Category Archives: The South

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

On the Purpose of These Stories and the Effort We Put into Them

Photograph by Jose Padua
If I were the war on drugs
would I look upon you with great suspicion
when you step on the subway train
on your way to work in the morning;
would I eye you sideways
when you sit in the coffee shop drinking coffee,
in the fast food restaurant easting fast food,
dining out cheap like me,
unhealthily like me,
watching your pennies like morning rain,
wondering about the next paycheck, next job,
next night out amidst the city lights,
or just an early evening at home doing nothing
but listening closely as the children play
their sweet simple games?
If I were the war on terror
would I listen to AM talk radio
while I’m driving to the store with my family
then tell everyone to be quiet
when the on-air discussion moves on
to how America got into this mess to begin with
and what, as real Americans,
are we willing to do to get out of it?
Sometimes at the grocery store you look at me,
your eyes almost bulging
like warm blood beneath the surface of pale thin skin
when I’m standing across from you
at the open face freezer
deciding which cut of meat to buy
because I’m a carnivore like you,
or trying to find sweet corn,
a fresh loaf of bread,
and a treat for the kids
even though I know they’ll be
wild with kinetic and other forms of energy
and acting as if they’re never going to go to bed again
as long as there’s bright color
and high pitched sound in the revolving world
that surrounds them.
You, in the meantime,
wonder what medications I may be on,
ask yourself do I look a person who shoots smack,
drops acid like it’s the 60s,
or who perhaps comes here
from a faraway country your country is at war with
and who if I were to open my mouth
could only speak in some language
you can’t possibly comprehend?
If I recall my history correctly,
terror came first,
then war, then drugs,
and seeing there was no one to challenge drugs,
war declared itself an abuser of drugs as did terror
with harsh words and something
that looked like a menacing sneer.
Nowadays, drugs are everywhere
and so is war and famine and poverty and greed
and the fear of growing so old
as to be unfit to play one’s part
in all the wars and terror to come.
Because oh where
would war and terror be without us,
where would drugs be if we weren’t here to take them,
where would terror be if no one were afraid.
If we were simply sitting peacefully
at sturdy wooden tables
in the rough sunlight of early evening,
telling each other stories,
remembering the days
when we’d hold fire in our hands,
all for the purpose
of bringing color to the darkness
on these long, cold nights.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Orange

Photograph by Jose Padua
Lately I’ve been thinking about Orange. What would it
have been like living in a place called Orange? Could I
have ever said, “Hi, my name is Randolph Scott, and I’m
an actor from Orange, Virginia?” Who would believe
me? I went to Orange in the late 60s when my
godfather Ninong Delphin’s wife died after she had
a stroke. It was where Auntie Nellie grew up. She was

a big woman with tired eyes who drank and she was
Auntie Nellie not Ninang Nellie and it was hard
for me to imagine that she was ever young.
Their daughter Daisy got married to a Puerto Rican
man everyone called Pepe though his given name was
Jose, like me, and back then no one called me Jose
it was always Joe. Daisy and Pepe were my friends’

parents and whenever my friends said “We’re going
to the country” they were going down to Orange.
They’d say it blankly as if Orange were neither
a good place or a bad place to go but it was what
they called “the country.” At Auntie Nellie’s funeral
Ninong Delphin said, “Life, you can never know, but death,
you can always count on death.” It was true, I knew it,

but I also thought it was a useless thing to say.
Auntie Nellie was the first dead person I ever
saw and she was lying in her coffin in the church
in Orange, Virginia after spending her last years
in something like a dark mist that made her wander and
some nights she was a drunk lady nobody knew the
name of getting rolled on the street and now she lay still,

looking more tired than at rest, and behind her on the walls
I noticed, like the name of a small town, filling out
the space behind the altar, that bright light color. We’d
moved uptown by then, from an apartment to a house
and from renting to owning/owing it all to
a bank and I didn’t see my friends much anymore.
And the one time and the last time I saw Pepe

he was waiting at a bus stop and I said Hi and
he was standing there, sweating in the summer sun on
his way to the Mayflower hotel where he worked as
a waiter, and one day decades after he’d died
I went there for brunch on the day my father became
a citizen and when we sat down at our table
the plates were smooth and the silverware shiny and

the tablecloth that brushed against my knees the whole time
was the hard to miss combination of lemon yellow
and apple red. Orange. It doesn’t really mean anything
special to me, but there are occasions when I have
to use the word, like when I’m eating while talking
to someone over the phone and that person hears me
chewing and making slurping noises while he or she

talks about the weather or the news and asks me what
am I eating and I swallow and say, “Oh sorry,”
then pause and say, “I’m eating an orange.” One time
I met a woman named Orange, but I thought I was
hearing it wrong because I was drunk and that maybe
she was actually saying the word “banana”
over and over again to make me talk to

someone else. And when I was living on the lower
east side of New York I once went to East Orange,
New Jersey to read poems on a radio show for
my friend bart and I didn’t do a very good job,
but afterwards we took the bus back to one of those
dismal gates at the Port Authority in Manhattan
and walked and walked under the late afternoon sunlight

until we were downtown again, standing outside
the door of the now long gone Cedar Tavern where we
were regulars, and I drank bourbon on the rocks
until it was dark outside and there’s no city in
the world that looks as beautiful as New York City
in the dark, though there are so many cities I
haven’t been to and so many ways to pass the time

until things get dark. All of which is to say that life
and death I sort of understand but no matter how
long I live and no matter how much I remember
or forget, I am not and can never be a color
even though color is what I am, and I am
a shade of coconut husk mixed with sweet juice that stings
the mute tongue, a blend of Narra tree and high plains

tropical cowboy. I see the color orange all around me now
in the valley where I live, its tones in clouds lit up
by sunsets, its streaks in clear light that climbs up mountains
lifting up the morning’s mist; I hear it in a candidate’s
latest speech, feel it in the look from a stranger when I turn
off Commerce onto South and think about the dignity
of my given name, saying it out loud but to myself.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua