Book Review

“Odds” are handicaps that offer a weaker player a chance of winning against a stronger one. In adopting baby Suzhou from China, Daneen Wardrop is doing just that—increasing Suzhou’s odds of survival in a world where girl children may be seen as liabilities. In witty, playful, syntactically complex poems, The Odds of Being, on one level, unfolds as a traditional narrative dotted and interlaced with thoughtful digressions and lyrical asides. On another level, The Odds of Being weaves a skein of language that is strong enough to hold our truths yet is sensitive to the ways language itself—”words taking sides”—can alienate us from truth altogether.

On this initial, narrative level, The Odds of Being is Cinderella’s story, or rather Yeh-Shen’s*, the Chinese counterpart of Cinderella. The poet has set out on a journey to rescue a baby girl from a Chinese orphanage; she takes the child to be raised in the rich kingdom of America, where gender doesn’t matter and everyone is the king of his own life. The poems touch on simple, everyday experiences, like waiting in airports, listening to advice about hiccups, sitting beside backyard swimming pools, feeling the exhaustion of mothering an infant; but on another, deeper level, they touch on the imminence of change and the dichotomies of language that affect our experiences, engendering fear and subverting truth.

Fairy tales from various sources thread their way through Wardrop’s poems: the selkie seal-woman, Mei-Mei, the witch in Hansel and Gretel, Emily Dickinson’s goblin, Little Orphan Annie, Oliver, and Heathcliff all make appearances. In the opening “Scenes” of the narrative, Wardrop’s alter ego, a poet from Qiaozhow named Touxu, makes an appearance in the first poem and reappears later. When he is first introduced, he “takes a moon out of his pocket.” The poet’s shoes, in this poem, fit like bridles, like foxgloves. The poet, we are told, “eats rice and cloud and wipes his chin with moon.” (“Late Scape”). Like the references to fairy tales from various countries, the poems are full of references to nursery rhymes—runcible spoons, the lyrics of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” the chimney of the witch’s hut. Wardrop’s language and syntax often have a playful, even daffy quality that seems authentic and charming, and that blends inner and outer worlds:

Sing the song that looks under its bed
                    I will call and call into a mouse hole.

Or in “Insomnia with a Fairy Tale in It,” the poet writes from exhaustion,

 My clothes are tired of themselves, and crumple.
 They pick their corner.
Moon picks another.

In one of three long poems in the book, “To Suzhou,” the poet describes the trip to China to get her daughter with a group of other adopting mothers:

When a baby is born it screws itself out into the world,
                    When I fly to any Beijing I fly upside down—
the junking aero-tail.

. . . .
The first stroke in the character for infant is
the upturned bottle, the quieted mouth.

The Chinese character for “infant” has an experiential quality, visual, emotional, that the poet captures in her own poems, where lines fan out across the page in a kind of skein, or where ordinary syntax is set aside to reach a deeper emotional core. Many phrases and lines in The Odds of Being are touched by magic. An ordinary street, for example, “wears its light vest of water” (“Entr’acte; or Scene Only the Window Fan Sees”). In “Birthday Profile,” about doubles and fetal ultrasounds, the poet/narrator imagines that the fetus lines her like “internal skin.” In “Scene Disposing of Place,”

Sky's tympanum—
                    The unformed behind each runcible of lightning—
. . .

                    a passing car shears the watered street.

Some of my favorite lyricisms occur in the long, last section of this collection, “Variations on a Pear”:

The tea-bag for this room,
                    it fills a cup
          lined with windows and frames.

With a decorum at times stately and recalling an earlier time, Wardrop skillfully interweaves description and lyric song with more thoughtful, penetrating statements and even a kind of epigram. Her avowals and statements, which—unlike poets of the Modern Period—she is not afraid to make, are beautifully wrought, as in these lines from “Scene that Could Be Used as a Ladle”:

Fear is a wish to leap
                    to the white plain
before change.

Wardrop, a Dickinson scholar, doesn’t pose Hamlet’s famous question in The Odds of Being, but she does quote Emily Dickinson’s haunting “Which anguish was the utterest—then—[to perish, or to live?”] in the poem “Emily Dickinson’s Goblin.” In this complex poem, Wardrop seems to pose a series of questions about the relationship of language to human fear. Dickinson (and the poet Wardrop) want “to find the way inside language / / . . . . Can the goblin follow you there?” This goblin, like all existentially scary beings, wants to make you jump “to the white plain / before change” that Wardrop refers to in the earlier poem, “Scene that Could be Used as a Ladle.” The goblin warns, “Be careful what you say.” But the poet—whether Dickinson or Wardrop—replies “Be say”—that is, “find the way inside language” where “letters rattle no more and words draw / skein after skein into themselves   and you can / breathe /   pause rasp / it gets purpler—Can the goblin follow you there?”

At a few points, symbolism or intellectual concept may rend the fabric of Wardrop’s verse, where the filaments of metaphor and idea are perhaps stretched a bit too thin. In “Scene That Curls Edges,” for example, the poet writes, “My body would have known by its evaporation and condensation/that I painted the sun.” These ideas are well considered, and not simply mannerisms; but to my ear, these moments—fortunately rare—lack the lyricism of the rest of the work. In “Entr’acte; or Scene Only the Window Fan Sees,”

What will happen out in the yard tonight,
                    Only the fan, yawning in air, knows,

Truth lies in an undifferentiated place.

Here, once more, Wardrop weaves her theme of the ways language can be used to defeat truth by its strict dichotomies. In The Odds of Being’s syntactically complex lines that spread across the page, weaving back and forth like a piece of cloth, Wardrop stitches lines, “knot-side, down-feather,” to hold what she knows and loves, glinting and flickering through the fabric. The odds are infinity to one that seasoned poets and readers will find here much to admire and to learn.

* Yeh-Shen wore fish-scales and her legs tapered like a mermaid’s. She, like Cinderella, lives with a mean stepmother and stepsisters, but manages to attend a ball dressed in a beautiful gown and gold slippers, and to dance with the handsome bachelor king. She loses one of the slippers, but when the king finally discovers that the tiny gold slipper belongs to her, he naturally marries her.

About the Reviewer

Zara Raab writes about the fault lines between city dwellers and the poor, rural townspeople to the north. Her poems and articles have appeared in Arts & Letters, White Ink, West Branch, Nimrod International Journal, Poetry Flash, and elsewhere. Her book Swimming the Eel will be out next year from David Robert Books. She lives and writes in San Francisco.