Saturday, May 29, 2010


Once again, StorySleuths asked poet Julie Larios to apply her wisdom to a book of poems that fascinates us—Mirror Mirror: A Book of Reversible Verse by Marilyn Singer. We are fascinated not only by the form of the poems, but also by their content—both Grace Lin, in Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, and Marilyn Singer, in her Mirror Mirror poems, use fairy tale stories and themes—but in very different ways.
Julie, an award-winning poet and the author of four poetry books for children, is on the faculty of Vermont College of Fine Arts, teaching in their Master of Fine Arts in Writing for Children program. Julie has treated us to two wonderful StorySleuths posts focused on poetry books: Red Sings from Treetops: A Year in Color and All the World.  

Now we are delighted to share Julie's insight about Mirror Mirror, as well as one of her very own poems, with you.

Verses Reversed
I admit to having a weakness for poetic forms. They’re like all lovely vessels – glass pitchers, for example - that we pour liquids into. The liquid takes on the form of the vessel which contains it. Only with poetry, the vessel (the form) has the power to produce the liquid which fills it up.

Sounds complicated, doesn’t it? In fact, it sounds alchemical. That’s because it is. Poetry does have something of that ancient art at its core– it is, after all, based on transformation (what else is the art of the metaphor but the art of change?). When a good book of formal poetry comes along, one which fulfills the promise of turning a poem into more than just the sum of its parts – well, let’s just say I’m a happy camper when that occurs. And it occurs with Mirror Mirror: A Book of Reversible Verse by Marilyn Singer. The reverso is the vessel, and the poet fills it beautifully. Voila – gold! Here is what Singer says (in the afterword of the book) about reversos:

We read most poems down a page. But what if we read them up? That’s the question I asked myself when I created the reverso. When you read a reverso down, it is one poem. When you read it up, with changes allowed only in punctuation and capitalization, it is a different poem.
All of the reversos in Mirror Mirror are based on fairy tales. Nestled alongside gorgeous images of castle towers, wishing wells, forests and dungeons (the illustrations by Canadian artist Josee Masse do their visual mirroring job exuberantly and intriguingly, playing with split screens and shadows) the poems – two per double spread – read down at first, then get flipped to be read backwards.  Here’s one of Singer’s nicely controlled reversos titled “In the Hood,” based on the tale of Little Red Riding Hood.  First comes the poem told from the point of view of Little Red:
In my hood,
skipping through the wood,
carrying a basket,
picking berries to eat—
juicy and sweet
what a treat!
But a girl
mustn’t dawdle.
After all, Grandma’s waiting.
That’s nicely done – a cute rhyme with a good control of the formal aspects of full rhyme (hood/wood and eat/sweet/treat) and meter. Nice, though not alchemical. Here comes the transformation: a second poem on the page, to the right of the first, told from the point of view of the wolf this time. It starts with the wolf contemplating getting to Grandma’s house and eating her up. But then the Big Bad Wolf spies the girl:  
After all, Grandma’s waiting,
mustn’t dawdle….
But a girl!
What a treat,
juicy and sweet,
picking berries to eat,
carrying a basket,
skipping through the wood
in my ‘hood.
So nice! The voice is handed over from one character to another, the lines are read in the reverse order, and the reaction occurs - alchemy! In the first poem, reading down, the line “juicy and sweet” describes berries; in the second version, laid out in reverse, it describes the girl. The words “Grandma’s waiting” are sweet when spoken by the girl, but when spoken by the wolf, they become sinister. And there’s the double entendre of hood and ‘hood – one small apostrophe transforms the meaning of the word. If you think that sounds like a simple thing to do, try writing one!
Actually, several people did try writing one, over at The Miss Rumphius Effect in April. Here’s a look at what they did.
I even gave it a shot, but no gold: My contribution can be read in reverse, so I managed to make sense, but the meaning is not changed, there’s no transformation.  I filled the vessel only part way:
The Singer

It’s a neat trick,
This slick reversal:
Can I handle
The movement, the tick to tock,
the click to clack of it,
the back to back -
I mean, the down to up?
I love the frown-to-smile of it,
The way that Singer sang it.
I’ll try it.

I’ll try it
the way that Singer sang it:
I love the frown-to-smile of it -
I mean, the down to up,
the back to back,
the click to clack of it,
the movement, the tick to tock.
Can I handle
this slick reversal?
It’s a neat trick.
Nice try, but no prize. I didn’t rhyme (except for a few internal rhymes) and I didn’t reverse the meaning. For Marilyn Singer to have designed an intricate form (shaped the vessel) and then filled it while also making sense, rhyming, creating a metrical beat, changing the meaning, often changing the speaker’s voice, then focusing all of the poems on fairy tales  - well, taking on that level of difficulty really is the sign of a fine craftsman in her glory, having fun.
So give it a try! To inspire you, I’ll leave you with one more wonderful example; Singer’s reverso this time tells two stories of Beauty and the Beast:

A beast
can love
A moist muzzle
can welcome
a rose.
A hairy ear
can prize
a nightingale, singing. 
Beneath the fur,
A soft heart
a soft heart.
Look beneath fur.
A nightingale singing
can prize
a hairy ear.
A rose
can welcome
a moist muzzle.
can love
a beast.

StorySleuths Tip # 74: Don’t be afraid of formal restrictions! They can take you places you would never get without them. So be brave, experiment, push the boundaries, and have fun.