My European Jaunt, Radio, Nameplate | Poems by John Grey


When I traveled through Europe,
every woman in every hotel in which I stayed,
was either young and beautiful
or very old and white-haired and a countess.
There were no in-betweens.
Nor was there a middle ground
between opera at La Scala in Milan
and the accordion player in the outdoor cafe
off the Champs-Elysees in Paris.
No gruesome pop music.
No third-rate rock bands warbling
in cut-rate English.
It was either grand divas or atmosphere
and nothing else.
I watched Real Madrid play soccer
and kicked a ball around a piazza
with some Italian kids.
I toured fabulous palaces
and the modest houses
of two or three of my on-the-road companions.
I admired the young and beautiful women from a distance
and I sat back enthralled
when the ancient countesses held court.
I was in thrall to Tosca’s splendors
and yes, a sip of latte, a bite of croissant
and a touch of the Edith Piafs
was like the perfect zip code
to my travails in France.
I roared with the crowd.
I laughed with the figliolos.
And Versailles is everything they say it is
while Angelique’s abode is charming.
Okay, I confess,
I did slip into a McDonalds once.
But the girl behind the counter was young and beautiful.
And, at a back table, an ancient countess
dipped French fries in ketchup.
Besides, I was only there to use the bathroom.
I swear to you, no hamburgers were consumed
in the making of this poem.


They gathered around the radio then.
Dinner over with, the family retreated to the parlor.
Father turned the knob. Transistors slowly
hummed to life. The solitary speaker cleared its
throat. Then came a singer, female, rousing,
sending the boys off to war with loud and patriotic tonsils.

She had no face, no body, but in their heads she did.
Father rode her cleavage with every high note.
Mother saw her brassy, blonde, but a good girl behind
the makeup. The daughter dreamed herself into high
heels and tight red dress but her vocals less a belter,
more seductive. To the son, she was America
singing right at him. By the time the number finished,
he was ready to fight.

It was still a time of bread-lines, soup kitchens.
Europe was a madhouse. Americans held their breath.
But they had cheesy song, they had kitsch,
they had what moved the heart, they had altos,
they had red hot mamas, they had torch singers,
and, if that didn’t stir, there was always
“God Bless America.”

The radio shaped the conversation.
It was Stars and Stripes,
It recruited.
It was a huckster selling war bonds.
It was a president’s crackling fire.
And when talk couldn’t convince,
on came a songstress from the heartland,
catchy numbers you could tap a bayonet to.

Boys died with tunes in their head.
Or they came home, notes rattled,
chords shredded, verses blotted out,
but the chorus, though wounded badly,
still on the tongue.
The radio welcomed them back into their old chair.
Their blood no longer needed,
they sang along to the hit parade.
Television was on the horizon.
Until then, a kind of victory would have to do.


How sad the eye
roaming a brass nameplate.
Faithless vowels.
Consonants weeping over
rusty screws.
His elbow takes
one desultory shine
to what his mother
first called him
sixty years before.
It’s five o-clock in the afternoon,
a telling time for office furniture.
Computers shut down.
Drooped shoulders lift.
Coats on racks
fall into line
with grabbing fingers.
But a man on his last day
can barely push his chair back.
Much as he hates the place,
he has no wish
to emigrate.
He leaves the nameplate
where it is,
figures the company’s so cheap
they’ll hire another
Frank Smith,
just so they won’t have
to replace it.
Maybe that’s the new Frank Smith
he saw in Personnel,
coming in as he was going out.
So many Frank Smiths in the world.
A man tries to explain it
but a nameplate says it best.