Three Johnny Carson Poems

by | Jul 21, 2022

Plaque Depicting a Quail Chick, Unknown, Egyptian, Ptolemaic Period (332–30 BCE)

The parrot in this one can talk


The bird at first was rescheduled

Johnny had bronchitis, could not speak

the parrot she replaced died the night before air


When the bird flies off into the crowd —

I think this is what you call the parrot’s bit

her handler tells Johnny the bird only chatters

in total silence, that the bird loves water sounds

she fills a glass and the studio quiets for liquid hum


Perched atop her cage, the parrot does not speak

the stage lights make Johnny sweat

and what about her? Perhaps she’s used to it

the heat, the eyes, the greedy hands and mouths

do it now, do it now, speak baby, speak girl


In the audition video her handler made, the bird stands 

in front of a mirror. She says to herself, pretty bird

she invites herself for coffee

she presses her face 

to her glass face and whispers, porridge

her handler echoes behind: say here’s Johnny, here’s Johnny

her belly is blue, she is a pretty bird


Johnny calls her delicious, calls her silence show business

King Vulture, Meissen Porcelain Manufactory Germany, Modeled by Johann Joachim Kändler

The rooster on Johnny Carson cannot crow

First, he shakes out his wings

like he could take off from the desk

I know this part

sit on a dream

refresh email on the hour

maybe today, maybe today


Johnny wants to know how many,

how many chicks does this rooster get

Johnny wants to know what his flock is like

ask him, says his handler, I really don’t know

the rooster is past his prime

he mostly sits around, you know, roosts


The last time I fell in love

it was because we were a continent apart

really, I lived on one coast and him on the other

until he flew to me, until he took off —


The rooster shits on Johnny’s desk

he used to crow enough each day

to be entered into competitions

once one starts to crow, they seem to answer each other 

the handler says of the bird 

sound named after another

now, he is silent, now he —


I started wanting bigger dreams

I wanted movies, books, writers’ rooms

I wanted to be seen, to be really seen, to be —


A man in my town published a love letter to his wife

he told her grow, he told her, I want the world to know


When they come back from commercial,

the rooster sits on Johnny’s desk

the rooster does what they thought impossible

up goes his red flappy head, his yellowed beak

a rattle, a song, a crow rings out

and Johnny waves his hand

a brief conductor of sound

Johnny Carson interviews gorillas in overalls

I knew my dog would shiver

and since our home was in Philadelphia

the sweaters were necessary

and I tried not to laugh

at the first time he saw snow

at how he recoiled his paw

from the sleet on our steps

and I tried not to coo 

as he walked us to the coffee shop

where they gave him free milk bones

or at how he pawed at me to lift him

as we returned to the iced city street


I tried to find him sweaters with dignity

argyle and earth tones, no frills

when I offered him booties 

it was the only time 

he tried to nip me 

and we both looked in sorrow

as he crawled under the couch 

unsure if I could ever again be trusted 

or wondering if I would again trust him


When they brought the gorillas 

to meet Johnny Carson

he called them his guests

they were twins, five months old

their keeper rolled them onto the stage 


in a double-seated stroller. That face is so human 

when they look at you, Carson confesses

as the baby grabs onto his thumb

and then grips just above his ear

right onto his hair, pulling flesh

until Carson laughed

while the overalled creature

stared and stared

rolling their eyes

as the audience roared

Juliana Roth

Juliana Roth

Juliana was selected as a VIDA Fellow with the Sundress Academy for the Arts for her fiction and is currently seeking a home for her novel and collection of short stories. Her writing appears in The Breakwater Review, Your Magic, Irish Pages, and Entropy as well as being produced as independent films that she directs. Her web series, The University, was nominated by the International Academy of Web Television for Best Drama Writing and screened at survivor justice nonprofits across the country. Currently, she teaches writing at NYU and writes the weekly newsletter Drawing Animals (subscribe here: featuring essays, interviews, doodles, and podcast episodes celebrating our interconnection with nonhuman animal life.