Category Archives: The South

Where I’m From and the End of these Days of Smooth Skin

Photograph by Jose Padua
When the time is right—which means after
the leaves have begun to sprout into dark
budding leaves and the ocean currents
flow more warmly northward
like perfect storms from southern islands
and all my heart-beating, word-hammering
work is done— bury me in these United States
in a manner I see fit amongst my slightly brown,
light brown, and dark brown brothers and sisters
on solid ground as wide as a city
where there’s so many of us
that the powers that be start to quiver
and shake as if the deep mud upon which they stand
is collapsing with the quaking
of their great white earth.
Roll away the rubbish of stars and bars
on battle flags, their sentimental dreams
of stepping on our backs and spitting in our faces,
and all our years of working for them rather than for us,
and all the yessirs and thankyousirs
that ever passed our thirsty lips,
and every moment our heads were bowed
in prayer or fealty and allegiance
beneath the smooth skin of their hands.
Then rise the way lost land rises high to blue sky,
which bends down with the bursting of clouds
to wet kiss crumbled brick and fallen metal.
Rise with weeds and wild grasses
as if waking from centuries of deep sleep,
rise like voices when questions have been asked
and the answer is a bird with dark feathers
perched upon a statue commemorating
the perpetrators of heinous deeds.
And walk these streets, knowing
that what’s beyond every sharp corner,
behind every wooden door,
and under every leaky roof
is another insane notion
cultivated by the inventors of regret;
walk swiftly as if dancing between bamboo poles
while stringed instruments control the melody;
walk until you reach the smooth curve
and low hills of the highway heading out of town;
walk so that everyone knows where you’ve been
and where you’re going, weathering
both trouble and affection, the gravel roads
turning into dirt.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

The Days Run Away Like the Great B-Side of a Hit Single by Prince

Photograph by Jose Padua
I was sitting in the car with Julien while Heather went into the grocery store. It had been about a month since Prince had died, and while for the last month I had been playing the music of Prince almost non-stop—he’s one of a small number of people you can do that with and never get tired of it all—that day, I was taking a break. So it was a sunny, spring day with something other than Prince playing on the car stereo. Julien listened for a minute before asking, “Who’s that?”

“It’s Herbie Hancock,” I said. We were a few minutes into the “Chameleon” from the Head Hunters LP.

Julien paused then said, “I don’t like Herbie Hancock. Play Miles Davis.” Miles Davis was Julien’s favorite at the time. I don’t suppose there are too many five year olds whose favorite music is Miles Davis’s music, but there we were. The windows of the car were down, and a cool breeze came inside.

I tried to explain to Julien that Herbie Hancock played with Miles Davis, but he didn’t care and he refused to give Herbie Hancock’s music a chance. To make the wait easier, I went ahead and put on Miles Davis.

Back then, while my daughter Maggie was doing her homework, I’d hear her playing Public Image Limited (PiL) a lot. She had been listening to Talking Heads, the Ramones, and Kleenex/LiliPUT while she was studying, but then she added PiL to the mix. After that I’d always hear the voice of John Lydon going “This is not a love song/ This is not a love song” or “Anger is an energy/ Anger is an energy” as she did her algebra homework or worked on a brief essay she had to write.

That morning, right before we headed out to take them all to school, Maggie looked something up on her phone then she said, “I have the same birthday as the guitarist for PiL!”

“You mean Keith Levene?”

“Yes,” she said. “We have the same birthday!”

“Wow,” I said. And I remembered that she also shares a birthday with Hunter S. Thompson, but I didn’t mention it because I think it’s still a few years before she’s ready to read about things like the massive drug run that begins Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I also didn’t mention that I share a birthday with Jean Genet, because I didn’t think she was quite ready to read a book like Our Lady of the Flowers yet either. But, when she’s old enough, these great books will be among my recommended reading and can be added to the volumes of Baudelaire, Lucille Clifton, and Junot Diaz that she was already carrying around with her all the time.

For a couple of weeks, the question Julien had been asking most frequently was, “Who’s bad?”—with it being election season and with the death of Prince there were a lot of bad things in the air, making it a time for questions. (But then, when is it not a time for questions?) In the second of those two weeks, Julien began answering his own question. And when we all said, “I don’t know. Who’s bad?” Julien would then say, without the slightest pause of doubt, “Donald Trump’s bad.”

“Yes, he is bad,” we’d say.

A couple of days later, while we were having lunch at Blue Wing Frog over on Chester Street, Julien answered his own question about who was bad and added, “Donald Trump is a poopy head!” Then he stopped to think about it for a moment before asking, “Does he poop with his head?”

“Well, in a way he does,” we all said. Or words to that effect.

And later that day, it rained. Like on the B-side of an old Prince song—it rained and kept on raining. After having spent a few days not listening to Prince that week, he was back on the soundtrack, and  I was listening closely, hoping for more answers.

I took this photograph of Union Hall, which was part of a joint called Victoria’s Restaurant, when we left Blue Wing Frog that day. Union Hall and Victoria’s restaurant have been closed since February 2009, when it was discovered that its owner was a fugitive wanted on drug charges in Massachusetts. Union Hall had been one of the few places in Front Royal where you had music and dancing. The owner had been here, in our small Virginia town, for nearly two decades. He raised his kids here, had grandkids, and ran his restaurant and club for as long as he could. And then they took him away.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Walking to Prospect Hill and Back on These Still Slow Days of Spring

Photograph by Jose Padua
Although my wife takes her walks
up the road to Prospect Hill Cemetery
I stay down on the straight and flat
gray sidewalk of Main Street. There’s
something about the steep hill that’s
too formidable, reminds me of long
lasting pain, and the green and stone
of the graves and the grief that surrounds
every plot and space fills me more with
sadness than peace on early mornings
when my blood has yet to waken me.
She heads up the hill while I ease up
like a slow day off from work and turn
the corner on High Street back toward
our house, then sit on the front porch
to wait. I’m two decades past those
days when I could walk for hours and
hours and hardly feel an ache or trace
of sweat on my brow under cool spring
skies, but what’s astonishing is this:
the way young birds emerge from
oddly speckled eggs, how stars appear
where there once was only mist and
heavy space, and the disappearance
of time during what’s now the light labor
of waiting for my wife to come down
from the hill and the Earth to spin,
our days growing warmer, our nights
shorter as we cross paths with every-
thing that lives and breathes or flies.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Reflections on Shade and Tone as Day Turns to Night in the Valley

Photograph by Jose Padua
We were heading up Route 11 just north of Winchester—me, my wife and my kids—when we found ourselves crossing into West Virginia. Now, there are places where when you see the sign saying Welcome to West Virginia: Wild and Wonderful, things look pretty nice. Usually that’s during the day, when the sun highlights all the green that seems to be approaching you from the distance. This time, though, it was nearly dusk, at that point when the only thing you can see clearly is the landscape that’s close to you. It’s also when, for better or worse, that landscape and whatever buildings and signs and moving objects it includes are bathed in a beautiful yet unflattering light.

That’s when we came across Piggy’s Club—a restaurant, bar, and nightclub with a big sign out front to let you know that you could stay or get your “COLD BEER TO GO.” In the bright sunlight it might have seemed like a fair enough place to get something to eat, and in my drinking days it might have even seemed a reasonable enough place to have a few beers. It was, after all, Saturday night—and on a Saturday night, say, thirty years ago, Piggy’s might have even looked like an oasis of sorts. But then again, maybe not.

In my less hopeful moments, my mind tends to be overrun by feelings of powerlessness and insignificance. Other times I feel fully prepared for whatever form of Apocalypse might lie ahead. On this night, I felt somewhere between these two extremes—which meant that although I was a little nervous about where I might be taking us, I continued to take us there. All I knew for sure was that on this night Piggy’s gravel parking lot was a decent enough place for us to pull over.

Driving slowly to avoid potholes and any other hidden booby traps in Piggy’s parking lot, I turned the car back toward the highway. When I saw that the road was clear, I headed back in the other direction, in search of a place where we might want to spend some time. As fog settled over the valley and a slow drizzle started coming down, that’s what we did. And as the skies turned completely dark, what was once unflattered became beautiful once again, and we drove through it until we found a place where we wanted to be.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Helltown

Photograph by Jose Padua
Back in the familiar wilderness
of tattoo parlors and auto parts
stores, the cheap motels where
there’s always a vacancy, the streets
so dry and sunny you can almost feel
the dirt and grime with your eyes
when you blink, and the teenagers
with their stained shirts and the random
fucks and shits and blow jobs that spill
from their mouths as a substitute for
speech. It’s the quiet boredom of the
normal, non-existential, nothingness
that kills them, that kills me. The boy
who’s the scared misfit with a lisp
and gawking eyes when he talks to us,
when he asks us questions, turns down
the corners of his mouth, squints his eyes
even in the shade and says nothing as he
looks to the ground in an effort to fit in
with the fucks and shits and blow jobs.
This is not bravery nor is it cowardice,
this is neither infamy nor avarice, but
might there be a word for it other than
survival? A sense of accomplishment,
more and other, than that of being alive?
So I look at them looking at me, wide-eyed
like first rides on a roller coaster, thirsty
like summer afternoons with no prospects,
their arms by their sides, their hands empty;
because what tears us down creates us,
and what we tear down creates the stones
we throw, each morning, into the dirty
winding river, ready to shine, ready
to walk the jagged, gravel road home.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Self-Portrait as a Being of Sound and Motion on the Northern Edge of the Southern States

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Driving to Winchester
the other day
Stravinsky’s Symphonies
of Wind Instruments

comes on the stereo
as we head west
into the sunset
on 66 ready
for the curve at the end
of the highway that
changes our direction
and sends us North.
Yesterday on West Main Street
in Front Royal
heading back to my house
I hear Lizzy Mercier Descloux’s
“Gueule d’amour” and
I roll down the window
an inch to let just
the right amount of cold
inside so I can breathe
and feel the air
move around me like
a spirit drinking whisky
when I haven’t had
a drop to drink.
Today on Route 11 South
of Harrisonburg it’s
Al Green singing
“Loving You”
from The Belle Album
as we ride up and down
the hills in the early winter’s
late afternoon light
past farmland that’s dry
and bare between seasons.
And each time I am
entranced, bedazzled, amazed
by music I’ve heard
hundreds of times,
and comforted
to know that as
we travel through
the various frequencies
of light and dark
there is a pure constant sound
stirring within me
whether I am rising
or falling
heading east or west
and that whether I am
dust or flesh
I will be here
standing on the continents
spinning on this Earth
and moving through the universe
at great speed.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

P-Funk Reshapes the Landscape of the Redneck Town I Live In and Other Acts of Reformation and Reconstruction

Photograph by Jose Padua
Behind the wheel listening to P-Funk in my new neighborhood
the blank stare of the shirtless Larry the Cable Guy lookalike sharpens
to crystal clarity as his lazy slouch straightens up into a confident
strut and the words Git-R-Done are banished forever from his lips.

The colors start to run on the confederate flag bumper sticker
on the pickup truck ahead of me, its starry X melting like
the Wicked Witch of the West turning into a smelly puddle of scum.
Having freed my mind from the “Our God is an Awesome God” sounds

that limp through the streets from the doorway of the Heaven Sent Shoppe
downtown until it oozes like toxic waste into the Shenandoah River, having
been lifted from the list of endangered species by a bop gun blast,
I am ready to stand tall in my off-white glory and the knowledge that

God does not appreciate those lame-ass Christian pop songs. I step
out of my minivan, open the back door and take my daughter
by the hand. “Who sang that song?” I ask and right away she
answers “P-Funk” because I’m trying to teach her what’s well

and what’s real and we glance at our house, stop and wave to
our neighbors, then together we turn to walk towards the future.

– Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Reflections on a Sign on a Country Road and Other Failures of the Imagination

Photograph by Jose Padua
We were in Washington County, just a few miles west of the river that keeps Ohio separate from Wild Wonderful West Virginia to the east. It’s a county that’s even less diverse than the one where we live in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. When we were on this rural Ohio road a year earlier, the sign at this house said, “Obama Mohammed Camel Dung.” What it said a year ago was “Imagine There’s No Islam.”

Driving past it around ten o’clock that morning on the way to meet family, I held up my middle finger. Passing by it again a couple of hours later, I stopped and rolled down the window. That’s when I took the picture. Right after I took it, I started to hear dogs barking. If it were just me in the car, I would have stayed. I guess it’s sort of like what happens in my poem that goes, “Poetry is giving the finger to the biggest guy in the room just to see what happens.” But since it wasn’t just me in the car, I drove off.

In a couple of minutes, a song by the Syrian musician Omar Souleyman came up in the random mix on the car stereo. If his music had come up just a little bit earlier, while I had the window rolled down, I imagine I wouldn’t have been able to resist turning the volume up to eleven—and waiting to see what happened. What I prefer not to imagine are what someone who would display signs like these would do if he saw me and my family hovering on the side of the road by his house. We weren’t on his property, but people like him tend to blur the line between public and property, with property being anyplace where they think people who are different from them shouldn’t be allowed to set foot.

Another thing that’s not hard to imagine is that today, when Donald Trump was sworn in as the forty-fifth President of the United States, was a day of celebration for him. I could easily see him and his family among the people who came to DC today wearing their Make America Great Again hats and asking how to get to the mall. And, later, cheering upon hearing Trump declare, “We will reinforce old alliances and form new ones and unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate from the face of the Earth.” That is, after all, among the things he imagines, with one problem being that for a lot of folks like him, there is no difference between Islam and “radical Islam.”

This morning I took my daughter to an Occupy rally in Malcolm X Park, just a few blocks down from the neighborhood where I grew up in DC. Although my old neighborhood has gone through a lot of gentrification, there’s still a wide variety of people there. It’s always a nice break, going to a place where I feel welcome simply as another member of the human race. Where I live now isn’t like that and having a person like Donald Trump setting the tone as president sure as hell ain’t going to make things better there. Indeed, this is a presidency for those who want to imagine me and a whole lot of other kinds of people gone.

But tonight, I’m here, in my old family home, where I grew up from about the age of six until I left for New York. It’s a period of time during which I went from knowing little to knowing a few things. And during which I went from wanting simply to fit in to wanting unequivocably to be whatever the hell it is I am.

I’m writing this while sitting at the wobbly dining room table where my family would eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner. My father and my mother are gone now, but one of my brothers still lives here in this house, and my other brother is only about twenty minutes away. I’m listening to an old Taj Mahal record, The Real Thing, that includes this old tune I love called, “Ain’t Gwine Whistle Dixie (Any Mo’)” which feature Taj on his guitar and whistling a tune that definitely isn’t “Dixie.” And as I listen to it I’m doing my best, in the face of coming hard times and whatever variety of obscene obstacles may be in store for us, to imagine better days.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua taken in Malcolm X Park on January 20. 2017

In the Valley of the Bobs

Photograph by Jose Padua
There’s nothing more frightening
than a man named Bob. Not a day
goes by when I don’t think, Bob is
coming to get me
. Not a motion passes
before my tired eyes when I don’t think,
Bob Bob Bob. I hear the sound of Bob’s
footsteps two blocks away, walking
up my street, going up to my front
porch, knowing that when he gets
to my door he won’t bother to knock.
When I was a kid there were menacing
Bobs in my neighborhood, guys who
I knew had knives in their back pockets
or guns in their Bob-sized boots. Bob X.
was not my friend, nor was Bob Y, nor
was Bob Z, and I’m not talking about Bob
Dylan who was always really a Robert
not a Bob. But those Bobs couldn’t get
close to me the way the Bobs can today.
It wasn’t me who ripped Bob off,
but that doesn’t matter to Bob. He
doesn’t care who did what or where
or why because this is Bob’s world now
and the hills are alive with the sound
of Bob’s pissed-offness. I see those hills
bouncing as if they were bulls in the rodeo,
tossing cowboys off their backs. I see them
bobbing for Bob against the bold blue sky
while he eats his morning bacon. It is summer
and the Bobs are taking back the country.
It is summer and the Bobs are just around
the corner, singing their horrible songs,
holding out their hands as I look straight ahead
holding my head up like a statue, walking
a line like a robot watching his step. This is
how I live here in the valley of the shadow,
in the valley of the Bobs, staring at the Bobs
as they look away, as they stop to ask questions,
as the robins stretch their wings, and rise
from the ground like malevolent angels
because everyone and everything is afraid
and the next Bob is around the corner,
counting fingers, eyes, hands, souls.

-Jose Padua

First published at Truck.

The Wall and What Surrounds It

Photograph by Jose Padua
I’m thinking that someone else
has probably already written a poem
about building a wall
around Donald Trump’s penis
so I’m going to write about
the leaves this fall;
the gentle turning of their colors
from bright and deep green
to light and sometimes
even fiery red and orange.
From tones and shades that blend in
almost invisibly
with the American landscape
to those that stand out
boldly among the old ways,
speaking other languages,
bringing new dance moves,
new flavors and scents
and ways of organizing time.
I’m thinking about
the muddy waters
of this winding river turning
bright blue in the slight bend
and chill of twilight,
turning the purple mountains
into beautiful black silhouettes
that will make it easier
for the rest of us
to reach great heights
Dizzy and tired,
we’ll walk boldly
though with slow, steady feet,
balancing ourselves like flying acrobats,
demanding our strange names be heard
and holding out
the dry, cracked skin
of our large hands.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua