Katherine Indermaur’s I|I, winner of the 2022 Deborah Tall Lyric Essay Book Prize, is a philosophical and personal meditation on visual perception. Science, etymology, cultural history, and psychology lend support to supposition in this poetic essay pondering “my own seeing.” In brief passages separated by space and frequently divided by either a black diamond or a sketched eye, Indermaur derives insight from myriad sources of information and deftly incorporates them into a riveting quest for understanding.
The lyric essay is a relatively new form, a subgenre of creative nonfiction and the personal essay. Deborah Tall and John D’Agata wrote, “The lyric essay does not expound. It may merely mention . . . It might move by association, leaping from one path of thought to another by way of imagery or connotation, advancing by juxtaposition or sidewinding poetic logic.” I|I’s fragmentary nature reminded me of a notebook—a repository for brief observations, references, quotes, and analysis. In her presentation of intellectual discoveries and arrangement of discursive musings, Indermaur’s essay effects wonder. Simultaneously, her poetic craft imbues the text with music, power, and beauty as in this excerpt: “To see our own eyes is to gaze straight at the lag rooted in the loop of / light from mind to mirror and back.”
Mirrors and the analysis of words that relate to seeing and being seen are integral to I|I’s exploration of vision, appearances, and self-regard. This passage illustrates Indermaur’s braiding of fact, definition, and speculation:
A 1968 experiment determined that most people can hallucinate
when they stare at their own reflections in a mirror. To fall into a
trance state. Trance, from the Old French transir, to depart, from the
Latin transire, to go across.
A trance is the psyche split. Subject|Object. The other in the self.
Particle and wave.
The vertical slash seen here, in the book’s title, and throughout much of the text is both a mathematical line of divisibility and a symbol called the Sheffer stroke which means “nand” or “not and” in logic. Indermaur explains it thus in the Appendix: “Either of the figures astride the Sheffer stroke can be true, or neither can be true, but both cannot be simultaneously true.” Here is a representative passage in which the symbol conveys existential duality:
One morning after I|I’d picked my|my skin raw, my|my husband
stood beside me|me in the bathroom mirror while I|I attempted to
cover it up. If the mirror were an instrument of truth, looking at him
in the mirror would have felt like a conduit. Instead, it
was the misalignment of air.
The Sheffer stroke dividing the first-person pronoun from its repetition produces a stuttering that bespeaks confusion and a debilitating self-consciousness associated with the facing of one’s own face and reflecting on one’s reflection. The vertical slash trips the reader, who stumbles onward, thereby enacting Indermaur’s vivid portrayal of psychic incoherence. The persistence of mirrored personal pronouns throughout I|I powerfully conveys exigent attempts to comprehend and overcome a chronic compulsion to self-harm.
The first third of I|I contains the doubled first-person pronouns and subtle allusions to the destructive possibilities contained in mirrors, but the preponderance of confessional revelations begins on page twenty-five. From that point on, not only was my cognitive attention engaged, but my sympathies were also animated. Indermaur involves the reader’s affective domain by granting intimate glimpses into emotional distress and crisis. The decision to subvert societal apathy and judgement, so often associated with mental health issues, imbues I|I with compassion and offers an open, inviting fellowship.
Mirrors in fairy tales, Aesop’s fables, Shakespearean tragedy, and poetry act as touchstones for contemplation. Greek mythology becomes metaphor in I|I as seen here:
I want sobriety from my body, to be clean of my|my body’s compul-
sions—my|my hands, my|my fingernails, my|my skin never quite
smooth. I|I am my|my own weapon: Medusa whose snake tresses
turn their fangs to the flesh of her own soft cheeks. Medusa whose
jawline is overlapping puncture wounds. The choice between sever-
ing each serpent— whose bones are mine, whose blood is my|my
own—or looking past the pain of their betrayal, the pain of this vis-
In the paragraph above, three words are severed into syllabic portions so that their suffixes drop off and begin the following line. This curious option at times goes even further into unorthodox division, such as the demarcation found on page forty-one, “Fall as- / leep holding this silent shape inside” where the syllabication deliberately deviates from what is considered proper and normal. These aberrational choices accentuate damaged self-perception and the uncontrollable, stigmatizing behaviors that lead to further damage.
A number of pages in I|I begin with “A practice” suggesting an activity or exercise that almost always involves mirrors. The second to the last practice invokes doubting Thomas from the New Testament, the disciple who personifies “seeing is believing”:
A practice sanctioned by Jesus: Put your fingers into your wounds.
Worry yourself open. Make yourbody transparent in spots. Like
there is a truest layer, a deepest surface.
Oh little wounds, little faith. Belief: Scry again and
As in this instance, the majority of practices in I|I trail off unfinished, suggestive of the extreme difficulty in eradicating a condition that perpetuates and makes visible one’s suffering and shame. Unlike the passage cited earlier, the words here are not divided into syllables. These sentences are short and neatly end stopped, whereas the previous passage mostly consisted of long, lunging utterances with dashed asides, the focus switching from the speaker to Medusa and back again. Also in the example cited above, two words are compounded into “yourbody” which creates an uncomfortable and startling compression that suggests the psyche’s captivity in a corporeal cage.
Focus on diction is foundational to I|I with a strong emphasis on the evolution of words and their personal relevance. The verb “scry” from the excerpt above appears repeatedly throughout the book, often as a self-directed command to seek hidden knowledge. Throughout this lyric essay, Indermaur offers the reader knowledge she has found in her meditations on mirrors, light, faith, relations, and language. “On a page, there is room for forgiveness. There is space. To say, then / see the saying. The blessing of literacy is its lag.” Clearly, Katherine Indermaur’s I|I reflects the power of words, thoughtfully inscribed, to move us closer toward well-being.
About the Reviewer
Linda Scheller is the author of two poetry collections, Wind & Children and Fierce Light. She serves as a board member of MoSt Poetry, and volunteers as a programmer for KCBP Community Radio. Her website is lindascheller.com.