Vox Populi

Vox Populi: A Public Sphere for Politics and Poetry

Michael Simms: The Very American Poetry of Jose Padua

What are poets for in destitute times? — Hölderlin

.

Every poem is a subversive act.

In an age when our senses are benumbed by competing media screaming for our attention, the radical quietism of a well-made poem is in itself revolutionary. Sitting quietly and listening to a person share his or her most important experiences expressed in a coherent form goes against our entire twenty-first century Western culture. Poetry is the only antidote for the insanity of post-modern life. This is the reason why poets have been in the vanguard of the contemporary progressive movement and also the reason why poetry’s small audience must be nurtured and expanded.

It is very difficult for a contemporary American to sit still and listen to a poem because the experience requires patient attentiveness to another person’s feelings. Having few chances to practice this kind of empathy, we are simply not very good at it. We are constantly assaulted by advertisements, besieged by email messages, jangled by message alerts, battered by music videos, frustrated by traffic jams, and disturbed by snatches of news. The coherence and silence that human beings need have been shattered and replaced by a fragmented and nervous existence. For our abused sensibilities, poetry offers an oasis of ordered calm, a quiet subversion which, given time, heals the wounded disordered spirit. Not being used to experiencing the music of language for its own sake, we at first rebel against it, reacting with impatience, boredom, frustration, anger. “But what does it mean?” the novice poetry listener asks, throwing up his hands.

The idea that poetry should be free from politics, as many argue, is absurd. Writing a poem, whatever its subject, is by its very nature a political act because artistic creation requires a new way of looking at the world. Pushing the boundaries of awareness is the quality that makes poetry essential, and it is the reason that in a totalitarian society, poets are the first to be arrested, and why in our society poetry has been for the most part assiduously ignored by mainstream media. Poetry provides something that helps make sense of these confusing times. As evidence we need look no further than the aftermath of the recent presidential election during which poetry websites saw a surge of popularity. Vox Populi, for example, recorded over a million hits in the few weeks after Donald Trump’s election, a new record for us. America needs its small presses, its poetry readings, its poetry radio shows, and, yes, its poetry websites, because without them, we are at the mercy of those who make it their business to tell us what to think and how to feel.

Sometimes the subversive quality of a poem is clear and emphatic — for example Pablo Neruda’s poem The United Fruit Company in which the poet excoriates the multinational corporations that have exploited Latin America. However, as great as Neruda’s poem is, most of my favorite poems practice a more subtle subversion. For example, notice the nuanced tone and gentle rhythms in this poem by Jose Padua in which he captures the beauty of the evening rituals in a working class family’s home:

 

And So the Brightness of Evening

I shine these minutes in the evening,

so heavy with the space of living,

rooms to walk into and leave, floors

to step upon to do a task and walk

away from. The end of the day is

like a polishing of time. You wipe

the table, I listen to its clearing from

the living room then take the plastic

bags of trash out the front door.

It’s a cleaning of the hours, and

for us, an emptying of what’s left

of the week. Work is what keeps

us here, what feeds us from bank

to store to hand to mouth. We keep

it clean, we let it get dirty, we mop,

we scrub, we rinse. Our clothes pile

up in the back of the house no matter

how hard we try to keep up with it.

We don’t try that hard. There are other

things to do, other things to see,

a show about tiny birds flying just

above the roofs; a book about the

end of the world, the stopping of

time, and the sailing of Greek boats.

Before I turn off the ceiling light

in the dining room I see the plates and

tumblers behind the cabinet’s glass

door gleam. It’s the quiet kind

of shining that moves us best,

a glowing with no need to make

its own sound, because upstairs

all the lights are switched on, and

I hear the soft voice of our daughter

getting ready for bed as she sings.

.

Of course, those who are familiar with Padua’s work know that he is also capable of harsh criticism of American attitudes, as in this poem in which the ambiguity of a single nod becomes an anthem for the uncertain times in which we live:

.

My True Love and Other Colors

Just off the exit

from the Interstate,

the man with the red, white,

and blue American

flag painted on the wall

of his garage has the words

Love These Colors or

Leave This Country

printed beneath it

in big bold letters,

and when he sees me

drive past he nods

at me so slowly

I can’t tell if it’s

more greeting or threat,

and because in twenty-first century

America I must consider

how a single movement

or motion can

mean two completely

different things

depending on who’s

doing the perceiving,

I nod back briefly and

quickly so as not to be misinterpreted

or misconstrued and

continue down the road

thinking only

about the colors

of the things in this world I

truly love.

.

Even when Padua is being overtly political, he never loses his ability to modulate his ironic tone and spin breathtaking metaphors:

American Sadness 

Of all the sadness in the world

there is nothing that can compare

with American sadness. When

America is sad the whole world

weeps. Whenever one American

is sad, at least two non-Americans

somewhere else in the world consider

the possibility of ending it all. When

a hundred Americans are sad, wars

are fought in faraway lands for

the great purpose of making these

hundred Americans happy again.

When a million Americans are sad,

every flag in America droops, then

slides an inch and then another inch

down the flag pole and nothing can

stop this descent until bold, confident

smiles return to these Americans’ faces.

American sadness, let’s make it clear,

is exceptional. Unlike what you may

have heard, it doesn’t always talk

softly, but it always carries a big stick

because no one is sad the way an

American is sad. No one drags his feet

through the dullness of a day, or

walks with her eyes looking downward

quite as sadly as an American who

feels sad because America is losing

a battle, coming in second, or washing

ashore with empty pockets and bad breath.

American sadness, of course, is the greatest

sadness in the world—do not look it

in the eye unless your intention is

to make amends. Do not settle for a

knowing grin, or a sliding into place

of the proper order of thought or things.

Work hard, do your best, and fight

whenever a fist is called for, or a bomb

needs to be dropped upon a civilian population

whose greatest misfortune is not being American.

But above all, keep American sadness at bay

like a ship that wrecks off shore through

instability or from fault of navigation.

Let’s remember to keep America happy.

Let’s keep America entertained.

.

In capturing the beauty and terror of one life, Jose Padua’s poems are subtle, ironic, precise, and socially aware. Seeing an American flag painted on a garage, remembering the taste of meals that his mother learned to cook when she was growing up in the Philippines, putting his children to bed knowing that he cannot protect them from an unjust society, watching the evening news with a jaundiced eye – these are the moments Jose Padua evokes to wake us from our long unhappy American dream.


Essay copyright 2017 Michael Simms. Poems copyright 2016 Jose Padua. All rights reserved. 

To read more poems by Jose Padua, click here.

One comment on “Michael Simms: The Very American Poetry of Jose Padua

  1. anisioluiz2008
    January 4, 2017

    Reblogged this on O LADO ESCURO DA LUA.

    Like

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