The two crows, who seasonally raise a family in the Western Hemlock that graces Quincy Jones' niece's house across the street from mine, are at their winter perch in the naked branches of the ash tree next door. And this morning is so clear I can see the Cascades from my upstairs window. Last night I rediscovered the poet Jim Simmerman, who died in 2006, and whose Twenty Little Poetry Projects generated an anthology, Mischief, Caprice and Other Poetic Strategies, edited by Terry Wolverton, published by Red Hen Press. Theodore Roethke wrote, "poetry is an act of mischief." In this blog entry I'll write briefly about the words mischief and caprice, and secondly about Jim Simmerman's poem "Yoyo."
It is a mistake, I think, to conflate the notion of mischief with the notion of play. To play a prank on another may be considered play, but, if the play is mischievous, I'm inclined to believe it may be harmful or, at the very least, annoying. I don't remember play as an annoyance. My uncle Phil, a noted prankster and bully, once threw several black-cat fireworks into the fireplace fire while my dad was dozing on the sofa. The explosions so frightened my dad, a WWII era vet, he nearly cried. Dennis the Menace isn't mischievous, he's a neglected little boy. Puck, if I dare mention Hank Ketcham's and William Shakespeare's creations in the same breath, is a mischievous character; he knows his pranks are painful to his targets and, in the end, he asks us to forgive him. Play, then, in my mind is actually harmless; mischief is not. Pranks are adolescent. Caprice suggests unpredictable, whim, vagary—abstractions, none of which, are particularly comforting. How is poetry mischievous? How is it caprice?
In Jim Simmerman's poem "Yoyo," we meet a boy (it's safe to assume we meet the poet as a boy) who is excited about going hunting with his "distant country cousins." The boy, though, isn't excited about killing birds; he's excited about "rising with the birds," which he mistakenly conceives as the act of flying: "like we'd all just open our eyes and stretch/ our arms and fly right out the windows,/ ...". The cousins, on the other hand, think the boy is a "yoyo" meaning idiot, dope, fool, and, as the poem moves forward, we see the boy, bird-like, flapping his arms to warn the doves, "fly away! fly away!"—here there is a reference to St. Francis that's immediately negated so we know we're not going to take a high road, so to speak. The word yoyo signals the poem's first turn. We're now in another distant memory, a birthday party at which the boy (the poet) was "made to be king and wear a paper crown/ made to stand up as they said my [his] name wrong. I was made/ to applaud the Yoyo Man as he spun/ his way through a dozen foolish tricks:/ ...". The Yoyo Man performs his tricks poorly. Gives every guest at the party a plastic yoyo except, maybe "he couldn't even count," the birthday-boy, our speaker. Tears ensue. But in the end the Yoyo Man slips his own yoyo onto the boy's finger, which signals another turn. The poem gets overtly philosophical, and we're brought into the present, "...I lost the yoyo/ years ago and never missed it till today,/ or the Yoyo Man...". So can the turns in the poem be considered caprice? We go from this story to this story. We're asked to think about hunting; we're made to think about St. Francis, then not; we're made to see the boy as king, etc. And, to add to the caprice, the poet, throughout, has been repeating the line, "I can only think I've killed something." We don't know what that is nor why he's saying it; but, in the poem's final stanza, the poet says "But still I act like it's alive, like/ it'll come dragging itself home somehow and, so I suppose my cousins were right:/ I am a yoyo. ... duping myself with a dozen dumb tricks, ...".
The poem might be whimsical in its evocation of the innocent boy and his rougher cousins; poignant in its evocation of the Yoyo Man and his clumsy attempts at entertainment. Simmerman may even be considered mischievous in that he sets us up for a light, entertaining memory—we've all been an innocent fool, we've all experienced some less-than competent entertainer. Maybe Simmerman's caprice can be found in the turns the poem takes: first we're hunting, now we're at a birthday party, now we're considering some "it" that's been killed. In the end though, what might make poetry mischief and caprice is that it often, like Simmerman's poem has, stabs us in the heart when we don't expect it: We're all Yoyo Men, yanked this way and that, even the sun is "spinning up like a yoyo in the east." We keep believing the thing we've killed (our innocence? Our ability to believe? That we'll change? Our creativity?) will come back. We keep doing things compulsively. Maybe, in a poem, mischief and caprice are tools that work in tandem to teach us something.