The poem ‘The Woman at the Washington Zoo’ is written by Randall Jarrell. Commentary written by Kristoffer Alsvik.
It is not only physical jail cell bars that can keep a person in captivity, also the bars of one owns body and the limitations set by a way of living that could be the worst kind of prison. This poem brings up the topic of imprisonment, being trapped in ones own body, conscious of age and lack of importance.
The poem suggests from the very start that this woman feels very alone. It doesn’t seem like she relates to other people, only describing them as exotic or off this world clothing such as, saris (L 1) and “cloth from the moon” (L 2), and “cloth from another planet” (L 2). She instead of relating other people to herself, she instead relates them to the animals at the zoo where they are looking at the leopard “like the leopard” (L 3), saying that they are just like the leopard. Another case of the woman distancing herself would be the print of their clothing. If we would make the connection of the print and pattern of the “saris” (L 1) and the print on the leopard, an exotic colorful pattern, this is of contrast to the womans “print” (L 5) which is described by as “dull null navy” (L 6-7).
I believe she feels her life is only going around in circles, a life of repetition, where she is not going anywhere. This feeling of this repetition is brought up especially many times in the lines 6-8. The sentence is divided up many times by commas where all these divisions are very similar in syntax, all short and like clockwork, her life described from here to her death. Also the assonance in words like “dull null”, alliteration in “null navy” (L 6-7) and repetition of “so to my” (L 7-8) all add to the feeling of her life being controlled by routine. So the argument of her prison is her life, and the routine controlling it.
She makes the point of herself not being worthless, only in shadow of something else. The color of her clothing has stayed even though she has been “through so many cleanings” (L 8). She will not loose her color in “sunlight dyes” (L 12) stating that she is still going strong, and will not fade out. She also says her body lets “no hand suffuse” (L 12),saying she is not a ghost. Her “serviceable body” (L 11-12) receives “no complaints” (L 8-9), which means she does a good job, her body can do the work. However, “no complaints” (L 8-9) is followed by “no comment;” (L 9), which means that even though she does a good job where she gets no complaints she gets no comments either, like as if she is ignored and forgotten. The caesura “;” (L 9) emphasizes this silence surrounding her. She says that “only I complain;” (L 11) also followed by a caesura “;” (L 11) which again symbolizes silence, meaning that no one is listening. She is forgotten, “withering among columns” (L 13), “dome-shadowed” (L 13), and “wavy beneath fountains” (L 14), only a worker in “dull null navy” (L 6-7).
The woman links herself to the animals as being like them trapped, only a different kind of trapped. For the animals are trapped in cages, however, without knowledge of “aging” (L 17), “kept safe” (L 18), “knowing not of death” (L18). She however, knows of death, and is conscious of her age. She is desperate, and she is almost crying for death, by repeating “death, for death” (L 18), and telling her body to “open, open!” (L 19), another cry for something, also the “!” emphasizes the desperation in her cry.
The animals who are possibly stealing the attention she believes she deserves, are described as all pecking at food, feeding of either meat or grain. The “meat the flies have clouded” is being teared at by all animals such as “buzzards” (L 23) and “vultures” (L 25), and even the sparrows and pigeons are taking a piece of the food. There may be a connection between her and the food, how these animals are all pecking and tearing her apart, tearing and destroying her pride. If this connection is made you may even think she wants to die, as she asks the vulture to “change me, change me!” (L 33), to take off his cloths “red helmet” (L 27) and “black wings” (L 27-28) and face her like an equal, “as man” (L 28), and give her the ultimate change, the change from living to dieing.
This is a poem of how horrible living can be, how if you give it long enough time, it may drive you insane and even to suicide. The woman wanted a change, whether she wanted to leave life or only the zoo is hard to say, what is clear is that she didn’t want to continue the way she did.