Monthly Archives: September 2014

If Poets Were Like Porn Stars

Photo by Jose Padua
If poets were like
porn stars what
would it take
to fluff us up,
to get us ready
to perform, place
word after word,
then plunge down
to the next line,
or sometimes just
keep going, over
and over, pushing
forth into the blank
white space of the page,
moaning and moaning,
screaming the beautiful
words of this discerning
art we compose with
heart, mind, and tongue?
With tragedy, loss,
injustice, the many colors
of the morning sky, or
the plain image, that
solitary figure against
the black background
of an evening silhouette
or shadow to move us,
can the industry of poetry
ever really be in peril?
Can a poet ever do
anything but walk
off into the sunset,
glowing over the
landscape, losing it all,
losing it everywhere,
our lives so exquisitely
lovely, so exquisitely

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

What I Keep Coming Back To

Photo by Jose Padua
One of my fondest memories
of my mother is this—
seeing her on the corner of Mt. Pleasant
and Hobart when I’d caught up
with her and my dad
after I’d gone back to the house
to get my warm coat,
then watching her lean forward,
tilted like a bell about to ring,
to shake hands with the man
who always panhandled there.
I have lived so many years
now in other places
and spent so many days thinking
of all the right things to say
but what I keep coming back to
is this—
the way she lifted
her arm without hesitation
on that cool, clear morning;
shaking the old man’s hand
just the same
as if she were greeting
a president or a queen.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

September Song

Photo by Jose Padua
When I was a kid in grade school
the teacher once made us repeat after her,
“The key to success is hard work.”
Years later, in college, another teacher told us,
“You have to work hard to get an A
and you have to work hard to get an F.”
One thing they never told you
was that sometimes you could make it
without any effort at all.
This you had to learn on your own.
And though it’s true
that most of the time
you have to slave away
to get anywhere,
the most beautiful moments
are those when you find yourself
in the right place at the right time,
or when, after doing something easy,
you find yourself suddenly
on top of the mountain.

It’s like when you’re at the racetrack
and you forget about the jockey,
the odds and past performance
and bet big on a horse
because you like its name,
and you go home with a hundred dollars
you didn’t have that morning.
It’s like wandering the streets aimlessly,
looking for nothing,
just walking like a zombie,
when you run into a friend
and end up drinking and laughing,
ready once again to look
at the world that surrounds you.

It’s the beauty of the moment
that comes alive without artifice,
the beauty of the mountain
that is built without industry
without business,
without blueprints and guidelines
and a right way
and a wrong way.

It’s the beauty of being human,
of not always making sense,
the beauty of falling and getting up
not because there are things to do,
but simply because you have fallen
too deeply into the realm of the possible,
and it’s time to do
what you were told
you couldn’t do
and you do it effortlessly
and easily high
and wide
and running on these
still golden days.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Real Words and Other Solid Objects I Can Recall without Having to Look Back

Photo by Jose Padua
During the drive back from Roanoke yesterday, it was while the overture to Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie was playing that Julien spotted the most cows along the highway. Watching for cows and other animals is perhaps Julien’s favorite part of being on the road, and hearing the overture playing, punctuated by Julien’s declarations of “Cows!” and “More cows” was invigorating, giving me energy at a point in the drive when I would usually be getting tired and ready for a break.

But what was also nice was to have this piece of music associated with something other than a violent scene from A Clockwork Orange, which is what often came to mind whenever I heard the overture once Stanley Kubrick used it in his 1971 film of the Anthony Burgess novel. Not that Malcolm McDowell didn’t deliver an incredible performance as lead thug of the droogs, but it’s not what I want to focus on all the time. And while some people are obsessed with violence in its various forms, I prefer to think endlessly and obsessively about other things.

Happily, A Clockwork Orange is no longer the only thing I associate with The Thieving Magpie. It’s also the music that Toru Okada listens to as he boils a pot of spaghetti at the beginning of Haruki Murakami’s novel The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. This is a more pleasing association, which isn’t to say that the Murakami book is a much happier affair than A Clockwork Orange. It isn’t (well, not exactly ) and it has some of the most horrifying scenes I’ve read anywhere, but it’s still a much warmer experience than Clockwork’s dystopian satire.

It’s also a book that’s always somewhere in the back of my mind since I finally read it a couple of years ago. And after leaving our hotel yesterday and driving down Route 11 towards downtown Roanoke, there were two things that occurred to me. The first was the revelation that, on this stretch of Route 11, at least every other building looks like something that would be quite at home in a William Eggleston photograph. The second was more fear than revelation–and what I was afraid of was the possibility that at any moment I could find myself caught in the sort chain of events that would be at home in a Murakami novel, and in particular, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.

This, I think, says loudly and clearly how this book hit a certain note within me. This is also when I have to say something to Heather or Maggie or Julien and hear them say something back to me, to bring me back to the world at hand. And as we were driving down Route 11, that’s what I did. I don’t remember what they said–it doesn’t have to be anything long and involved–but I came back. From a momentary plunge into extreme sadness, from a brief mental tremor, or from the dizziness that comes from having to consider every possibility every moment that I’m awake. Sometimes all it takes is for someone to cut a fart in the car, and I’m back, in more manageable frame of mind.

And as we drove on down Route 11, we saw, in the distance, the Big Man statue at the old auto shop. I slowed down to take this picture of it. It’s not at all like William Eggleston’s photographs, which to me always seem to make the distant past seem so immediate, as if it’s never gone away, and never even come close to anything approaching change. This seems more like something out of a dream that was dreamt at least a couple of decades ago and can barely be remembered.

And after passing by the Big Man statue on the way to downtown Roanoke, I wouldn’t have been surprised, upon turning around for one last look, to see that all of a sudden it was gone. That in a matter of seconds the statue and everything surrounding it had been replaced by some 21st Century roadside creations–all made quickly and cheaply and without any kind of thought–and that we, on this Sunday afternoon, were the last people in the world to have seen it. Which meant that it was up to us to tell the story of its last moments in the hopes that this story, and everything it contained, would endure for a period of time which–in its slow, beautiful unfolding–approached eternity.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

The Pursuit of Happiness

Photo by Jose Padua
It was the 60s way
before the summer of love
when after being turned
away from the entrance
to Mayo Beach because
we’re people of color,
or, specifically, as
the guy at the gate
says, “Flips,”
we drive further down
the bay to a beach
that lets us in
right away.
My Mom and Dad
stretch the beach blanket
out slowly, carefully,
before finally looking out
toward the bay,
because it is a given
that on some days it is
harder than others
to spread joy.

-Jose Padua

Photo by Jose Padua

The Shape I’m In

Photo by Jose Padua
As is my habit before going up for the night, I peeked out the front door. On bad nights I may see the neighbors across the street (the ones we don’t get along with) out on their front porch having an argument. On calmer nights it’s just the guy, talking on his cell phone to someone and having a conversation where every other word is “fuck” or “fuckin.’” Lately, it’s been quiet, though, and after I peeked through the front door window, I immediately turned away. Then I did a double take and looked back because I thought I saw something, and when I did there it was—a beat up looking Playmate cooler. What the hell is that doing there? I thought. Being tired, I was about to just leave it for the morning, but my curiosity wouldn’t let me. I opened the door to check it out.

After fiddling with the handle a bit, I got it open, and at the top was a big bag of potato chips. When I pulled that out, I saw a plastic mug from a convenience store, some crackers, and then, below that, a banana. At the bottom were a couple of blue ice packs. I thought that maybe Linda, our next door neighbor, had given it to us. Now and then she’ll drop off miscellaneous treats or sometimes hand-me-downs for Julien. But then I saw a pack of Marlboro Menthols. Linda knows we don’t smoke and would just keep a spare pack of cigarettes for herself, since she does smoke.

Knowing that the neighbors right across the street from us would never leave us anything—and that it was unlikely that any of our other neighbors would leave this for us, I figured out that someone just had the wrong house, and these chips, crackers, banana, drinking mug, and Marlboro Menthols were meant for someone other than us.

I pushed the cooler to the side of the porch and was about to go back in again when I noticed a plastic paint bucket next to the Dutch gnome that guards the front door of our house. The gnome, a gift from our friends Bart and Nina in the Netherlands, has been guarding the front door of the various apartments and houses where Heather and I have lived ever since we were married. The gnome used to have a fishing pole, but that broke off a number of years ago. Tonight, though, with the bucket placed right in front of him, the gnome had something new to behold, because inside the bucket, under a now melted bag of ice, were several loose cans of Bud Light.

I know, Bud Light could hardly be the gnome’s beer of choice. But, after going for years without his fishing pole, even the bucket of Bud Light must have looked good to him. It was late, and I was tired, but I could have sworn that there was a look of delight on the gnome’s face—a look that hadn’t been there for years. So I went in, got my camera, and took this picture of it.

Then I went back inside. I’d had some coffee late this evening to wake me up enough so I could get some work done, so although I was tired I wasn’t anywhere near being ready to sleep. So I sat down at my desk and thought about the chips, the crackers, the cigarettes, and those cans of Bud Light.

And now I’m wondering if when I wake up in the morning, I’ll open the front door to see an empty bag of chips, cracker crumbs, cigarette butts, and several empty cans of Bud Light. Evidence of the gnome having had a little party. And then it occurs to me that maybe these things weren’t left at the wrong house at all. That, indeed, they were left here, on purpose, for the gnome.

And after I walk up the stairs and go to bed, that’s what I’ll be listening for. The sound of the gnome pulling open a bag of potato chips, munching on some crackers, cracking open a can of beer, and then lighting up a cigarette or two. I’ll also be waiting to see if I catch a whiff of the cigarette smoke. Maybe I’ll catch it right before I finally drift off to sleep—that scent of cigarettes, cheap beer, and cheap food. Just like in the old days, when I was young and hungry. Hungry not for the better things in life, but just for life, in whatever shape it came in.

-Jose Padua

Photo by Jose Padua

Toward a Philosophy of Tight Pants

Photo by Jose Padua
On one of my first mornings at our new
hundred year old house in a small town,
with my wife at work in the city and me
at home, I walk our four-year old daughter
to her dresser to pick out a pair of pants.
After she puts on a pair of jeans, she pauses,
looks up at me and says “too tight” then
pauses again and says, her eyebrows raised
and slightly satisfied—“but it looks good!”
Pausing yet again and taking the time to
consider a day at her new school wearing
skin tight pants, she decides, on her own,
to wear something else. Fast forward
a few years later, my wife and I have
our now two-year old son, and while
my wife’s at work again in the city and
our daughter’s at school, I play Iggy
and the Stooges doing a song called
“Tight Pants,” which is an early version
of the song that will eventually become
“Shake Appeal” on the Raw Power album,
and as soon as the song starts my son begins
yelping, bouncing on his hips and waving
his arms in the air as I imagine Iggy Pop
himself may have done when he was a toddler.
And though I’ve looked at women wearing
tight pants and enjoyed seeing Iggy Pop
dance around the stage like a wild-eyed,
hyperactive salesman of tight slacks, I’m glad
that my daughter opted for looser pants, and
that my son eventually calmed down and
stopped dancing. Not because I’m older
now, though I am older, and not because
I’m more reserved now, though I’m certainly
no longer the crazed person I was in my youth,
but because I sometimes feel besieged
by the speed of life, by how the trees behind
our house grow taller and taller, creating
more shade, more shadow; by the way
a lemon stings my fingers when I squeeze
its juice into my morning cup of tea.

-Jose Padua

Photo by Jose Padua

On These Days Driving

Photo by Jose Padua
Perfection is all those horrible old love affairs
they tell their latest lover about in bed as they smoke
cigarettes, together and laughing in the darkness.
Perfection is all those bad years spent starving,
mad, aimless, before finally finding a way, through
chance or struggle, to make it.
Perfection is the moment when the worst
is behind you and the best slowly reveals itself
like a song from decades ago that only now
is becoming a hit.

I confess that I’ve got it all
ass-backwards, that perfection is beyond me
and my best was long ago
with the worst now revealing itself
like the dream you can’t remember,
the dream that leaves you gasping for air
as you sit up,
scared and alone,
staring out into the infinite darkness.

I never liked perfection,
I never tried to make the pieces
fit neatly, cleanly, exactly.

I always like the team that worked
the hardest, yet blew it in the end
and came in second,
the movie star who grew old and crazy,
forgot her lines and faded away…
it was something about the blemish on her cheek,
the hint of insanity,
the look on the players’ faces,
which whether out of lame stupidity
or brave wisdom, seemed to say
that things just weren’t right.

And though there hasn’t been
a day in the last twenty or so years
when I haven’t at least
considered the possibilities
of jumping out a fifth floor window
or throwing myself into the middle
of rush hour traffic
on the interstate,

I don’t.

So if you see me
in the late evening
or early morning
walking the streets, looking up
for shadows in the facades of buildings,
or on the road driving past
The International House Of Pancakes,
The Food Lion, and The Best Western
by the airport
ready to swerve,
just keep in mind that as far as I know
I’m on the right highway
and moving in the right direction,
with the grey and white signs
leading me westward
into the deep, imperfect blue.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

On the Significance of Real Words Trumping All My Usual Obsessions

Photo by Jose Padua
More than anything else, I’m obsessed with the endings of things. So while this week marked the beginning of Julien’s school year (Maggie’s began last week), what was more significant for me was that this marked the end of summer. Most parents, I imagine, welcome the beginning of the school year. With the kids at school, the problem of keeping them occupied with useful activities during the day is solved—they’re at school, learning at various levels. Which is a good thing.

But for me, with my obsessive compulsive mind, having them at school—where I can’t see them and where they’re in the hands of someone other than me or Heather—creates a certain amount of stress, either at a conscious or subconscious level. So while there are periods when they’re at school during which I can get a lot of work done, there are other stretches of time when—due to irrational fears and my mind’s tendency to imagine all sorts of chaos and mayhem happening wherever I’m not—I can hardly get anything done at all.

One good thing, though, about having these periods when I’m unable to focus on my work is that they’ve motivated me to walk in the morning. Even though exercise is an activity that I’m sure lifts my spirits even during those times when the only difference I can feel is the ache in my muscles, it’s something I never make enough time for.

My preferred method for lifting my spirits is to write a poem. Even when it’s a sad poem, the mental exercise is invigorating. Finishing a poem compares quite well to that sixth or seventh shot of bourbon—or whatever it took to get a decent buzz during my drinking days. The problem, of course, is that the high fades. As just as I would go through the process of drinking, sleeping it off, waking up hungover, and then doing it all over again, I go through the process of writing a poem, sleeping it off, waking up with some sort of poetry hangover, then wanting to get up to do the whole thing over again.

I have slowed down a bit in the past couple of weeks. I’m not knocking myself to write a new poem every night as I sometimes do. Instead, when I get a little tired, I stop whatever new project I’m working on and go back to revise or proofread something I’d previously written. One other thing I must do is get back to compiling what looks like the hundreds and hundreds of poems and essays/stories I’ve written over the past few years.

But I think that before I get immersed in that process I should take the time to open the front door of the house every day after I’ve dropped Maggie and Julien off at school. And walk. It doesn’t have to be a long walk. Indeed, I can’t walk for very long here in Front Royal. It’s not like when I lived in New York or even in DC where I could walk for hours and feel this energy in my blood and bones from being in the city. Here, you can only walk for so far before you get out into the country, and in the country you don’t walk—you hike. I don’t fucking hike.

Which means I’ll be sticking to those whatever smaller doses of walking are available to me here. It will, as those who have no choice but to resign to minor inconveniences say, have to do.

As for school, Julien’s first week went pretty well in contrast to those weeks this past summer when he went to the school’s camp in the morning. And today, at the school’s beginning-of-the-year picnic, his teacher told us she had it figured out. During the camp, she said, she had more time to deal with him one on one. That, she figured out, was why he had so much trouble with camp this summer—he didn’t like that attention. Indeed, if Julien’s anything like me, what he wants from most people most of the time is for them to back the fuck off. The rest he’ll make his family or else embrace them as such.

This afternoon, on the way back from the school picnic, Julien was talking to Maggie. He said, “My Max, my Max. He’s not Maggie’s Max, he’s my Max.” Max is his classmate. He’s not Maggie’s classmate.

Tomorrow we’re off to Roanoke for a memorial service for one of Heather’s favorite teachers from college, the poet Eric Trethewey, who died this past week. A tremendous poet, his daughter is Natasha Trethewey who served two terms as Poet Laureate of the United States. Poetry, certainly, was among the gifts he passed on to her.

And this is where I start to focus. Where, in a shift from my usual tendencies, I am obsessed with the beginning of things. And what obsesses me here is not so much that I may have passed on my obsessive-compulsive mind or any number of disorders to my children. No, what obsesses me here is that both Heather and I are in the early stages of passing poetry on to our children. Yeah, poetry. It’s not going to feed you very well. It’s going be a lot of work at times, and a lot of the time it may seem like all it does is make you think about all the things that are goddamn hard to think about.

But much more than money, it’s the sort of thing that makes you rich inside. Because once you know poetry—real poetry—you know that everything else is just the cheap shit. And all that talk about bombs and war and terror and enemy combatants is coming from people who, despite their money, are the poorest motherfuckers on earth.

-Jose Padua

The photo of the Wells Fargo building in Roanoke, Virginia was taken this Sunday.

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and Irving Berlin

Photo by Jose Padua
Tonight, Julien was up late, lying back on the sofa in the living room watching Hayao Miyazaki’s film, My Neighbor Totoro; Maggie was upstairs, looking up information about bunny rabbits on the computer upstairs; Heather was sitting next to Julien, typing on her laptop at work on her novel; and I was lying back on the love seat across from Heather and Julien, reading a passage from Haruki Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, when I remembered a time nearly fifty years ago.

My brother Tony and I were with my parents at Sears or maybe it was the old Hecht Co. in downtown DC, and they were buying either a major appliance or a large piece of furniture. Whatever it was, it was something big and important. The transaction was done, and arrangements had been made for delivery of the appliance or piece of furniture, and my Mom or Dad, in saying goodbye to the salesman, asked him what his name was. The salesman, I remember, was a balding, pudgy, middle-aged man, who suddenly stood up a little straighter, a little taller, and gave his head a proud tilt as he announced to my Mom and Dad his wonderful name—“Irving Berlin.”

“Really?” they asked?

“Yes, yes,” he replied, then said it again with pride. “My name is Irving Berlin.”

They were impressed. I was impressed, too, though I was only vaguely aware of Irving Berlin as a renowned songwriter and composer, the man responsible for songs like “White Christmas” and “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” I also thought that this wasn’t simply a man who shared a name with the famous songwriter, but that this actually was the famous songwriter, and that this was what, as a grown up, he did—write songs, and sell furniture.

And maybe it was furniture, and not a major appliance that my parents were buying. Because what triggered this memory was my reading a passage from one of the Hard-Boiled Wonderland chapters in which the narrator talks about sofas—specifically, how “you can tell a lot about a person’s character from his choice of sofa.” And, “there are people who drive luxury cars, but have only second- or third-rate sofas in their homes. I put little trust in such people.” Although the narrator from the novel is an oddball, it was a passage I could really feel. Or maybe that’s exactly why I could feel it—because the narrator is an oddball.

And then I remembered last week, before we moved the television from the parlor to the living room. Julien was, again, watching My Neighbor Totoro, and the movie was just getting up to the part where the Dad and his two daughters are bathing when they hear the resident ghosts in their new house—the soot sprites—making noise upstairs. While watching this, Julien became alarmed. He walked over to the parlor door and tried to open it.

“Wait, wait,” I told him, knowing that things are soon all right again in the movie. At this point in the movie, the Dad starts laughing, and making funny faces; his daughters, who were at first scared, follow his example. With the Dad and his daughters laughing and making funny faces, the ghosts gather and, in one of the film’s most beautiful scenes, float up and away from the house. Watching this, Julien let his hand down from the parlor door, then started smiling.

“See, it’s OK,” I told him, and he moved back toward the middle of the room.

A couple of nights ago, I sat upstairs with Maggie until she finally fell asleep. She was worried. One of the teachers at her acting camp had told her how the theater is haunted, and sometimes they’ll hear a giggling ghost girl there late at night. Tonight, though, she’s focused on the possibility of having a bunny rabbit for a pet. I could tell Maggie the story about Harvey, the 1950 Jimmy Stewart film in which “Harvey,” the title character, is some sort of six foot tall ghost rabbit, but I’m not.

This photo shows a framed flyer, hanging in the parlor of our house, of an event I did over twenty years ago called, Smut Fest. The line at the bottom says, “We Are Not Performance Artists. We Are Show People.” And tonight I’m thinking that yes—like my childhood vision of an Irving Berlin who wrote his songs and also sold furniture—we are, indeed, show people.

-Jose Padua