The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Dana Gioia’s “Counting the Children” is a long narrative poem, comprising fifty-six stanzas (fifty-five of them unrhymed tercets) across four sections. The poem’s first section details the investigation of a Mr. Choi, a court-appointed auditor (and the persona of this poem), who is led into the house of a deceased woman by a neighbor. “When someone wealthy dies without a will,” Mr. Choi is “sent out by the State/ To take an inventory.” The neighbor recounts to the auditor the dead woman’s eccentricities: “She used to wander around town at night/ And rifle through the trash. We all knew that.” The neighbors, however, apparently never took time to notice what it was the woman was digging for in the trash. Certainly, it could not have been for anything valuable: She was a wealthy woman.

What both the investigator and neighbor discover, in the aftermath of the woman’s death, is that she had been collecting cast-off dolls. The neighbor, shaken by the discovery of this grotesque collection, tells Mr. Choi, “Come in,I want to show you hell.Stretching from floor to ceiling, wall to wall,” “A crowd of faces looked up silently./ Shoulder to shoulder, standing all in rows,/ Hundreds of dolls were lining every wall.” Significantly, this is “Not a collection anyone would want—/ Just ordinary dolls salvaged from the trash,Some battered, others missing arms and legs.” In this macabre scene, the dolls “looked like sisters huddling in the dark,/ Forgotten brides abandoned at the altar,Rows of discarded little girls and babies—/ Some naked, others dressed for play—they wore/ Whatever lives their owners left them in.”

Mr. Choi recognizes this scene as tragic: “Where were the children who promised them love?” He realizes, “Now they have become each other—/ Anonymous except for injury.” While the dolls’ tragedy is clear, implied is the dead woman’s own tragic situational irony. Wealthy as she was, she had no wealth in friendship. Like the dolls, she was “anonymous except for injury.” Her attempt to rescue the unloved dolls was also her attempt to rescue her own...

(The entire section is 871 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Gioia is highly regarded as a neoformalist or expansionist poet, as he and others of this contemporary generation call themselves. As a new postmodern, or twenty-first century school, the intent of the expansionist poet is to revive the old traditional forms of poetry and to expand them in new, innovative ways. Gioia’s “Counting the Children” is written in unrhymed tercets, with the exception of a final, single line that closes the dramatic narrative. Sectioning the poem, as he does, Gioia moves readers through the poem’s plot and subplot, from the macabre scenery of the old woman’s doll room, to the surreal nightmare that coalesces Mr. Choi’s occupation to the dolls, to his daughter and ancestors, and then to the real fear of losing his promise of love. As the poem moves in three-line stanzas, the readers are taken to three types of realities, each nightmarish in their own fashion. Consequently, the form of Gioia’s poem mirrors the thought.

When the neighbor woman tells Mr. Choi, “I want to show you hell,” Gioia sets up a well-executed allusion to Dante’s Inferno, from La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802). The neighbor woman acts as Vergil, who will lead Mr. Choi, the Dante-visionary, into the chasm of the old woman’s doll room. In the Inferno, Dante must pass through the various chasms of hell before he can come to enlightenment and redemption; he must become accountable and know the abomination...

(The entire section is 427 words.)