Tag Archives: Jose Padua

Bright Moments and Other Entries in the Discography of the Sky

Photograph by Jose Padua
Before we left the old family house in DC, where we spent that weekend, my seven-year old son Julien said, “Wait, I need my Rahsaan Roland Kirk CD.” Searching with Julien the day before, I’d found a few Rahsaan Roland Kirk CDs in the vast collection of LPs and CDs in the basement, and he didn’t want to go back to Front Royal without borrowing at least one of them.

Of the three I’d found—Rip, Rig and Panic; Simmer, Reduce, Garnish & Serve; and Bright Moments—Julien chose the last to borrow. As soon as we got in the car, he asked me to slip Bright Moments into the car stereo, and I did. Meanwhile, he called out the window to my brother Tony who was standing outside our car, “Make sure you have some Ornette Coleman records.” Which meant, I suppose, that he wanted to borrow some Ornette Coleman CDs next time we were in DC. And then we drove home, west on 66, listening to Bright Moments.

Earlier that weekend Julien was watching one of the Spiderman movies when his big sister Maggie switched the station to see what was going on with the Grammy Awards. Onstage at the time was Ed Sheeran singing that “I’m in love your body” song, and Julien immediately said, “I don’t like this stupid guy!”

Around that time, Maggie had been working on learning to play one of my favorite Ryuichi Sakamoto songs, “Bibo no Aozora” (Beauty of a Blue Sky). Sometimes, when Julien was with her in the hall where our piano was in our Front Royal house, she’d try to teach him the opening notes to Thelonious Monk’s “Ruby, My Dear.” He wouldn’t get very far, but whenever he sat there with her at the piano, even if it was only for half a minute, he seemed intrigued by the possibilities.

The next day it was Valentine’s Day. On that day, twenty-one years earlier, Heather and I had gone to Planet Fred near Dupont Circle in DC. They had a martini special going on that night and a DJ was playing a mix that included things like Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and, I think, Glenn Miller’s “Moonlight Serenade.” I don’t remember for sure if “Moonlight Serenade” was playing, but that’s what it felt like. Ever since that night we’ve been together, with the years going by fast like blue skies and each day opening up like the album cover of a double LP. Which was what Bright Moments was—a double LP. You opened up the cover and on each side was a sleeve with a separate LP. We’d only borrowed the CD, although the double LP was also at the house. That, we couldn’t play in the car, though. And today, Heather and I are celebrating twenty-four years together.

This photograph of Heather, Maggie, and Julien was taken earlier that month in 2017 in Clearbrook Park, north of Winchester, Virginia. It was one of many days when we went out without any real plan and no idea of what we were going to do. It was one of those blue sky days. It was a sane day in the middle of an insane age. All we knew was that as soon as we were finished doing one thing, we’d move on to do whatever we had to do next.

-Jose Padua

It Happened One Night

Photograph by Jose Padua
Not a day or week goes by
working late at night
downstairs in the dining room
of our hundred year
old house when I don’t
imagine that when I stand up
and go to the kitchen
for a glass of water
or after midnight snack
or into the living room
for the cushioned splendor
of our beat-up old sofa
to give my back a break from
the stiff wooden chair
I sit on when I write
that I’ll look up
and suddenly see
a ghost, a spirit, a misty
entity that will make me
gasp, then yell or shout,
waking up everyone
in the house,
and they’ll come down
the stairs to see me,
the color gone
from my cheeks,
my knees a little weak,
my hands trembling slightly
as if I’d just crossed paths
with the infinite,
or put too much jelly
on my toast.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Days of Cinnamon and Other Kinds of Sound and Ache

Photo by Jose Padua
That morning, at the grocery store we always went to in Front Royal, I saw one of the cashiers I hadn’t seen in a while. A tall woman about my age or maybe slightly older, she was standing in her aisle, supporting herself with a cane. I nodded and said hello as I walked by on the way to the produce section where I got garlic, an onion, four tomatoes, and two potatoes then turned left. I picked up a cheap jar of olives, then headed back down to the meat and poultry aisle to get ground turkey and some chorizo sausage. Circling around to the other side of the store, I picked up more milk and some creamer before turning up the aisle back toward the checkout lanes.

When I got back to the front of the store, the woman was still there, standing on the aisle down from her cash register. “Are you ready?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“All right, I got you.”

As I put my groceries on conveyor belt, I noticed that it hurt for her just to move down the aisle to her register. “How are you feeling?” I asked.

“Well,” she said. “It’s just my second day back. You haven’t seen me around because I’ve been out since January when I had surgery on both my knees.”

“Oh my,” I said. “And now you have to stand all day again.”

“Yeah, it’s back to doing this.”

“Do you get a decent break where you can rest your knees?”

“Well, not really,” she said, and she went on to explain how after they did the surgery on her knees at Warren County Memorial Hospital in town she developed a blood clot that went up to her lungs. For that she had to go to INOVA Fairfax hospital, where she had to stay for a while, away from home and away from her husband who can’t drive.

“Oh no, that’s rough,” I said, knowing how depressed I would get if I had to spend so much time away from my wife Heather and my kids Maggie and Julien.

“Then, when I was back home after the clot, I was doing errands. Coming here for groceries as a matter of fact, when I fell coming out of the cab I took to get me here. I hit my head and had a concussion and hurt one of my knees again, which put me back in the hospital again.”

“Oh wow,” I said. “One thing after another. I hope things get a little easier from here on out.”

“Well, it is good that I’m back working, because now my husband can’t.” And she explained how her husband was working at a juice factory, but because he has COPD and because of whatever gets into the air at the juice factory he can’t work there anymore.

We talked for a while after she’d finished ringing up my groceries. I wished her luck, an easier time, disability benefits, a winning lottery ticket, and about a dozen other things before I went back to my car.

It was a beautiful spring morning. I had the windows rolled down and Miles Davis’s “Spanish Key” playing on the car stereo. It’s the sort of music that’s probably better suited for night time, driving through some busy part of a big city or else driving fast down some highway at three in the morning, but I turned it up anyway.

Back at our house in Front Royal, I brought the groceries in, then put the deep skillet on the front burner of the stove, added some cinnamon, cumin, nutmeg, and a couple of cloves, and turned it up to medium. On another skillet I added some olive oil, and put the chorizos on low. I sat down at the kitchen table, where I pulled apart a bulb of garlic, peeled it, and chopped it all up, then did the same thing to with an onion. When the aroma of the spices in the deep skillet began to waft through the kitchen air, I added olive oil, and threw in the garlic and onion and stirred it for a couple minutes. Then I took the ground turkey and stirred it in before taking the chorizos out of the other skillet and bringing them to the table and cutting them up. After adding those to the mix, I peeled the two potatoes, diced them, threw them into the skillet, then diced the tomatoes and threw them in, too. Last were the olives, two bay leaves, and a little more cinnamon. Then I covered the skillet, turned the heat down to low, and sat down at the computer to do some of the work I get paid for.

I knew that because Julien had his swimming lessons that evening, I wouldn’t get a chance to make this dish, picadillo, later in the day, which was why I cooked it in the morning. When Heather got home from her office in Rosslyn that afternoon, she and I could take Julien to his swimming lesson uptown. Maggie could stay at home and relax for a while and then just have dinner heated up for us when we returned.

When Heather, Julien, and I got back, the dining room table was set and the picadillo was heated up along with some rice I’d cooked right before we left for swimming. We ate dinner, then Heather helped Julien with his homework while Maggie went off to talk to one of her friends on the phone. I walked down the hall and into the parlor, which was where my old stereo with the turntable was set up, and saw that Maggie had two albums out that she was listening to while we were at Julien’s swimming lesson.

The first was Neil Young’s 1972 album Harvest. It’s not my favorite Neil Young record, but somehow it was the only one I had on vinyl there. The other record Maggie had out was the pianist Stanley Cowell’s 1974 solo record Musa: Ancestral Streams. This is one of those records that has followed me wherever I go. Many times “Abscretions,” Equipoise,” “Travellin’ Man” or some other tune from the album will start playing in my head. After hearing it there, I usually like to hear it for real, in the air, filling up a room with its intricate motions and delicate gestures. It’s why, if it’s at all possible, I don’t like to be very far from this record. There is, within its tones and melodies, a kind of magic—magic being something I’ve actually always depended upon. Because despite the often desperate climate of these times here in America—as well as so many instances in the past when I could have easily ceased to have faith in these things—I continue to believe that magic is the adjunct effect of action, and that the power or even the simple possibility of each of these must never be underestimated. In other words, despite the awfulness of any situation, I still believe that good things can be made to happen, and that pure pessimism is for assholes. At any rate, that’s what I always try to tell myself.

The next day, the cashier at the grocery store would again be on her feet all day. I’d be doing my easy work, taking breaks when I want and sitting down, eating well, hearing music in my head, driving, and sometimes panicking, worrying, despairing over all the things that will never get done. It’s not fair, it’s not equal, and I am never doing enough to remedy these situations and predicaments and I am always at a loss as to what I should do next. So I write another poem, another essay, another fragmented bit of remembrance. I keep on going even though my audience is small, I keep thinking even though my thoughts often go in circles, I keep breathing even though the spring air makes me sneeze and always reminds me that, for most people, living is something that is never fully comfortable. I’m good with that and with all the things that are beyond me. And sometimes, even though I am often reluctant to do so, I am happy just to speak to people.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

Self-Portrait as the Confluence of Struggle and Popular Culture

Photograph by Jose Padua
Sometimes I think of all the people in the world
I’d like to smack. Like our current, trashy, goon
of a president with all his stupid words and all
his stupid fucking hate. I think of all the people
helping him take the country back in time to the
age of stone and ruthless assholes and I’d like to
smack them too. I’d like to smack those border
patrol thugs in their drab uniforms grinning their
dumb grins, smashing up the food and supplies
left for refugees crossing into the American night
on foot through the desert; I’d like to smack anyone
who thinks we should build a wall between us and
Mexico, when the only walls we should be building
are for a room where we can throw all the hedge
fund managers and all the other financial advisors of
the apocalypse. But it’s not just these obviously evil
people I want to smack, I want to smack a lot of other
people too. People who are pretty much innocent but
who make things difficult in curious ways. I’d like to
smack all my friends who did a little too much cocaine
in the 80s, because half of them are still doing stupid
shit in their lives and the other half owe me money.
I’d like to smack my old friends who made it big and
now avoid me like a dog turd on the sidewalk during
a light afternoon rain. I’d like to smack Owen Wilson
for starring in the movie Behind Enemy Lines. My wife
and I saw it in the theater when it came out in 2001.
It wasn’t very good. I’d like to smack some guy, any
guy, named Maurice, because I don’t like the name
Maurice and I’m not impressed by whatever connection
he has to the pompatus of love. I’d like to smack the
poet who first wrote the lines “if it’s yellow let it mellow,
if it’s brown flush it down.” I know, it’s encouraging
people to save water but I hate that poem, so fuck it.
And OK, maybe I’m just jealous. I’d like to smack myself
sometimes, because sometimes I feel like I’m just so
fucking clever when I’m really not so fucking clever.
I hate it when I’m deceiving myself that way. And I’m
going to walk, like I’m a hundred feet tall, into a room
showing off my gas-powered, gold tooth grill, as fast as
I feel it but in slow, barely-perceived motion to the
crowd, sipping their drinks, speaking endlessly of the
intricate relations of superficial things. Because I am
now a planet, formed over vast lengths of time through
the accretion of stardust to dust, a cosmic smacking of
one object to another, a daisy chain of anger and reaction.
I bow down before no one. I have a pebble in my shoe.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

I Am a Small Guitar

Photograph by Jose Padua
I am a small guitar in a large room on a Saturday
sometime after four when the last lunch guest
has driven home, beating the rain, beating the
worst of the traffic, beating the rest of the weekend
in coming to a conclusion. I am a gravestone in
a beautiful cemetery, set firmly in the ground
two centuries ago and long before everyone who
is alive today was born, was lost, was estranged,
was made to remember mistakes and misjudgments
while trying to recall a cool morning’s warm colors
and the shade of damp leaves drying under an
early evening’s angle of light. I am three hundred
men and three hundred women or three million men
and three million women or one man and one woman
or no man and no woman and no thing and no thought
and no long or short way of getting from there to here,
just a path marked with stone or cleared of brush
that everyone has to take. I am a large country on
a small planet or a small ocean between large drifting
continents because the world is moving from then
to now and we are a gift that must always remember
to act like a gift, expecting night to follow day and
small rivers to run and swell their banks too many times
for anyone to count, too swiftly to never feel the
beautiful sorrow of dangerous hours. And I weep
and I work, I diminish and grow like muscle and bone
because I am a guitar, made of wood, metal, and wire,
and I shine even when I am still, even when I am cold.

-Jose Padua

Photograph by Jose Padua

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

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