The Mouse’s Tale

First published in A Vote for Alice (Foster City, California: Press Here, 1992), my political parody of Alice in Wonderland, or at least two chapters thereof. See the Press Here page for this book. Those who didn’t live in the United States in the 1980s might not remember this poem’s references to the Iran-Contra affair, Oliver North, or Robert Bork, but you’re welcome to look them up. See the original poem by Lewis Carroll, in two different versions, on Wikipedia. Also see the postscript at the end, with an anecdote about the challenges of typesetting this distinctive poem. See also “Alice’s Chain of Thought.”


The introduction for my political parody, A Vote for Alice, was by Sandor Burstein, former president of the Lewis Carroll Society of North America, and avid collector of Lewis Carroll materials. Once, when I was visiting him at his home in the Sea Cliff neighbourhood of San Francisco, in preparation for the publication of this book, I lamented how difficult it was to typeset my parody of the “Mouse’s Tale” poem, not just to make sure it “got to the tenth bend,” as mentioned in my prose that followed this poem (Carroll’s original text said “fifth,” to match the original layout), but to lay out the prose preceding the poem so the poem could start naturally at the top of its page. But even though modern computer technology (even in 1992) had made typesetting easier, the poem itself was still very tricky. When I said this, Sandor took me to his “Alice” room where he pulled out one of many drawers in a tall wooden flat-file case. And then he handed to me, in a protective cover, an original letter from Lewis Carroll himself. He had written it to Macmillan, publisher of the 1865 Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland book. In the letter, Lewis Carroll (his real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) complained about the publisher’s typesetting of the “Mouse’s Tale” poem. And there I was, holding that letter in my hands, more than 127 years later. I was still having the same challenges, and typesetters continue to have the same difficulties today, trying to typeset text that gets progressively smaller while arranging the words in smooth bends to resemble a mouse’s tail.

And if you want to know how I solved the problem, it was mostly mathematical (entirely fitting, since Dodgson was a mathematics don at Christ Church College at Oxford University). I counted the number of lines in the poem, knew the point size of the first line, decided what point size I wanted the last line to be (not so small as to be difficult to read), and calculated incremental point size and leading changes for each of the intervening lines to get from the starting point size to the ending point size. And then I had the painstaking challenge of positioning each line to the left or right to make pleasing curves for each of the poem’s ten “bends.” What appears here was recreated in 2020, using InDesign software (in 1992 I had used PageMaker for the original layout of A Vote for Alice). Lewis Carroll’s original poem was revolutionary in its day, being one of the most famous and earliest examples of concrete or emblematic poetry.

—27, 28 December 2020, Sammamish, Washington

The jury said to the louse, that testified before the house, ‘Let us all go to law. We will prosecute you— Come on Ollie—no denial! We must have the trial, for we and the Contras have nothing to do.’ Said the louse to the courts, ‘Such a trial’s out of sorts. With no tanks or ammo, we’d be wasting our breath.’ ‘I’ll be judge, I’ll be a dork,’ said bumbling old Mister Bork: ‘I’ll try the whole cause and con- demn you to death.’