Susan Donnelly’s poem “Eve Names the Animals” playfully reimagines the Biblical notion that Adam named the animals during the time when he and Eve lived in the Garden of Eden. According to Donnelly’s poem, Eve herself gave the animals names that differ greatly from the ones by which we know them today. It seems clear, for instance, that the animal we call “dog” was originally named “spider” by Eve. She explains, for instance, that when she would go on morning walks,
Only spider accompanied me,
running up to lick my hand. (18-20)
It would be difficult for most of us to imagine any creatures more unalike than a spider and a dog, and so Eve’s decision to call a dog a “spider” is just one of the many clever and witty aspects of the poem. This lyric helps us imagine a world that is simultaneously both familiar and highly unfamiliar.
Eve’s decision to refer to Adam as “that man” (4) can be explained in at least three different ways, all of them compatible with one another:
- Donnelly wants to suggest that Eve is her own woman – that she feels far more independent from Adam than we usually imagine her to have been. Indeed, she even feels somewhat distant from him and critical of him. The phrase “that man” can be read as expressing a tone of mild (or maybe even not so mild) exasperation. Eve, after all, literally distances herself from Adam later in the poem, and here a sense of psychological and emotional distancing seems implied. Perhaps, however, her tone is partly comical; perhaps her exasperation is partly humorous and merely pretended. In any case, the phrase “that man” implies her ability to distance herself from Adam.
- A far more practical reason that Eve refers to Adam as “that man” is that Donnelly wants to surprise us when Eve later casually reveals the alternative name she had chosen for her mate. When we first read the phrase “that man,” we can’t yet anticipate that Eve will have given Adam a different name, too. After all, the title of the poem suggests that she will only name the animals, not her husband. The phrase “that man” is thus an effective technique of used by Donnelly to achieve a postponement that doesn’t even hint at what is to come.
- When we do finally learn Adam’s alternate name (“finch” ), the joke is on us. It probably hasn’t occurred to us that Eve might have given Adam some other name than “Adam,” and it seems highly unlikely that anyone would ever imagine that she might decide to call him “finch,” a word we associate with a very small and lively creature, but not a very consequential one. Given Adam’s apparent tendency to evaluate things in terms of size (5-6), Eve’s choice of (what seems to us a) diminutive word for him is particularly comic.