Peter Neil Carroll – The Americans

Peter Neil Carroll
The Americans

                    The last Thursday in November…is the one day
                    that is purely American. — Sydney Porter (O’Henry)

After the turkey’s been sliced and eaten, my thoughts
turn to past Thanksgivings, hosting our open house,
the old folks gone, reading O’Henry aloud to the kids,

but now as adults they propose another post-prandial
binge, beyond boring pumpkin pie, to watch a TV series
aptly named The Americans about Russian spies,

based on ‘a true story’ — a New Jersey couple who
raised a typical suburban family as they seduced
clueless citizens and ferreted government secrets.

Aliens by birth and training, the characters adjust easily
to indigenous lifestyles — pizza, Coke, TV and hang out
over beers with their close neighbour, an FBI spy catcher.

Their parallel lives blur, as their children have crushes,
the real Americans divorce, and the fakers stick as true
lovers committed to the cold warrior code of violence.

Tending to home fires, the spooks conduct their crimes
with shameless guile — wear shades, wigs, beards, and lie
to all, and reveal a subtle expertise in killing their foes.

On this purely American day, nonetheless, I’m rooting for
the enemy, as the filmmakers apparently intend. Compared
to the counter-spies, the Ruskies treat each other kindly.

The liberated mother shares equally the thrill and danger
of fighting against a country run by dull men and grooms
her daughter in the fine arts of karate and espionage.

Even when trapped, our fugitives escape as smoothly as
Houdini slipped lock and chain. They are me in my wildest
fantasy of freedom, beating Big Brother and the gods of law.

Peter Neil Carroll – Last Lecture

Peter Neil Carroll
Last Lecture

Film and history, my last lecture approaches though
there’s no reason to call it the last, except for my age
and apprehension. I could repeat it next year, surely
I can, but should I? Why this ambivalence?

Much has changed; movies, audience, my students.
I’ve learned the logic of rear-view mirrors, 50 years
stretches the gap between then and now, between
them and me. Some have seen their last screening.

One or two constants remain — chickens and eggs —
why do they appear in almost every American movie?
Scrambled eggs for breakfast, fried chicken for lunch;
walking on eggshells, chickenshit ideas, eggheads.

No one believes me but there they are — written by
screenwriters, items on Hollywood menus, symbols
of dare: Paul Newman’s Bet you can’t eat 50 eggs! or
James Dean, the rebel yelling Don’t call me chicken.

Now I urge this last class to remember young Beneatha
in Raisin in the Sun. She demands a world of choice,
wants to be a doctor, but her brother Sidney Poitier
tells her to become a nurse or get married or shut up.

In movies, women know things men know nothing of.
Plots about manhood wind up being about mothers,
sisters, wives. Men go to war, come home with PTSD,
bewildered by emotions they lack and women provide.

Pay attention, I plead — I won’t be here to remind you —
the movies are real life. We are all Beneathas or Bogarts
or Brando mumbling, ‘I could have been a contender.’
Even if the end seems fated, they refuse to stop, as do I.

Movies claim the last word, the last kiss, the last laugh.
Actors who are stand-ins for the rest of us speak again,
arise and insist it’s not too late to start over. Is it ever?
Let the credits roll, lights dim, I see my screen is fading.

Martin John – Bargain Hunt Tackles Climate Change

Martin John
Bargain Hunt Tackles Climate Change

Bargain Hunt is a TV game show where teams buy junk at a market to resell at auction.
At the end the host summarises the results and reveals the winners:

‘The Blues went ahead from the start –
who knew a grimy Victorian factory
clock would be so profitable.
But gambling with poker chips set them back.

No-one cared for the modern globe
though a little TLC could have restored its beauty.
They missed the signposts, when the expert spotted a Way Out
it seemed expensive so they didn’t bother.

The Reds, struggling from the start,
took a chance with a smoky old pipe rack.
Afraid to fall behind they ignored the expert
and followed the others.

So no winners this time but we all had fun
and it is only a game.’

Neil McCarthy – We didn’t read the news

Neil McCarthy
We didn’t read the news

I was at my usual booth, half a cold cappuccino
in front of me, my daughter crawling over my lap
in an attempt to crayon the paper I was reading.
The man at the table across the floor looked like the
prison warden from The Shawshank Redemption.
Whatshisface. I’d seen him in a few things recently.
He smiled. Stared just long enough for it not to be
awkward. Probably had a flashback of his little one
doing the same some forty years or so before.
His wife lowered her newspaper too and looked over
at my daughter, watery-eyed, as if picturing herself
at the same age; not a care in the world and more
concerned with colouring things in than reading
those little black shapes that make everyone angry.
Bob Gunton. That was him. The true miscreant of
the tale. That character you sit and watch and pray
that they get their comeuppance. I looked down at
my table and hoped I hadn’t stared back long enough
for it to have been awkward. I took my daughter’s
tiny hand and guided her crayon straight across the
front page of my newspaper, carved a waxy orange
line through the column about war; added green
to the political article, purple to the images of
Wall Street men transfixed by their sanctity of screens.
We took turns shading a bit here, another bit there,
exchanging crayons until the prismatic pages began
to glow like a city at night – a metropolis viewed from
a distant hill where the engorgement of colours is just
enough to help us briefly forget about the smaller,
anger-inducing shapes within.

Ian C. Smith – Tobias in the Toilet

Ian C. Smith
Tobias in the Toilet

Son, self-possessed, overbold, likes speculative fiction; Dad, much older, is thankful son reads, closing some of the gap he feels always separated them, many of twenty-something Son’s activities falling between irksome and baffling, but always fervid. Son knows all the spate of sci-fi movies from dystopian to disappointing Dad eventually catches on TV so they share a subject for discussion.

Dad, who prefers literary fiction, essays, poetry, bought Ulysses at Son’s vexatious age, having started to read his newspaper’s books pages. Noticing many references to Joyce he thought it time he discovered what such regard was all about. He thinks the last time he threw a book across a room was after trying to relate lyricism to his idea then of that fabulous beast, the English language.

Holidaying together in the family shack, Dad walks the edge of an ebb tide recalling how, when he picked up that upside down hurled book, he discovered another story starting from the other end, two for the price of one. He read all of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, felt he understood Joyce although he knows now this understanding was preliminary.

He finds aspects of movies he can honestly praise after checking Google’s likelihood of flimflammery. Son, nudged towards Tobias Wolff’s account of his Vietnam War service, enjoys the book. Dad spots it in the toilet where Son reads, then tells him Wolff, a handful as a kid, turned out well, alert as he talks, sharing their view of the beloved harbour overlooked by a mountain, of how his own beginnings, tattooed on his brain, turned out.

Meryl Statford – Phone Booth

Meryl Stratford
Phone Booth

The elegant red phone booth of long ago
The phone booth of heroic disguise
The phone booth marching through London in seven-league boots
The phone booth of truth or consequence
The phone booth on the ocean floor
The phone booth in a no-talking zone
The phone booth and mail box in an old folks home
The phone booth in love with a violin
The phone booth of secret midnight calls
All the lonely phone booths
A phone ringing in a phone booth and no one answering
A phone call from John Wilkes Booth
Signing a three-year lease on a phone booth
Repairing and recharging cell phones in a phone booth
The improbable phone booths of Ancient Egypt
The phone booths of hell and their unending conversations
In dreams, the phone booth of telepathic communication
The meditation of a phone booth — a Fibonacci sequence
A transcendental time machine trapped in the form of a phone booth
Every phone booth reminding you — it’s time to call your mother
An imaginary phone booth for imaginary friends
A phone book of abecedarian poems

David Subacchi – Telephone

David Subacchi

Telephone transported our voices through cables
Hoisted on wooden poles above the ground
Or laid secretly on the ocean bed.

We spun dials and spoke into receivers,
Strained at ear pieces, sometimes wound handles,
Sought the advice of the Operator.

As impatient queues formed outside kiosks,
Wind intruded through vandalised panels,
Aggravating our nervous discomfort.

Confined we retched at the smell of vomit,
Stale urine or cigarette smoke, cringing
Within these communication capsules.

Little we thought that during our lifetime,
Both image and audio would be compressed
Into a portable chocolate sized bar

And communicated effortlessly,
Free from discomfort and interference
Or the need for external assistance.

David Subacchi – Raymond

David Subacchi

In those days Raymond was the media
Or the medium, apparently
Either singular or plural will do
In modern English, yet very few care
About such things and Raymond would not have,
With a battered Nikon around his neck,
The worn leather strap threatening to break
If subjected to the slightest impact.

When anything happened in town, Raymond
Was quickly on the scene, as if summoned
By a demanding angelic vision;
Highway collisions, fires, protest marches,
Weddings, funerals and celebrations;
In his grubby slept-in suit and old shoes,
Necktie never straight, cigarette hanging
From urgent lips that mumbled ‘Excuse me’

Crowds would part politely, ‘Here comes Raymond’
They’d say, ‘Something big must be happening,
Let the guy through, watch out for that big lens’
Yes in those days Raymond was the media,
His pictures adorned the local paper
And though he is twenty years gone now,
Little is known about his private life,
Which they say, is what he would have wanted.

Bob Ward – Carte de Visite, Leeds, 1884

Bob Ward
Carte de Visite, Leeds, 1884

Young Jeremiah Gains, carte de visite, Leeds, UK, photographer unknown, 1884

                           Great Uncle Jerry:
                              twelve years old in sepia,
                              bowler-hatted, smartly buttoned up,
                              with an elegant walking-stick,
                              left hand holding a floral spray
                              as if it had been thrust upon you.

                           Put in your place for this photograph,
                              you don’t convince me you’re at ease;
                              perhaps the required rigid pose
                              for a long exposure suppresses
                              the merest chance of a smile;
                              you’re incubated in an oval mount.

                           I guess that you’ve been marshalled
                              through the studio door by relatives
                              as a Victorian rite of passage,
                              post-school, into a quasi-adult life
                              shut up in an album by your family.

                           Now I revive you with my attention,
                              bring you a childhood memory,
                              just one, of you as an elderly bachelor
                              who baffled me with a conjuring trick –
                              items disappearing under cups . . .

                           These days I conserve your photograph:
                              flowers droop but what became,
                              I wonder, of that walking stick?
                           Don’t forget to carry it
                              next time you come visiting.

James Broschart – HGTV

James Broschart

Watching well into the night again
to see
 if the couple who clearly
do not understand one another
will finally make up their minds 

and decide to either love it or list it, 

whether they will muster up the courage

to pick the fixer-upper or the budget-buster, 

or will remain, still miserable, in their

current house, obviously not a home. 

I’ll take the rental on the top floor in Paris

in spite of the steps and the small closets, 

or the two-bedroom on the beach in Costa Rica

with the view of ocean breakers that never quits.

So what if the kitchen lacks a dishwasher, 

and the toilet flushes only with the aid of a bucket. 

Forward my mail to Greenland, where I’ll claim
that house perched high on a rock

they say is too small for two.