It filled the screen from midnight until dawn
After the late show, anthem, station sign
In those brief early days of innocence
When television broadcast black and white.

The pattern was rectangular, abstract,
Made up of wheels and numbers, blocks and lines
To measure shape, proportion, light and dark,
Its soundtrack shrill – the sine wave’s monotone.

But centered at the top as pure décor
A chief in profile stared beyond the set
In eagle-feathered headdress, beaded shirt
With cheekbones high and eyes and lips severe.

Painted in ’38 for RCA
The chief looks grave and ancient and concerned,
A guardian spirit troubled by his charge,
Fair meadowlands so near where badlands are.

For by the time his image was replaced
With blank plain color bars the episodes
Of which he seemed the genius were no more
Or ran in syndications few would see:

Leave It to Beaver, The Andy Griffith Show
Where fathers talked with sons of right and wrong
Or Gunsmoke where Matt shot an outlaw down,
Then said to Chester “he was just no good.”

And now when desperate housewives have displaced
June Cleaver, Harriet Nelson, and Aunt Bee
And even primetime viewing is PG
We long for Adam, Hoss, and Little Joe.

Today test patterns have no further use
For stations that stay on throughout the night
With infomercials, porn, recycled news
Or repeats of Seinfeld’s inanities.

The painting of the chief was thrown away
In a dumpster when wrecking balls knocked down
In ’70 the home of RCA
But then was found and e-bought privately.

And yet his image still is made and sold —
A nightlight by which children safely wake
On cartoon Saturdays as did their folks
When they turned on the chief’s test pattern screen.

David Middleton

Until his retirement in June of 2010, David Middleton served for 33 years as Professor of English at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, Louisiana. In April 2006 Middleton won The Allen Tate Award for best verse published in The Sewanee Review for 2005. In November 2006 Middleton won the State of Louisiana Governor’s Award for Outstanding Professional Artist for 2006. Middleton’s books of verse include The Burning Fields (LSU Press, 1991), As Far as Light Remains (The Cummington Press [Harry Duncan], 1993), Beyond the Chandeleurs (LSU Press, 1999), and The Habitual Peacefulness of Gruchy: Poems After Pictures by Jean-François Millet (LSU Press, 2005). Middleton’s newest collection, The Fiddler of Driskill Hill: Poems (poems of Louisiana North and South) was published by LSU Press in the fall of 2013.

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