The Poem

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 871

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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 unloved heart. So full of love herself, so needful, she gives her affection to the dolls who, like herself, had been cast away. As Mr. Choi notes, “all affection is outgrown,” and “Dust has a million lives, the heart has one.” Ironically, despite this momentary epiphany, Mr. Choi does exactly as all had done to the old woman and to the dolls: He “turn[s] away” to make his report.

In the second section of Gioia’s poem, Mr. Choi recounts the dream he subsequently has that same night. In his dream he is “working on a ledger,/ A book so large, it stretched across my desk,/ Thousands of numbers running down each page.” He has an account to settle, but, as he calculates, the numbers begin “slipping down the page.” He realizes that nothing he ever did would fit together, that all his calculations would turn up “back to nil.” He remarks, “In my hands even 2 + 2 + 2/ No longer equaled anything at all.” At the culmination of the dream, Mr. Choi sees his whole family standing beside and behind him, including “cousins I’d never seen,/ My grandparents from China and their parents.” This vision shifts from the family to the realization that “now I wasn’t at my desk/ But working on the coffin of my daughter/ And she would die unless I found the sum.” However, the numbers caught fire, and the dolls were there, “screaming in the flames.”

The third and shortest section leaves the surreal dream to Mr. Choi’s waking aftermath. He sits up in his bed, certain he has screamed; however, when he looks over at his sleeping wife, he realizes he has not. This transitional section places Mr. Choi amid the incongruities of the dead woman’s world, his surreal nightmare, and a reality where his night terror brings him to his infant daughter’s room in vigil. The poet writes, “I felt so helpless standing by her crib” because “In the bare nursery we had improvised/ I learned the loneliness that we call love.”

The last section provides a summary of the effects all these stimuli have upon Mr. Choi. He feels as if he has had a vision, something one might believe accountants are incapable of having. Yet, in that vision, he sees that “We dieand we are one/ With all our ancestorsThe ancient face returning in the child,/ The distant arms embracing us.” The vision illustrates how people are the products of all past loves and all past promises as much as they are the products of the injuries they suffer when those loves and promises fail. Mr. Choi determines he will not let go of his daughter, that she will not endure the death of lovelessness as prophesied by his dream. Yet, in the darkness of his daughter’s bedroom, he sees that she has lined up three dolls on her shelves, in the manner the old woman had placed her salvaged loves. He remarks, “I felt like holding them tight in my arms,/ Promising I would never let them go,/ But they would trust no promises of mine.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 427

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 of sin. Appropriately, the accountant Mr. Choi must take inventory of all those “lost” dolls and, in his dream ledger, the lost ancestors, those forgotten, broken, anonymous masses. Just as Dante takes the trip into hell and returns, Mr. Choi’s vision takes him on a similar journey. Whereas Dante’s hell is the afterlife, Mr. Choi’s hell is very much the present world where promises do not last. The sin of Choi’s hell is “the loneliness that we call love.”

Gioia also alludes to William Butler Yeats’s “The Dolls.” Just as Yeats’s dolls disdain the dollmaker and his wife for bringing a baby into their home, the dolls of Gioia’s poem disdain and would scream at a man they cannot trust. In both poems, the undying artifact—perfect because it does not die—has reason to scorn the impermanence of human love. The live baby in Yeats’s poem is a thing of filth; in Gioia’s poem, the filth is the human betrayal of love, no matter to whom or what it was originally given.