Self-reflection. Common topic for writers, of course. We like worrying about the nature of, the meaning of, the various -nesses and -isms of ourselves. “Self, comma, the” is prevalent in the index of every poet’s autobiography.
The ability to see yourself reflected, physically, is what makes us human, as opposed to just human-shaped, according to our own lore. By which, of course, I mean vampires, and their inability to cast a reflection (though the self-recognition ‘mirror test‘ is a whole other fascinating topic).
And so, a mirror poem. “The Gentleman of Shallot” by Elizabeth Bishop, which has a charming tone in its logical exploration of an absurd idea. (But how absurd, really, is any metaphor for construction of the self?)
The Gentleman in question, having noted that neither of his eyes “is clearer/nor a different color/than the other” decides he must be half looking-glass:
He felt in modesty
his person was
for why should he
The glass must stretch
down his middle,
or rather down the edge.
But he’s in doubt
as to which side’s in or out
of the mirror.
There’s little margin for error,
but there’s no proof, either.
And if half his head’s reflected,
thought, he thinks, might be affected.
One of the delightful things in this poem is his curiosity. Although he realizes that “If the glass slips/he’s in a fix—/only one leg, etc.” this danger doesn’t bother him. In fact he loves the uncertainty. Such bemusement and whimsy are so often missing from more typical angsty, confessional poetic self-explorations, in mirrors or out. Alfred Corn’s “Infinity Effect at the Hotel Soubise” is one such poem, and though I like how clearly the description there calls up the effect of mirror reflecting mirror —
Itself multiplying illustrations of itself,
But always smaller—false worlds of even
Balanced on the real one, which is odd
— is quite lovely, and the depression that can come with being a solo tourist abroad, “the case of being foreign,/Visiting monuments no one visits” is well put, however I find the poem does not give me more upon more readings.
Of course, one can’t talk about mirror poems without mentioning “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” by John Ashbery, the long title poem of his 1972 book that won just about every big award there is. (Page navigation is toward the top of the page in the link). It’s a step away from a mirror poem, of course, as it regards a painting of a reflection in a mirror. The weaving of exact description with history with what is felt and thought in this poem makes it one I like to stand in front of for a while, as the painting itself is for Ashbery.
Bishop’s poem ends “He wishes to be quoted as saying at present:/’Half is enough.'” which, though it flirts, as she often does, with corniness, strikes me as being just right. And lest you think Bishop’s Gentleman’s notion of self as half-looking glass is entirely fantastical, there is now a method of curing phantom limb pain using mirrors to trick the brain into thinking the missing limb still exists to be soothed, or indeed to be ‘amputated.’ It puts the Gentleman of Shallot’s musings on the self, in a way, to practical use.