In the 1970s, American psychologist Gordon Gallup Jr. developed a self-recognition test, commonly known as the mirror test, that attempts to measure cognitive self-awareness in animals. With a mark somewhere on the animal’s body while unconscious, the animal is then given a mirror when it wakes up, and, as the theory goes, if the animal investigates that mark, then it is proof that it perceives the image as itself and not as another animal. There has been a fair amount of criticism leveled at Gallup Jr.’s test, including the fact that it can result in false negative findings and that certain animals, such as dogs, for example, rely on other senses more strongly rather than sight to perceive the world around them. Still, there is something to be said for the phenomenon that occurs when one sees their pet look at themselves in the mirror, when, after the initial barking or scratching, a puppy or kitten realizes that the image is not another dog or cat, but rather themselves. For Katherine Indermaur’s I|I, the world is built on this recognition, and with philosophical insight and poetic questioning, Indermaur reveals not only what lies behind the reflection one sees in the mirror, but into the fears and hopes that are both written and unwritten on one’s body and being.
Winner of the 2022 Deborah Tall Lyric Essay Prize from Seneca Review Books, I|I dives into Indermaur’s examination and confrontation with the self, with the pieces on the page—which read more like prose poems rather than sections of an essay—detailing the struggles of acceptance, understanding, and growth. The book begins with Indermaur looking at historical and societal purposes of mirrors and the cultural uses that have continued from the past into the present:
One of the cardinal virtues, Prudence, is often signified by a beauti-
ful young woman holding a mirror. Originally conceived by Plato to
be a useful virtue for those with the power to make decisions, Pru-
dence is the mirror on the wall telling you the fairest girl is someone
The mirror enables self-correction, like smoothing my hair, or pul-
ling basil from between my|my teeth, or anything that begins as fix-
ing. (p. 6)
Nietzsche said that when we stare long enough into the abyss, the abyss stares back, and if we stare long enough into a mirror, we are bound to no longer see ourselves, but instead the flaws that we would like to fix. For Indermaur, her reflection has dissolved into “self-correction,” into ensuring that her hair looks presentable, that she doesn’t have food stuck in her teeth, that she looks like she has the “power to make decisions.” In many regards, she doesn’t just want to appear trustworthy, but she wants to feel confident and beautiful, powerful even. While it may be easy for some to see their reflection as an opportunity to acknowledge that the image is the one they are satisfied with (either because they have crafted it as such or have learned to accept what is in front of them), for others, looking in the mirror is not an innocuous task. Such an action can exhume negative memories of the past, reminding them of instances where they have not always felt comfortable or whole with themselves. This is by no means a problem only younger individuals face (which can often be a commonly accepted societal notion), and as Indermaur highlights with her grandmother, the desire for one’s flesh, despite age, doesn’t always match up with expectations:
Every night my|my grandmother slathered her face in Vase-
line. I|I imagine pillowcases stained clear. White stained to translu-
Was this to protect her skin from aging or to protect her skin from
her own hands? (p. 9)
The anxiety and uncertainty that Indermaur feels might continue in the same manner that it’s occurring with her grandmother, and at the end of the section, she is left to ask, “What stain have I|I inherited?” The answer could be shame, regret, or some combination of the two that Indermaur’s flesh, in Indermaur’s eyes, has never quite matched the potential is was capable of achieving, but it will never be ignorance of her own feelings, of the understanding that we don’t have bodies, but are bodies, and as such are directly affected by the ways in which it morphs, for better or worse, as we age and mature.
As much as Indermaur wants to look inward and contemplate the ways in which she feels about her own appearance, looking away (from the mirror and from contemplation) is sometimes necessary, despite how difficult it might be. In the excerpt above, Indermaur alluded to the philosophical and historical context of mirrors, and in the excerpt below, she turns her attention to faith and God:
Is God not Narcissus, having made from His own image and then
What object am I to think my|self subject? Subjected to this staring
again and again and.
Prophecy is the ability to see with clarity, then speak.
God saw the light, that it was good. God has seen in every direction,
one of which is away. (p. 45)
The debate about God’s intentions and the extent to which God can wield power over humanity is as old as religion and philosophy itself, and if God, according to Christian scripture (Genesis 1:27), forged his beloved subjects in His own image, shouldn’t we see ourselves as perfect? Shouldn’t we look in the mirror and not have the inclination to see physical imperfections that quickly translate into emotional insecurities? Indermaur isn’t saying humans aren’t made in God’s image; rather she is saying that they precisely are, that they are as insecure as they are narcissistic, just like God (one only needs to read the Ten Commandments to see God’s jealousy and neediness). Furthermore, Indermaur is examining the omnipotence of God and His ability to look away from the world. If He has the power to look away, and if she is made in the image of God, then she too has the power to not stare at her reflection, to not see the imperfections she can’t help but see, and to not be plagued by the endless questioning of one’s self-worth. This is a realization that she has power and choice, that she can sway the direction her sentiments move toward, and choose happiness when it doesn’t always appear to be within reach.
Nevertheless, while this realization has the potential to turn into action, making changes proves to be much more difficult. Indermaur traverses various scenes and landscapes throughout I|I, relatively poised on every page. However, the more questions arise and are left unanswered, the more we start to see the ways in which she loses control of a definitive self. Whether she is looking in a mirror or interacting with a child, Indermaur’s possessive pronouns and determiners start to separate:
While it may seem as though the self is echoing out into the world, the duplication is actually a result of the fracture that Indermaur is experiencing. Who she is and who she wants to be are separating, like a cell undergoing mitosis, and although the split is not yet complete, we are witnessing her struggle with these two selves. The rupture is leaving her mortified and unsure what she should do to regain a sense of who she truly is. By the end of the book, it’s not entirely clear that Indermaur has found an answer, but she has found at least a comparison to her suffering:
Indermaur doesn’t look to God this time, but rather Jesus, and she realizes that if she is to attain the right state of mind, and thereby salvation on a personal level, she must sacrifice the uncertainty she has carried all these years about her body. Here, it’s unclear whether Indermaur considers death as her solution, but she does at least acknowledge that it is a path, one that people no doubt take to relieve themselves of the pressure they’ve experienced for so long.
At the end of the collection, we get a more definitive and hopeful statement of what Indermaur will ultimately do about her anxiety and fear when she states “(I) refuse to put anything to death” (pg. 72). Indermaur’s “I” is no longer splitting, but is contained now (through parentheses, which appear for the first time around an “I” in the book), and that contaminant shows the newfound grasp she holds on the self. There is another journey that will take place beyond the pages of this book, and perhaps there will be new uncertainties that arise. However, Indermaur’s exploration of who she is (through mirrors, through God, through circumstances predictable and unexpected) has also given rise to a new kind of acceptance, one that lifts the burden of expectation and refocuses on living in harmony with her mind, body, and spirit.
Esteban Rodríguez is the author of seven poetry collections, most recently Limbolandia (FlowerSong Press, 2023), and the essay collection Before the Earth Devours Us (Split/Lip Press, 2021). He lives with his family in south Texas.