Do I Hear an Alarm, or is Someone Reciting Free Verse?

Evelyn Waugh gave Edith Sitwell a pocket air-raid siren, which she would set off when people asked her whether free verse is more truly poetic than rhymed.

The Letters of Nancy Mitford & Evelyn Waugh


Edith Sitwell

 

As I turned the lock on the vault at the First Third Short National Bank, I could tell I was thisclose to realizing my dream; rolling in piles of dough, rifling safe deposit boxes for jewels and rare baseball cards, maybe even finding a pen in a bank that worked.

“You’re a freakin’ master,” my getaway car driver Mitch said. “It’s like watchin’ Einstein play the piano or sumpin’.”

I smiled at him and said “Thanks,” but held my finger to my lips. “I’ll need absolute silence.”

“You got it pal.”

Click-click-click I heard through my stethoscope. One more turn to the right and the tumblers would all fall into place! I held my breath and eased the dial ever-so-delicately with my fingers, but jumped back startled when I heard an alarm!

“What did you do?” I asked as I turned to look at Mitch.

“Nuthin’–I didn’t do nuthin. Except . . .”

“Except what?”

“Well, I did mumble a little sumpin’ to myself . . .”

“You fool!” I screamed, packing up my safecracking tools. “What was it?”

“Roses are red, violets are blue, I like chocolate, and you can’t skate.”

……………………………………….

The sky was dark and foreboding. There was a stillness in the air, an eerie calm that seemed to presage an unseen, unknown calamity.

The wind picked up a bit–I could tell by the way wisps of grandma’s hair were blowing where they came loose from her bun.

And then I heard it. The tornado warning siren from the National Guard Armory. There was no time to lose!

“Papa-daddy!” I shouted to my father. “Tornado’s comin’!”

My mom emerged from the kitchen, where she’d been canning okra and rhubarb for the winter. “Gramma!” she shouted, “into the root cellar–tornado’s coming!”

Grandmother turned her face to the wind and tilted her head towards town, the better to hear.

“We’re all gonna die!” my little sister Baby Elizabeth cried.

“No,” my grandmother said, slowly and thoughtfully. “That’s not the tornado alarm–”

“It’s not?” I asked as I tried to pull her out of her chair.

“No, sweetie,” she said. “That’s the siren they blow when a surrealist poet commits the pathetic fallacy.”

…………………………….

It was time for our monthly “duck and cover” drill, a routine we were all growing a little tired of. Yes, the Russians had the atomic bomb, yes Nikita Khrushchev had threatened to “bury” America, but still, the silly routine of getting down on the floor and covering our heads to protect ourselves from nuclear fallout had grown tiresome. We were all hooked on phonics, and would have much preferred to practice our “th” and “ph” sounds. Besides, I was tired of looking at Timmy Rouchka’s butt.

And then we heard it. A low moan at first, rising in pitch until it became a horrid scream–this time it was for real!

Sister Agnesita drew the blinds, the better to keep out radioactive isotopes such as strontium 90, the secret ingredient that enabled kids who wore Paul Parrot shoes to run faster and jump higher. “Hit the floor, kids!” she yelled as she comforted Susan Van de Kamp, whose show-and-tell presentation on the dikes of Holland would have to be postponed for the nuclear armageddon.

Just then the classroom door opened and we saw the principal, Sister Mary Joseph Arimathea. “Back to your multiplication tables,” she said brusquely.

“What happened?” Sister Agnesita asked with a mixture of relief and confusion.

“Some dingbat named e. e. cummings tripped the alarm.”

 

Available in print and Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “poetry is kind of important.”

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One thought on “Do I Hear an Alarm, or is Someone Reciting Free Verse?

  1. And cummings doesn’t even have capitals in his name. I feel sorry for Susan! Dykes are much more interesting than multiplication tables!

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