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.
Photograph by Jose Padua
Was it poetry that ate my desire to succeed
and through failure that I succeeded
in thinking only horrible things,
things so horrible poetry could never grasp,
much less control them,
and out of chaos still leave nothing but chaos,
measured accidentally in words?
These nights are like Antarctic nights in short sleeves,
the sound is nice but there is no aroma,
no touch before throwing down the dice
while tangled pieces of string dangle
from my fingers like theories
that cloud one’s mind on sleepless nights.
No poetry can lay its hands on this to heal it,
my lack of tone and the muscle that’s required
to lift dark stones from the bottom of a running river;
this is the task of mud,
this is the sealed entrance,
the leftover shell and mirror.
Before my life of horrible things,
desire, to me, was a hyena
that stays just out of reach
of the lion’s teeth;
it made me take big steps ahead.
I left jackals and wild dogs behind me,
any animal who could not understand me.
My bags were packed before I even knew I was moving;
the words I used led me to construe
that the animals and I are alive,
living in separate worlds when I am high,
feeling my veins as gusts of wind
and my mind like snow on top of a mountain.
Before the horrible things there was desire,
the ambition to move about the stage,
stepping softly with silver clipped wings
to keep me calm;
before desire there was rage every goddamn day,
the flowers falling from my hands,
the smoke rising like a season.
And as the days grew longer or shorter,
depending on whether or not the petals
came apart upon their falling,
and as the continents drifted apart
and the animals evolved into the separate
species of predator and prey,
was when I began to want,
and so learned for the first time
Photograph by Jose Padua. An earlier version of this was published at On Barcelona.
Whenever I see the word Joy
stitched into the bright red
cloth of the Christmas towel
hanging in the bathroom
what I hear in my head
isn’t “Joy to the World,”
a song I learned to play
on guitar by listening to
John Fahey’s version
when I was fourteen,
but “Joy,” a song sung by
Teddy Pendergrass in
1988 when I was 30
years old. For a few years
I could sort of play guitar
like John Fahey, sort of
re-create his sting and
drone when I plucked the steel
strings but my voice could
never come close to the smoky
sweetness of Teddy Pendergrass.
And in the several years after
I turned 31 I took the train
back from New York
to DC then back again
every year at Christmas,
coming home and going
back again like a sentimental
song in a major key that
sounds so much sadder
than you think it should.
I went back to the Lower
East Side where “crackhead”
wasn’t another word for an
asshole or a loser and was
only used when you were
talking about your friend
who was addicted to crack,
and art was created by
the people for the people
and product was what was
left on the floor and swept
into the trash or flushed
down the toilet once we
thought we’d made sense
of everything. Sometimes
we were wrong. Now I live
in a small town away from
the big city and I rarely
ever take the train or even
the bus and I’m rarely ever
away from home. Now joy
is like a bird on a sidewalk
somewhere off Main Street,
flapping its wings briefly
before deciding there’s no
hurry, no reason to rush or
leave the warm, calm comfort
of the middle of things.
John Fahey died in 2001,
Teddy Pendergrass in 2010,
and whenever I hear their
music in my head or in
the world I am reminded
of days gone by, and I turn
away from the bright red
of the cloth that hangs
against the deep green of
the bathroom wall and walk
out into the shadowing yellow
and slow, lowering blue of
this beautiful, young morning.
Photograph by Jose Padua
Posted in 3. Literature, 5. Music, Art, Memoir, New York, Photography, Poetry, Shenandoah Valley, Washington DC
Tagged Christmas, crack, John Fahey, Jose Padua, lower east side, poem, Poetry, Teddy Pendergrass
This is my portrait of America in plastic surgery procedures:
a new nose for George Washington.
America, behold his new nose!
The Grand Canyon, too deep—
who can understand its great perspective these days?
Rock and stone are too slow;
actions need to start right away.
Let’s add a fucking car chase ride over the edge and back
as scary as a Texas heart attack.
Alabama, you have a fat ass.
Let me fix that for you now.
Minnesota, your tits are starting to sag.
Do you think a Midwestern cowboy
will want to look at that,
do you think he’ll want to grab that sag, you hag?
Instinct tells us that variations on the infinite are finite.
Science tells us that the number of days in one’s youth is limited.
So bend up instead of down, America.
William Howard Taft can now touch his toes.
Ronald Reagan will lose the wrinkles
around his eyes and make the rich even richer—
that’s right, the money still goes to the biggest assholes.
A face tightened like plastic will last
just as long as plastic and will inherit the earth
along with all the profits.
A face peeled like an apple will grapple
with enemy combatants who seek
to destroy the land of your birthday suit,
America, one nation under a plastic surgeon’s knife.
America, state your rights, bleach your teeth,
bleach your mind and your anus
will have no choice but to follow.
America, as the bible belt expands
the wrinkles run from east to west
though we have tried to keep them from spreading
by tweeting as often as we can.
The plastic surgeon is our pied piper.
He can’t keep up, he’s not getting it all done.
He hasn’t rested in over two hundred years.
But today, he puts down his knife; he looks down upon us,
he takes a sharp-focus picture;
then takes the time to consider the great skill he wields
with his slightly wrinkled fingers.
Photograph by Jose Padua
These past two weeks
whenever I walk by the magazine rack
at the supermarket
down the street
I’ve noticed that
there’s always a magazine
that’s been flipped over
so the ad on the back
and not the cover
on which when
I first turned it around
was a photograph
of model Kate Upton
revealing a generous amount of cleavage
on the cover of the October issue
of Vanity Fair
and I gathered that the person
who keep turning the magazine
over face down
are one of the many folks
in this small
who are probably scandalized
by so much exposed flesh.
Me, I’m not bothered
by it at all,
because to me
flesh is something divine
and mystical and
whatever reminds me
of this is never offensive
and never indecent,
and even if you think it immodest
I find other things
much more disturbing
in the grand scheme
of living in cities or villages,
towns or country roads
or hidden clearings
in unmapped and unknown forests
on a planet
with over seven billion
other human beings,
so last night,
after turning the magazine over,
cleavage side up,
I walked down to the next
rack of magazines to
where the stack
of Guns & Ammo
“The World’s Most Widely Read Firearms Magazine”
and I turned the magazine over
only to find that on the back cover,
unlike Vanity Fair
where there was an ad for perfume,
was an ad featuring
more pictures of guns and rifles
and automatic weapons,
so I found a nearby copy
of Field and Stream,
which just had a picture
of a moose on the cover,
and I put that on top
of the pile of Guns & Ammo
only to see that next to it
was a stack of Guns magazine
(just guns, no ammo),
and next to that a stack
of Handguns magazine,
and figuring that the moose
on the cover of Field & Stream
probably got shot
right after the photo was taken,
I decided to just
give up on this sad protest,
and I got in line
to pay for my baby wipes
and brown rice
in a world where
too many people believe
in the divinity of guns
and the indignity of cleavage
and breasts and flesh
and goddamn true love
and all the other things
that keep us alive
something else first.
Photo by Jose Padua
When my five year old son
painting with water colors
on the scratched-up table
in the kitchen of our
hundred year old house
suddenly takes his
brush over to the stove
and explains that
he’s painting over
an old picture because
“it’s too white”
is when I realize
that at this
young age he
when and where
Photograph by Jose Padua
When I walked with my friend Oscar
to get his best dress shirt dry-cleaned
for our friend’s wedding
it was only the third time I’d ever been
to New York City.
We walked into the shop
and he showed them the shirt
but the fabric was too delicate,
too fragile to take even one more cleaning
and they refused to take it.
I walked out with Oscar
and we walked down the street
in some lower Manhattan neighborhood
the name of which I didn’t yet know
and when he spotted a fire hydrant
He stood silently before the hydrant,
held his best dress shirt
high toward the sky,
blocking his vision of passing traffic
on the street
and all the buildings
and all the signs
pointing back to whatever
was left of the world;
then laid the shirt down on the hydrant
and bowed with a moment of silence
as deep as the Grand Canyon
before walking away from the shirt forever.
And it was in that instant
that I learned these essential things—
one, how I could one day live in New York City
with half my mind in a flame-like state
of absolute intensity;
and two, the subtle art and fine ceremony
with which I could leave
all my useless shit behind.
Photograph by Jose Padua
Posted in 3. Literature, Art, Memoir, New York, Photography, Poetry
Tagged Art, fabric, Grand Canyon, intensity, Jose Padua, poem, Poetry, Zen
Whenever time passes more quickly than I think
it should, I wonder if I’ve been abducted by a UFO.
I check if all my body parts seem to be in place;
I feel for the tell-tale signs that I’ve been probed.
There have been fabulous parties, long visits with
seldom seen friends after which I’ve felt my side
to make sure my kidneys are still there, that the
palms of my hands don’t now bear the brand of
some insect-like space creature’s human meat farm.
Sometimes after what should be a long drive back
home at the end of a long vacation I check for any
devices that may have been implanted beneath my
skin, ask my wife to check behind my ears and
all the other places I can’t reach to see if she notices
anything unusual but the only thing unusual she
notices is my poorer than usual attitude and my
fear of unpacking my suitcase. There are so many
signs of having been abducted, so many ways
for space aliens to cover their tracks and traces.
The stopping of clocks, cloaks of invisibility for scars,
the giving of human faces and names to the beings
who stay behind to study us all make it difficult to
know what’s going on, what’s happening in the world
now. I want time to pass slowly, love to be a force
for change when it’s time to change, and things to stay things
the way leaves cling to the beautiful parting of branches.
But we are stardust, we are golden amidst blue stars,
black lights, and clouds of healing, fragrant mist,
and the world is alive with progress and symmetry
and all the lovely ways we wander through the universe.
Drawing by Maggie Padua
Stupidity is wasted on the young,
wisdom on the old and experienced.
If ever there was an age that called
for intelligence and discretion it’s
those years before one turns thirty,
those days when you’re a hot,
sometimes scary mess, your mascara
running, your trousers pissed and all
caution spilled into the warm spring
breeze. It’s better to be stupid when
you’re old, when your lack of mobility
prevents you from insulting the wrong
guy at a bar because you too tired
to go out to the bar in the first place;
when your bad hearing makes you
think the person saying, “Wanna come
over to my place?” is saying “I used
to be a member of the human race”
and you go home to your apartment
in the clean, quiet suburbs, sit limply
in front of the television to watch
the last hour of prime time programming
then fall asleep during the late news.
It’s that easy; no complex thought
is required and in the morning you
wake up to live another stupid day.
Meanwhile, today’s youth is out
in the cities dissecting string theory,
completing their first and best novels
between moderately paced sips of
their favorite libations. None of them
smoke, none of them stare vacantly
into infinite spaces vacant as their
brains, and at the end of the evening
they’ve developed fresh theories,
new equations, and beautiful words,
oh, their beautiful words. And as they
walk out into the darkness, they let
one step follow another, moving patiently
through an exquisite existence before
ever needing to catch their breath, before
stopping to stretch their slightly tired limbs.
Photograph by Jose Padua
This is what it’s like living with me.
My wife, not feeling well but having
to work, works at home like me today
and sits across the table. “Do you need
quiet?” I ask, before I put on some music
because I always play music while I’m
working and the kids are at school and
she answers, “No, it’s OK,” and I say,
“I’ll put on something mellow,” and go
looking for the music I want to hear.
In a few minutes my music starts to play.
First there’s the sound of the keyboard
then a snare drum and a voice going,
“Nuclear war. Yeah. Nuclear war. Yeah.”
When Sun Ra starts singing, “It’s a
motherfucker, don’t you know, if they
push that button, your ass is gonna go,”
my wife starts to laugh. “What’s funny?”
I say. “This is mellow?” she asks. “But
it is,” I reply, because Nuclear War is
actually one of Sun Ra’s mellower records,
but it begins with that title cut. And I explain
how this was a song Sun Ra actually thought
he could have a big hit on the radio with,
and that the tune is completely catchy,
though it does have that “motherfucker” in
the chorus. “And plenty of big hits have
the word ‘motherfucker’ in them,” I explain,
though at the moment I can’t think of any.
“But wait,” I say, “for those of us who are
old enough to remember there was ‘Raindrops
Keep Falling on my Motherfucking Head;’
it was a big hit for BJ Thomas in 1969,”
but my wife doesn’t believe it. “It was big
on the country charts,” I say, but she doesn’t
budge from her state of incredulity and
secular disbelief. Then I make myself some
sausage and eggs, and when I’m done eating
I ask, “Do you want some?” as I look at
my empty plate, knowing that if she’s hungry
I’ll be right back in the kitchen, warmed by
the heat of the stovetop, and glowing like
the songs that forever fill my heart with joy.
Photo by Jose Padua of Maggie holding up her drawing of Sun Ra.