1991 Pulitzer nominee Poetry

‘Watch for Hail’ when Life’s a ‘Bed of Roses’

Mirthology column, 1st run Wednesday 18 April 1990 in the Arkansas Democrat

By Ben S. Pollock
Copyright 1990 Ben S. Pollock

Retirement had been no bed of roses for Mildred Lynch Pierce Fenner Smith, especially since it was not voluntary. The recent visit from the governor, however, meant an escape from leisure.

Mildred reprimanded herself for the phrase “bed of roses,” but her anger at his request blurred her thinking. She believed such cliches arise because they fill a need for people much too busy to speak originally.

The governor had pushed Mildred, state poet laureate, into the land of emeritus — with a proclamation and plaque — because her talents no longer were consistent. Her attempts at rhymes, increasingly, skipped entire vowels.

The other day, however, the governor called on her to commission a project. He said he needed her creativity to put a law into action.

Mildred almost scalded her hand on the teapot.

The measure was sound: Warn people about the dangers of water. The nation had been swept with regulations affixing labels on beer, wine and liquor. Cigarettes had had warnings on their packages for years.

“‘Water kills.’ That’s what the signs need to say, but make it pretty, could you, Mrs. Lynch Pierce Fenner Smith?” the governor asked.

“Mrs. Smith is sufficient. Sir, what is the logic behind the water law? Look at tobacco. Daily morning coughing jags, shortness of breath after walking a block, chest pains when the boss looks at you cross-eyed — after all those symptoms, will a surgeon general convince smokers?” Mildred said, then thought of another objection.

“You know, what I’d write, governor, if you had given me the beer and booze assignment? ‘Alcohol burs thinking, impairs bodily functions and can be addictive — that’s why some people like it.'”

“Yes, dear, but water warnings will reduce our liability insurance premiums. The ‘We Tried to Tell Them’ defense is good for a 20-percent discount. I need your touch on all three lethal forms — solid, vapor and liquid.”

Mildred thought a moment and recited:

“Watch for hail
“When you fetch the mail.”

“That’s beautiful. That’s awful. That’s perfect,” the governor said, then elaborated after Mildred glared at the “awful.”

“Mrs. Smith, prose warnings are too matter-of-fact: ‘Slippery when wet.’ ‘Road may ice in winter.’ Those never get noticed,” he said.

“People are too stupid to drive slowly after an ice storm never believe such highway signs are meant for them,” she said. “What do you want of me?” Sometimes Mildred was a bit intolerant. Maybe it was her age.

“The Legislature wants a printed version of corny commercial jingles, the inept kind that race around your head hours after you’ve heard them,” he said, putting on his coat.

After that last insult, Mildred wished she hadn’t served the governor tea in her best china. A politician is more used to disposable cups imprinted with slogans.

Yet, she had been bored these last months. She got out a yellow legal pad.

Mildred initially considered fooling the state government by writing well. Then she understood her job. No one pays attention to clear writing.

A committee’s a commission, after all. She often wrote to order in the old days, though people demanded quality verse. Now, she settles for “bed of roses” even when thinking to herself.

She began writing with a good fountain pen.

A sticker to be affixed on all steam kettles:

“Grab a mitt or a potholder,
“For when you hear the whistle,
“That kettle didn’t grow colder.”

Meter, rhyme, both are fine, Mildred thought with a smile. Now for bathtub posters:

“They say cleanly is next to godly
“And scum always rises.
“But when your bathtub walls turn gray,
“Your quest toward divinity
“Could land you on your bum.”

Scum-bum. A diagonal rhyme — moving from internal to end-of-line — is barely acceptable. Thank heavens her rhythm is intact. She’d lose her pension if she ventured into free verse.


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