Monday, April 8, 2013

Short Take: "Girl with Gerbil," Don Russ

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Don Russ’ 2011 poem “Girl with Gerbil” has a simple conceit: there are ways a child with a pet is analogous to God. One of the comparisons is fairly benign. Like God with humanity, the girl creates the world and the stars for the animal. But the most interesting aspects of the poem are the implications raised by the emphasis given to the child’s innate narcissism. The girl “dreams herself,” and looking into the mirror, “she sees as much as says/I am that I am.” With that last bit, Russ wittily extends the child’s narcissism to God. "I am that I am" is the meaning of Yahweh, the name God gives for himself to Moses. As the poem continues, Russ invites the reader to see all God’s acts as Creator as fundamentally ones of self-absorption. The duality of tone Russ achieves through his central conceit is quite remarkable. With regard to the girl, it’s charming and rather sweet: these attitudes are steps into responsibility and towards maturity. With regard to God, they’re amusingly subversive and rather chilling. God’s perspective on Himself and His actions is no different than that of a child’s self-view? Russ flirts with blasphemy, and the underhandedness is a key part of the poem’s achievement.

“Girl with Gerbil,” by Don Russ, originally appeared in the Summer 2011 issue of The Cincinnati Review (cover above). It is featured in The Best American Poetry 2012, edited by Mark Doty and David Lehman.

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