In the living room of our cottage there are two reddish-orange wooden boxes, one with silver art deco design, both as old as any of us can remember. They’re filled with toys my father and his brother and sister played with, plus a few my developmentally disabled brother played with, long beyond his years—two large steel trucks, a steel airplane (or “aeroplane” back then) with one wheel missing, a raised wooden pound-a-peg bench with hammer, and several pull toys, among other things.
The joy of the pull toys is that they do something, they bob or clack or ring bells. For a child, there’s a sense of power, of making something happen. Or was. These days the smallest kid can make an entire world appear on a screen with one touch. Back then, the pleasure was in the mechanical.
The grandchildren are too old for these toys, but they drag them out anyway because that’s part of the ritual, seeing what’s there all over again each summer. They’re battered but probably valuable. We don’t care — they’re to play with.
The poem by A.E. Stallings celebrates the pull-toy. This particular one nods its head and wags its tail as it’s pulled. It gets abused, as toys do, falling over as it’s being pulled, being abandoned as the child grows. But then, there’s always the hope of some other child picking up where last one left off.
The pleasure of this poem is partly in its simple rhyming. It’s a song In your head — the words “lackety-clack” and “glanced back” chiming against each other so that you almost become a child again as you listen.
And it’s not just the rhyme. If you listen carefully, you can hear that the lines go like this: four beats, then three, then four, then three. This is a classic ballad stanza, the same rhythm as hymns, as nursery rhymes (“Jack and Jill went up the hill/ to fetch a pail of water”). Many poets have used this form for poems that want to tell a simple story, or to suggest a nursery-rhyme.
Sometimes that form is deceptive. The poet Emily Dickinson in the latter half of the nineteenth century used it for profound thoughts about life and death. Not so simple.
In A.E. Stallings’ poem, the simple toy is outgrown. It sits “hunched” with “no hope.” It’s dreaming of being led away from a rummage sale, once again strung along by someone “just like you.” That’s another thing about the ballad form — there’s often a sense of circularity. The story is somehow everyone’s story, because things go on and on. The form is as old as the hills, and will keep on beyond us.
A. E. Stallings is from Georgia, but now lives in Greece. She’s both a translator and a poet. In her own poems, she often uses traditional forms. Her most recent collection is Olives, from Northwestern University Press, 2012.
Fleda Brown of Traverse City is professor emerita, University of Delaware, and past poet laureate of Delaware. For more of her work, and to see her website, go to www.fledabrown.com.
The Pull Toy
You squeezed its leash in your fist,
It followed where you led:
Tick, tock, tick, tock,
Nodding its wooden head.
Wagging a tail on a spring,
Its wheels gearing lackety-clack,
Dogging your heels the length of the house,
Though you seldom glanced back.
It didn’t mind being dragged
When it toppled on its side
Scraping its coat of primary colors:
Love has no pride.
But now that you run and climb
And leap, it has no hope
Of keeping up, so it sits, hunched
At the end of its short rope
And dreams of a rummage sale
Where it’s snapped up for a song,
And of somebody—somebody just like you—
Stringing it along.
— A. E. Stallings, from Five Points, Vol. 14, no. 3.