired—that I didn’t have another story in me for the night. She then let me finish story time by reading Bob Hicok’s poem “My New Neighbor” in which Bob Hicok talks to one of the cows that grazes in a field next to a Presbyterian church in his neighborhood. By the end of the poem, Maggie had closed her eyes. She wasn’t quite asleep, but she was almost there. I sat there quietly for a few more minutes before I went back downstairs. I tried to finish the story I was writing, but I was too tired to continue. So, after a little while, I went to sleep, too.

This photograph of the soccer field was taken around 6:30 this evening, toward the end of Maggie’s soccer practice. As it got darker and darker tonight, the landscape of the soccer field against the mountains and the November sky looked more and more like a painting by Mark Rothko. I didn’t want to think about Mark Rothko. Mark Rothko, as good as he was, always made me think about the endings of things and I wasn’t in the mood to think about the ending of things.

Maggie and her teammates practiced until it was too dark to continue, cutting their practice hour short by about fifteen minutes. As we headed home, and the evening’s last colors faded into the darkness, the landscape of our small town seemed to slowly change. When Maggie and I walked in the door, dinner was ready. Heather, Maggie, Julien, and I ate under the pale yellow dining room light, and as I started to feel full, the sound of our forks against our plates began to sound more and more like music.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua


Photo by Jose Padua
This one kid waves sometimes,
when I’m sitting on the porch
showing my one year-old son
the trees, the street, this slice
of small town sky.

The sidewalk across from
my porch is the only place
I see him, and because
I’m not good
with faces it took me
a long while to recognize him
as the tall, somewhat awkward,
late adolescent wearing loose,
but not quite silly clothes.

He always just waves
or nods or says “Hey”
though once it was
“Whoa, dude, I almost hit my head
on that!” with a laugh
when a low lying branch
on one of two trees in my front
yard nearly punched
him in the face.

And as the season turns cold
my son’s feet are sticking out
too far from the cuffs of his trousers;
my feet are aching
in my too tight shoes.

And all of us are considering,
with words or with
a slow pace of silence
the turning colors of the leaves,
the sky’s darkening
at this earlier hour,
and all the lesser and greater ways
that we fail
to fit in.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

To Be a Rock or Some Other Object of Great Depth and Strength

I’ve been thinking about “Stairway to Heaven” a lot lately. Hearing the opening guitar notes in my head, followed by the sound of Robert Plant’s wailing voice. Usually he’s singing that penultimate line, “To be a rock and not to roll…” It’s the line that pretty much ruined the song for me.

Like a lot of people, I was impressed when I first heard the song back in 1971. Though “impressed” doesn’t quite convey the feeling, because the immediate teenage conclusion I came to upon hearing “Stairway to Heaven” for the first time was that it was deep—“fucking deep.” And when you’re a kid in high school there is, of course, nothing deeper than “fucking deep.” All of which goes to say that, yes, I loved the song—but I only loved it for a little while, after which my relationship with the song slowly went downhill.

If I recall correctly, I was on good terms with “Stairway to Heaven” throughout the 70s. As with some high school crush, I may not have been in love with it by the time I got to college in the middle of that decade, but I still liked being around it. Whether I was hearing it being played on a jukebox at some off campus dive in northeast DC, or on the radio in my Chevy Vega, I still enjoyed it. It wasn’t “fucking deep” anymore, but it was still good.

Somewhere in the 80s, though, that all began to change. That’s when “Stairway to Heaven” started frequenting a club that first opened its doors around that time. It was a club you could find in almost any city in the U.S., and it was called—lest you be so foolish to mistake it for anything else—“classic rock.”

As I was still in my twenties, “classic rock” seemed like the sort of label you’d only put on something that was irreversibly pale, totally irrelevant, and above all, certifiably dead. Toward the end of the 70s I was mostly listening to jazz, soul, and funk, and it wasn’t until I started getting into punk and “new wave” that I listened to anything that might be described as “rock music.” Classic Rock, I thought, was a just label created to get people to buy music that was well past its expiration date. And for me, the epitome of Classic Rock was Led Zeppelin and, especially, their song, “Stairway to Heaven.”

This isn’t to say that there aren’t people whose knowledge of and musical tastes I respect who still like Led Zeppelin—there are. But except for Led Zeppelin III—which because of its oddness still holds up for me—I find most of the band’s output unlistenable now. And it’s not because it wasn’t, at one time, good music. In fact, on a certain level, it may actually still be good music. But it sure as hell wasn’t the sort of music that could hold up to being played as often as it was.

As the 80s went on, I couldn’t count the number of times I’d hear a Led Zeppelin song start playing at a bar, then see some guy lay his drink down for the purpose of nodding to the beat for a full minute or two. What was worse was whenever “Stairway to Heaven” came on. That’s when this hush would go through the crowd, and there were always two or three people who would actually go “ahhhhh,” after which they’d look at each other as if to say, “yeah, this is deep. Fucking deep.” Then came the worst part of all. That’s when, toward the end, they’d sing along to the line, “To be a rock. And not to roll…” It always made me want to throw up. It was at this point when the words, “This is so fucking lame” would go through my head. And then I’d catch the bartender’s attention and order another bourbon.

Well, of course, maybe all this means is that I was hanging out at the wrong fucking bars in the 80s—the wrong bars for me, anyway—and that I have no right blaming Led Zeppelin. After all, I think this was just one of many things that helped push me to leave DC and move to New York later on. As for New York—well, that, I thought, was something deserving of being called “fucking deep,’ because there were layers of meaning there I’d never imagined before. And New York, at least before it got cleaned up in the mid-90s, was a place where anything seemed possible. And when I lived in New York, although I did hear Led Zeppelin and “Stairway from Heaven” played from time to time at the bars I frequented, the music didn’t bother me as much. This, I think, had something to do with the layers of meaning I found there, layers that went way deeper than the pseudo-profundity of “to be a rock and not to roll.”

And so a couple of decades went by. Decades during which I rarely ever set foot in a bar, which meant, also, that I rarely ever walked into a place where “Stairway to Heaven” was be playing. And though I may have run into snippets of it here and there, I know for a fact that I haven’t had to listen to the entire song in years. But that lovely winning streak during which I never heard all of “Stairway to Heaven” came to an end a couple of weeks ago. I was at home at the time.

I was sitting at the dining room table, working at the computer, when Maggie walked by and went into the hall, where she sat down at the piano. Then I heard it—well, part of it—the opening notes to “Stairway to Heaven,” played by my wonderful daughter. I was afraid at first, but when I found out that, bored by all the songs in her basic piano lesson book, Maggie was now learning to play “Stairway to Heaven” on piano, I didn’t mind. In fact, I may have even thought it was kind of cool.

This, I gather, is the manifestation of one of the side effects of being a parent—the obliteration of some of one’s more cynical proclivities and the relaxation of what are sometimes unnecessarily inflexible stances. I’m not saying that I love “Stairway to Heaven” again, or that I even like it again. It’s just that it’s OK with me again. Not everything is going to be OK with me, but “Stairway to Heaven”—well, sure. And when Maggie played the entire Led Zeppelin version on YouTube to help her get more familiar with the song, I didn’t cringe. And though we had just eaten dinner, I didn’t feel as if my meal was attempting to leave the confines of my stomach. No, I felt nourished, strong, and calm. Like a rock.

Yeah, like a fucking rock.

-Jose Padua

With Love These Floors We Rise Upon

Photograph by Jose Padua
With love these floors we rise upon
are the juncture of avenue and street,
the gray wing moon that settles
like a cave on the landscape,
the tunnel we move with our fingers
before we enter into it, the green
that spreads its carpet over all the cracks
and splinters that spill onto it during
the day, and the train that carries us
from the station to our cars before
we drive off into a maze that grows
larger and larger the more lost
we become. But we live not only
these slender lives, nor are we simply
stars or dust or film about the edges
of a dirty spoon on a plate in the kitchen
sink. We drop pens and pencils and
electronic devices with glass that
shatters; we survive with more when
less is what’s beautiful; confuse wire
with word, bear witness to fabrication
and stay blind to everything except
what’s dying or dead, jotting down
the numbers until it’s time to lie
back in sleep. But the plus size angels,
plump with loving not with integers,
who tread water in the evening on the
other side of the lake, are holding
dandelions in their mouths as if to say,
risking bombast, absurdity, and utter
failure: don’t walk, run, fly, or swim;
be beyond these motions, be over
with gas, oil, and electricity, be
a portrait of a fire’s blue that burns
farthest from center, be almost moving,
almost dead and nearly nothing, but
never be done and never be complete
like a building when man or woman inserts
the final brick in the high wall above
its foundation. Be here with us now.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua


Photography by Jose Padua
Be near me like
a fire on a knocked
down day, your shelter
from the cold is a sip
of hot tea from a cup
on the table, and though
the loose plank on the
floor shifts, it holds me
above ground for as long
as I may stand, as I move
toward the broken clock,
feeling like a tall tree,
bending, under fallen
snow under starlight
these glass clear nights
after storms when my
arms ache from climbing
hills, or else tie me down
with anvils and rope and
rage as I howl through
mirrors and curtains and
crowds for these many
hundreds of years.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua


Photo by Jose Padua
There is no purity in our house,
we are dirty like cats in the litter.
We get where we’re going just
the same. Our windows aren’t
clean, full of smudge and sweat.
There’s dirt on the floor, dust on
the salmon colored wall, a fish-
bone leftover from dinner stand-
ing like a wood splinter in a crack
on the table. After a long day’s
drive through and over roads and
bridges, the brightly lit tunnels
travelled by slow buses and aging
automobiles, our feet walk us in
together with new dirt for the
floor, old earth to wash away
down the pipes. Every day,
every week, every year, we
get here together like discard-
ed paper cups blown toward
the corner of the cracked parking
lot by the wind. This is the way
we work, we play, so imperfect-
ly—the way cities should be built
out of the rough of the earth, the
way the earth was born from the
collapse of brighter, purer things.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

For All the Ghosts Who Rise Up Against the Superficial Horror We Fabricate in the Name of Darkness

Photograph by Jose Padua
Although I have, on occasion, cursed at the light, I have never cursed
at the darkness. It was there where I first saw a ghost, which was light,
but the darkness was what made it possible, gave it shape, and made its
stillness profound like a great work of art. Light was the end product

but darkness was the point. Moving through a room when everyone else
has gone, where the faint scent of bourbon from a glass is the only clue,
I expect the sudden intrusion of ghosts but they never arrive. Sitting up
in bed and looking toward the far wall in the dark or driving a quiet road—

a mailbox, a robe hanging from a door, or a sign pointing travelers toward
the oldest building in town will appear to move but it’s only the darkness
giving it imagined life. In the light, everything is abandoned and everything
is separate: clarity keeps everything hidden. I watch in the darkness as the

universe expands, as the ghosts step up from their well-lit graves and the
lights in the merciless city turn dark and like infants we learn how to breathe.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua