Fairy Tales, Forward and Reverse: Marilyn Singer’s Mirror, Mirror

As anyone who knows me can tell you, I have a slight—just slight—obsession with formal and experimental poetry. It’s not a problem, really, no matter what any of them might be hinting. (You should also all ignore the story about me rolling right into a wall while trying to work out a final line for a villanelle because although it’s absolutely true that I was too engrossed in that thought to see, well, a wall, it’s also equally true that this or something like it has only happened maybe once. Ok. Maybe ten times. But who is counting?)

Combine formal or experimental poetry with fairy tales, and you have me.

Even if those poems are tucked away in a children’s picture book.

Marilyn Singer’s 2010 Mirror, Mirror, contains exactly those sorts of poems. The poems are a format Singer herself created, called reverso. In her words:

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.

And one that often gives a completely different point of view, as here:

Cinderella’s Double Life

Isn’t life unfair?
Stuck in a corner,
while they’re waiting for a chance
with the prince,
dancing waltz after waltz
at the ball,
I’ll be shining
these shoes
till the clock strikes midnight.

Till the clock strikes midnight,
these shoes!
I’ll be shining
at the ball,
dancing waltz after waltz
with the prince
while they’re waiting for a chance,
stuck in a corner.
Isn’t life unfair?

Singer claims she was originally inspired to write these poems by her cat, which makes sense, given their contortionist abilities, and then saw the reverso poems as a writing challenge. In Mirror, Mirror, she also turned to fairy tales for inspiration: the book contains takes on Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood, The Ugly Duckling, Snow White, Jack and the Beanstalk, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Hansel and Gretel, Rumpelstiltskin, The Frog Prince, and Beauty and the Beast, along with two bookending poems that aren’t exactly based on fairy tales, but are about fairy tales and the challenges they present. Each poem is matched with a full page opposing illustration by Josée Masse. Cleverly, all of these illustrations are also near mirrors, divided perfectly into two equal halves, one for each poem.

Naturally, the poems vary in quality. “Have Another Chocolate,” the Hansel and Gretel poem, feels forced and awkward, particularly in its attempt to switch from “goose” (as in, food you eat) to “Goose!” (as in the insult) between poems. My sense is that, given the need to keep this book relatively safe for small children, Singer may have felt the need to pull back from the potential horror of this poem and its situation. That in turn makes the poem’s second half—the half where the narrator is attempting to warn the kids about their fate—a little less powerful, even apart from the slightly awkward word choice. “Full of Beans,” the Jack in the Beanstalk poem, hardly changes when read up or down, somewhat defeating the point of the poem’s structure. “In the Hood” attempts to start with Little Red Riding Hood’s point of view, before using the same words for the Wolf—but again, perhaps thanks to the need to keep the book small child friendly, the poem doesn’t quite manage the trick, robbing this poem of a real punch.

Much more successful is the poem that immediately follows it, “The Doubtful Duckling,” which starts with a duckling firmly convinced that he can be a beauty—before rethinking this thought. I’m especially fond of the opposing illustration by Josée Masse: a duckling with the tail of a swan looking down into the water, seeing a swan with the tail of a duckling, with the reflections nearly blending into each other. It’s lovely, as is the poem, which works on both an adult and child level, and also manages to be one of the most lyrical pieces in the collection.

The other poems fall more or less in between these highs and lows. Read in either direction, “Disappointment” is a great twist on “The Frog Tale.” “Mirror Mirror,” the poem which gave the collection its name, manages the rare trick of adding a touch of horror for adult readers that will—or at least should—fly right over the heads of small listeners heading to bed and (hopefully) a night free of nightmares. “Bears in the News,” is one of the more clever poems in the collection, and a clever take on Goldilocks as well. The illustration for this poem is equally clever—half of a golden Goldilocks in front the shadows of bears, half of a shadowed Goldilocks in front of three brightly lit bears.

It’s a children’s book, certainly, but one that I think can introduce smaller children to the fun and challenge of word play—and one that even a few grown-ups might want to take a look at—if only for the fun of the wordplay, and as perhaps a slightly more gentle introduction to fairy tale poems than, say, the works of Anne Sexton.

Mari Ness lives in central Florida.

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