Category Archives: Memoir

A Free Jazz Solo for the New Wave Sky

Margarita S. Padua
I remember playing John Coltrane’s Ascension when my mother
came downstairs with one of the women she sewed for and they
both seemed to think that the music sounded like “a dreary day,”
but one time when I was a little older the B-52s’ “Rock Lobster”
was playing and my mother started swaying to the beat, almost dancing
in the doorway of our house on Hobart Street and she turned to me
to say that she liked it and it sounded “mysterious” as she moved
her head this way then that, meaning that she wasn’t a fan of
Coltrane’s later, wilder, avant-garde, and totally free work, but
this new wave, part punk rock, retro-forward, pop sound featuring
a guitar missing two of its strings was something she could believe in.
We drank our Royal Crown cola with ice in the kitchen back in those days
when I was even younger, living in an apartment, going to school at my
downtown parochial school, and on warm days driving to the beach
when the beach was the Chesapeake Bay, not an ocean, and not a vacation,
but a Saturday afternoon when summer was a deep blue heaven
I could crawl into with my hands waving in the air like long goodbyes
as soon as the sky turned dark. And today I believe in both the true
new wave and punk rock, as well as the real outside, free-jazz sound
of John Coltrane’s later years, and I know that if my mother were
here today she would listen to it once again, seeing the clouds
scatter, watching gray turn to blue, letting the mystery begin.

-Jose Padua

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Half Dreams of the River and Everything It Gives Us and Everything It Takes Away


That Monday, as usual, I picked up my daughter Maggie from school, then drove over to my son Julien’s school, where she and I waited for him in the queue of cars. When the queue started to move and we picked Julien up, he sat in the back, buckled his seat belt, and asked Maggie, “How was your day?”

“Ah, it was good,” Maggie said.

“Did you make any bad choices?” Julien asked.

“Er, no,” Maggie said.

“Are you sure?” Julien asked.

“I’m sure,” she said.

When Maggie and I asked Julien if he made any bad choices in school that day, he just laughed, which means that although he doesn’t know how to say something that sounds like an answer without actually being an answer, he does know how to act as if none of this is important. With the school year soon coming to a close, the questions, of course, have changed. Me, I always feel a sense of relief at the end of the school day, and even more so at the end of the school year. And I wonder how much less I’d know, even at my age, if I’d never made at least a few bad choices.

The next day, when Julien got in the car, he asked, referring to the music that was playing, “What is this?”

“You know what this is,” I said. “You know who’s playing.”

“Rahsaan Roland Kirk,” he then said, meaning that although he may forget the sources of inconsequential information, he doesn’t forget what’s worth remembering. So, even though he may not request the music of Miles Davis, Oliver Nelson, Serge Gainsbourg, and Lizzy Mercier Descloux as much as he used to, he still remembers their names and the sounds they made and the notes they hit with elegance and skill.

Last week, Heather heard that a good number of people driving by the weekly Vigil for Democracy/Anti-Trump demonstration at the gazebo here in Front Royal were giving our side the finger. Sometimes it’s a young mother or father with kids in the car, driving by and seeing signs that say something like “Trumpistan: Government by Billionaires for Billionaires” or “Trump’s Agenda Is Toxic,” then flipping off whoever is holding that sign. We’re also seeing more and more pickup trucks bearing Confederate flags around town, which means that spring is slowly making way for summer here in the valley. We’d taken a break from the demonstrations since the big one Heather helped organize in March. “But yeah,” she said. “We need to start going again. While we’re still here.” And, it’s also something to come back for from time to time.

Last week, it rained most of the time. Last week, on the way to a doctor’s appointment in Winchester, we took Gun Barrel Road again, but parts of it were so flooded we almost had to turn around. Last week, I could hear our neighbor yelling at someone in the rain. Last week, I heard the sound of rain on the tin roof at night or in the afternoon or in the morning and the rest of the time, when I didn’t hear it, I was waiting for it. Last week I didn’t feel well for a few days. Last week the world seemed to smell sour and dank without interruption. Last week even laughter felt heavy. Last week was like that.

Later in the week, though, Maggie hooked her phone up to the car stereo. While we waited for Julien to get out of school she played East River Pipe’s “Life Is a Landfill” and Stereolab’s “Come Play in the Milky Night.” They were songs I would have played, too, but because she was playing them she was OK with them being played loud, so she played them loud and I was OK with that. I listened to the words, “Life is a landfill, baby/ All this garbage piled high/ Black dove filled memories/ Secret wishes to the sky.” They’re sad words, yes, and the music is sad, too, but it all adds up to something beautiful. “Come Play in the Milky Night” is a much more upbeat song, but it has no words. We listened as we watched the monster truck in line ahead of us.

“Don’t you wish I could pick you up from school driving a monster truck?” I asked Maggie.

“Oh, yeah,” she said.

“You’d be proud,” I said, and we kept on listening to the music. When the queue started moving, we pulled up to see Julien giving us that look that says the distance from wherever we are to home is decreasing. It’s a relaxing of the brow, that rapid eye movement from squint to revelation. It’s a smell of roses that somehow don’t make you sneeze.

On Friday, Heather worked from home. I took a break from work in the morning and sat down on the sofa right before Heather went out to do an errand. Pretty soon I was asleep. About an hour later I woke up to see some tiny girl walking in the door. I didn’t know who she was. She was as small as a baby, but she walked straight and smoothly like a girl on a box of salt, waiting for all that white stuff to dissolve. I started to get scared, though, wondering what this little girl was doing in our house. That’s when Heather walked in the door, and the odd little girl was gone. I figured that I must have been dreaming. Dreaming because we are animals. Dreaming because every story we tell is a story about ourselves, full of details we’re surprised we remember, details we know and details we don’t know. Dreaming because having a story to tell is like having sharp claws, and a quick swipe of language can draw blood. Sometimes I feel like I need a bandage all around me. Sometimes I feel as if I’ve just seen a ghost.

On Saturday, we found ourselves in Paris for a performance of selections from La Boheme. What was surprising about this was not that we were seeing opera out here, but that after living in the Shenandoah valley for ten years, this was the first time we had ever been to Paris. We hadn’t planned on it. We’d only heard about this performance an hour before it was set to begin. Maggie had spent the day with some of her friends from her old Montessori school. They were about to drive off from our house when one of them said, “Oh, do you want to go to Paris to see these opera singers?” A few minutes later, that’s where we were headed—east on John Marshall Highway, a left on Pleasant Vale Road after passing through Markham, then north on Winchester Road to Paris, Virginia. And though in Front Royal the rain had cleared, in going to Paris we were heading right back into it. But because we were going to the opera we were OK with that.

In Paris I took a photograph of Julien listening to opera for the first time. He was suspicious at first. It was like riding a two-wheeler for the first time—you’re not sure if you can do it. During intermission we all went next door to the Paris Apothecary. It’s run by our friend Susan, and she sells herbs, spices, tea, coffee, shrubs, wine, elixirs. It was a good place to take shelter from the week. When one of the opera singers came in and walked by we said hello. When she was gone, Julien asked, “Is she famous?”

“No,” I said. “But she should be famous.”

Heather and I shared a glass of wine and Maggie ate a banana nut muffin, but all Julien wanted was water. Like a river. Like the light rain that was still falling outside. All he wanted was water, and as he drank it he had a look in his eyes that seemed to say that the distance between here and home was diminishing with each sip.

-Jose Padua

Photograph (of the mist in Paris, Virginia) by Jose Padua

Brie


I ponder
as of late
the manner
in which
living ages us,
how we age
in order
to live,
to become more
of what we
are destined
to be and
how in
the artful
acquisition of
wisdom and grace
we tend to
become soft and
malodorous like
really good
cheese.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

The New York Book Launch for Jose Padua’s A Short History of Monsters at The Bowery Poetry Club

Monday, July 1st, 2019 at the Bowery Poetry Club

“When Jose Padua writes of ‘the beauty of the moment that comes alive without artifice,’ he could be describing these poems. They’re dispatches from a messy life, told with wry candor. His gift to us is a lesson in seeing through the little defeats we all suffer every day for a glimpse of transcendence. In the twenty-five years I’ve been reading him, I never once felt he was posturing or lying to me, which is high tribute for any writer.”
— John Strausbaugh, author of City of Sedition and Victory City

Drawing on the spirit of New York City in decades past, A Short History of Monsters presents the sins and obsessions of a poet nimble in beat and slam traditions. In his full-length colletion, Jose Padua wrestles with an American dream interrupted by failure, excess, and other nightmares. Often brash and unruly, these poems range from recollections of lost, drunken days to unadorned manifestations of hope. Throughout, the speaker redefines his relationship to pop culture, praising it, skewering it, and mourning it by turns.

The poems that make up A Short History of Monsters tend toward both dark humor and epiphany, diving deeply into their own despair and rising up again with existential absurdity. This is a poetry that gets down into the grit and grime of the real world, digging out a space to experience being alive as miraculous in and of itself.

About the Author:
Jose Padua’s first full length book, A Short History of Monsters, was chosen by former poet laureate Billy Collins as the winner of the 2019 Miller Williams Poetry Prize and is now out from the University of Arkansas Press. His poetry, fiction, and nonfiction have appeared in publications such as Bomb, Salon.com, Beloit Poetry Journal, Exquisite Corpse, Another Chicago Magazine, Unberables, Crimes of the Beats, Up is Up, but So Is Down: New York’s Downtown Literary Scene, 1974-1992, and others. He has written features and reviews for Salon, The Weeklings, NYPress, Washington City Paper, the Brooklyn Rail, and the New York Times, and has read his work at Lollapalooza, CBGBs, the Knitting Factory, the Public Theater, the Living Theater, the Nuyorican Poets’ Cafe, the St. Mark’s Poetry Project, and many other venues. He was a featured reader at the 2012 Split This Rock poetry festival and won the New Guard Review’s 2014 Knightville Poetry Prize.

Jose Padua, July 1st, 2019 at the Bowery Poetry Club

A Short History of Monsters is available from:

University of Arkansas Press:
https://www.uapress.com/product/a-short-history-of-monsters/

Barnes & Noble:
https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/a-short-history-of-monsters-jose-padua/1129710790#/

Amazon, Books-a-Million, etc.

Notes on Sun Ra’s Magic City and Other Improbable Notions


Even when the starting point is the sweet instrument that was Luther Vandross’s voice, as in the poem below, I’d often end up going back to Sun Ra’s Magic City. It begins with Sun Ra playing some spaced out chords on piano while Roger Blank adds punctuation on the drums. It goes on like that for a while, with Marshall Allen, Pat Patrick, and Danny Davis playing these sort of flying flute lines over and around Ra, who seems to be going back and forth between the piano and clavioline. Then, about fifteen minutes later, there’s this outburst where John Gilmore pierces the calm on tenor sax, and Marshall Allen, Pat Patrick, and Danny Davis are joining in, back on their saxophones, along with Harry Spencer on alto, Robert Cummings on bass clarinet, Walter Miller on trumpet, and Ali Hassan on trombone. They’re all blowing into their instruments like it’s the end of the world and their job is to make sure you don’t miss anything. It’s one of the scariest moments in jazz—and also one of the most insanely beautiful.

I’d play this in my apartment on some sleepless or post-drunk Saturday night into Sunday morning when I lived in New York. Then, on those occasions when I just couldn’t get to sleep, I’d head outside, then walk uptown to feel the pre-dawn and early dawn glimmerings of light as they swept across Manhattan. Sun Ra’s Magic City is not calming music, by any means—even the quieter parts are tense—but as I walked out into the city, going from my Lower East Side neighborhood towards Midtown, carrying this music in my head, I felt calm. It was a feeling similar to leaving the Circle Theater back in DC after having just watched something like Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers or Lina Wertmuller’s Seven Beauties—the feeling that this work of art has taken you not away from the world but deeper into it. For me, that was always the preferred direction.

It’s why I’d always rather watch an anti-hero than a super hero. It’s why, back in the days when we had newspapers in the morning, I’d start my day by reading the obituaries. I’d look for the death notices of writers whose works I admired, actors, directors, artists. A part of every morning, then, was spent looking to see if Samuel Beckett had died, or Federico Fellini was now gone. I’d always try to find who’d lived the longest, but still, I was seeking reacquaintance with the recently departed. When Sun Ra died in May of 1993, Columbia University’s WKCR played his music non-stop for a few days. For those days, if I was home, between a temp job or a stop at Scorpio’s, Mona’s, The International—one or another of the many bars I frequented—WKCR was on, and I was listening to the music of Sun Ra.

I’d just seen him perform live at the Bottom Line in Greenwich Village the previous year. This was after his stroke, so he had slowed down quite a bit. He needed help to get to his piano. He couldn’t spin around while wailing on his keyboards the way he used to do. He couldn’t put on a giant sombrero and dance around the stage while singing “Mack the Knife” as I’d seen him do at the Kilimanjaro Club in DC. But he was still making his music. Now he was gone.

I wrote this poem years later, a few years after we’d moved to the Shenandoah Valley. You’d think that being out here I’d be listening to a little more country music, but I don’t. In fact, I’m pretty sure I listened to more country music when we lived in the city. When we move back, I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m playing George Jones, Patsy Cline, Hank Snow, and other folks like that more often again. But Sun Ra will continue to be in the mix, and be someone whose music I listen to—for all the secrets and wisdom he continues to release—wherever I am.

NEVER TOO MUCH

The mix tape I made for myself in 1982
and can no longer find begins with
Luther Vandross singing “Never Too Much.”
I lost it in 1992 in New York.
Maybe I lent it to my painter friend, who’d
been painting in his studio in Dumbo listening
to Captain Beefheart and Earth, Wind & Fire
and wanted to try something different.
After all, inspiration is a variable thing,
and what one sees while listening to
That’s the Way of the World is different
from what one sees when Trout Mask Replica
is playing on the boombox in his studio.
We did a lot of drinking, then, of course.
I lived above the laundromat on Avenue B
between 3rd and 4th streets. Sometimes junkies
would shoot up in the tiny foyer of my
building. Sometimes people would just
die on the street, some guy would collapse,
some beautiful woman would just stop
singing. Sometimes after smoking and
drinking I’d get to my fourth floor apartment
out of breath, thinking I could be dead too,
just another young fuck dying young,
then I’d sit down, turn on the stereo,
and listen, hearing something like “Jesus right
beside me, he never buys and he smokes.”
Maybe I heard it wrong, but those were
the words that stuck to me like the gum
on my shoe, that made me get up again
when I’d caught my breath and smiled
to myself, by myself, so high and lonesome.
Walking up a deserted Fifth Avenue
on a Sunday morning after staying up all
night, the music in my head was Sun Ra’s
The Magic City because I felt like
a black and white science fiction film
full of cold granite and gray skies.
Other cities had moments of silence,
but every moment of my life in New York City
had a soundtrack. Lou Reed was the mumbling
heat-seeking voice behind the junkies;
Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 18 was for
waking up unemployed on a Wednesday morning
just before the clock struck noon. Luther Vandross
played so many afternoons before I hit the bars
or met my friends. How many of them knew?
When I moved to New York I brought my paintings
with me but I never painted. I smoked cigarettes
and I wrote—about color, shape, and movement—
as I listened to my soundtrack, as I ate cheap
chicken and rice, washed my hands, splashed
water on my face, maybe ran a comb through
my hair, just once, that was enough. And I was always
by myself when I listened to Luther Vandross.
Sitting on the sofa in my apartment in the early evening,
waking up from whatever was missing during the day.
Stretching my arms, turning away from the window,
looking back toward the sink, as the sunlight seemed
to slide down the walls like liquid, when everything
would turn dark. I’d stand, light my cigarette,
open and close my door to walk down the dirty stairs,
and suddenly I wasn’t alone anymore.

-Jose Padua

Out this week: A Short History of Monsters (winner of the 2019 Miller Williams Poetry Prize)

A Short History of Monsters
A quick, early review from Booklist:

“Padua is a very wry poet who, in his first book, presents stinging and riotous poems, as in the two-stanza ‘Barbie’: ‘I am Barbie / I live in your dollhouse / You change my clothes every day. / If I could get out / of here I would / kill you all.’ These are works that sharpen the mind on the micro, as opposed to the macro of our human experience. This debut collection was selected as winner of the 2019 Miller Williams Poetry Prize by Billy Collins, who invokes in his succinct preface the specter of Charles Bukowski, and indeed, the infamous barfly poet is echoed here, yet Padua’s own dry wit and driving purpose cut through. These poems evoke not bold headlines but rather a quiet righteousness or realization. In “On These Days Driving”: ‘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 / becomes a hit.’
— Raúl Niño, Booklist, March 2019

Available from:

University of Arkansas Press:
https://www.uapress.com/product/a-short-history-of-monsters/

Barnes & Noble:
https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/a-short-history-of-monsters-jose-padua/1129710790#/

Amazon, Books-a-Million, etc.

Puñeta

Margarita Padua, circa 1960
Mother, you were the history
that never made the books,
the woman who fed us
chicken flavored with garlic
and ginger, sweet pork with
soy sauce and rice on
a plain white dinner plate,
the woman who dressed us
to smile, to praise, give thanks
like every day was church,
but only so long as
we were allowed
to stand tall and look
these motherfuckers
in the face,
which years later I learned
is how you translate
the word
puñeta
into English
for a clown.

-Jose Padua

Photograph of Margarita Padua, circa 1960

North Richmond Street, Being Blind

Photograph by Jose Padua
My eight-year old son Julien is singing
an East River Pipe song, going “I don’t care
about your blue wings, I don’t care about your
blue wings, baby” and my fifteen year old
daughter Maggie reads The Girl With Curious
Hair
while my wife and I drink beer at the pub
on Main Street (Julien and Maggie, iced tea
and a coke) before we all go back to our old,
dirty, small-town house. This place used to be
called Helltown and some people still call it
that, except at that precise hour when the sky
over the mountains is a perfect flinty lapis lazuli
blue, and the river is a woman named Edna with
the most joyous laugh, or a man named John,
his kidney stone like a 12 gauge shotgun shell.
He hopes to pass it before his Monday night
factory shift, the roughest in all the valley.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

The Distance Between Ground and Sky as Measured in Units of Work

Photograph by Jose Padua
When we were dropping our son Julien off at school earlier that week, he looked at the boy who was getting out from the car ahead of us. I opened the side door to let Julien out and he yelled, “Shavon!” Julien ran toward the school door and yelled, “Hey, Shavon, Baby!” Shavon, the boy who was in the car ahead of us, turned around and waited for Julien. They walked in together.

I never say “Baby” that way. Nor do I use the variant “Babe.” And as far as I can remember, the only person to regularly call me “Baby” was my landlord in New York. “Jose Baby,” he’d say. It was, I imagine, his way of acknowledging that I was all right. I wasn’t one of the junkies or crackheads in his building (my next door neighbor Anna would often complain about “those junkie people”). And I paid my rent more or less on time—or at least until toward the end of my stay in New York. It made me all right in my landlord’s eyes. It made me “Jose Baby.”

At home with my family, in the small town we live in now, I’m the sort of person who often uses the term “Honey.” I rarely ever call my wife Heather by her name—I always say “Honey.” If I do somehow say “Heather” it’s reason for us to look at each other and pause, as if we’d suddenly been transported to some odd parallel universe where I say “Heather” instead of “Honey.” I also call the kids “Honey” at times, the way my mother would use the work “Anak” with me and my brothers—“Anak” being a Tagalog word for “son”/”daughter” or, simply “child.” It was the sort of term I’d hear if I was coming down with a cold and my mother had just felt my forehead to discover I had a fever. “Anak,” she’d say, out of concern. As such, it was a word that comforted me. It meant that she knew what was wrong, and was taking care of things.

A couple of days earlier, we were a little late dropping our daughter Maggie off at school in the morning. That meant that by the time I got to the drop-off line for Julien’s school, I was a little further back than usual. I was tired and wished I could just close my eyes until the doors for Julien’s school opened, but then I looked out into the distance. Because of where we were in line—right where there’s a break in the woods that surround Julien’s school—I could see clear through to the sky above the tree line where the land slopes down to Leach Run, the stream that lies about a mile east of town. The way the colors were blending made it hard to distinguish between earth and sky, horizon and cloud, near and far. Or maybe it was just my aging eyes. Either way, I liked what I saw, so I took a photograph. Then I had a coughing fit.

I’d been under the weather since the past weekend when Maggie and I saw Yuja Wang perform at the Kennedy Center in DC. I was a running a bit of a fever and was hoping that seeing Yuja Wang might do the same thing Sun Ra did about a quarter century ago when I saw him at a performance at the Bottom Line in New York. That night I was in the middle of a horrible sore throat/flu and I wasn’t sure it was wise for me to attempt to make it out to the Bottom Line. But, because it was Sun Ra, I made the effort. I dragged myself out of my apartment.

That night, I left the Bottom Line after some two or so hours of Sun Ra’s performing (usually he’d play even longer, but this was after he’d had a stroke). And I felt fine. My lungs were clear. I could smoke a cigarette without feeling like I was breathing in fumes from the back of a bus (yes, I was a hard-core smoker back then). And, I could have another Jack Daniel’s on the rocks with my friends and have it slide down my throat as smooth as the overnight DJ on WBAI. I was, in other words, all right. I was, once again, Jose Baby.

Seeing Yuja Wang perform that weekend didn’t quite do it. Unlike after seeing Sun Ra, I still had my flu and my fever. I still needed that ibuprofen a few times a day to feel at least marginally human. But then, Yuja Wang is only thirty years old. I think that in a few years the power to heal will come along on top of the ability to play a sick-as-fuck encore off the top of her head.

After I’d dropped off Julien, I stopped at the grocery store to pick up some soup, orange juice, and ibuprofen. That’s what I figured I’d need to make it through the rest of the day until it was time to pick up Maggie and Julien from school. As I passed by the magazine rack, I saw something horrible. Wrapped in plastic, it was labeled the “Trump Anniversary Collection,” and beneath those words, peering out into a distance populated solely by wealthy, racist assholes, were the eyes of Donald Trump. At the bottom of the package, underneath Trump’s orange chin, was further explanation that this was a “Patriot’s Kit” and included bumper stickers, a “’Promises Kept’ magazine,” and a “Ready-to-Frame Portrait.” The scream I made in my head was so loud I swore everyone in the store could hear it.

I laid a few copies of Field & Stream on top of the stack of Patriot’s Kits, then walked to the back of the store. There I grabbed a quart of Tropicana 50% Less Sugar/Some Pulp orange juice. I took that, a double pack of the store brand ibuprofen, and two cans of chicken soup and went up to the register. As I drove home, I thought about how the sky by the elementary school, in the clearing between the trees, looked something like a Mark Rothko painting. And I thought about my wife and my children, my mother and father, and all the days of winter we had ahead of us and all the work we had to do.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

A Routine Evaluation of My Accomplishments at This Late Stage of the Middle Part of My Career

Photograph by Jose Padua
Because of a mix tape I played for what
must have been a couple of decades, I can’t
hear Prince’s “I Wanna Be Your Lover”
without expecting to hear T.S. Monk’s
“Bon Bon Vie (Gimme the Good Life)”
right after it. There were train rides when
I was so weary I’d fall asleep in minutes,
days when I was so sad flowers lacked both
scent and color. Weeks were lost like socks
with holes in them and days recalled like
bad products except there was no store
where I could take them back, no class action
lawsuit for squandered opportunities and
essential connections missed. These years
of love have sustained me far beyond
anything I ever could have imagined;
a dusting to an inch of snow overnight
on cold asphalt resulting in a two hour delay
is all part of the good life. I admit I didn’t
always know this, just as I understand
that there are gaps in my resume that
will never be explained, and disturbances
in my sleep that briefly interrupt the dream.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua