On "Aunt Jennifer's Tigers"
The fearful, gloomy woman waiting inside her darkening room for the emotional and meteorological devastation to hit could be Aunt Jennifer, who is similarly passive and terrified, overwhelmed by events that eclipsed her small strength. "Aunt Jennifer's Tigers" is, however, an even clearer statement of conflict in women, specifically between the impulse to freedom and imagination (her tapestry of prancing tigers) and the "massive weight" of gender roles and expectations, signified by "Uncle's wedding band." Although separated through the use of the third person and a different generation, neither Aunt Jennifer in her ignorance nor Rich as a poet recognizes the fundamental implications of the division between imagination and duty, power and passivity.
From A Separate Vision: Isolation in Contemporary Womens Poetry. Copyright � 1984 by Louisiana State University Press.
Thomas B. Byars
Rich's own remarks on this poem, in "When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision" (1971), are an important starting place; she discusses how even in a formal and consciously distanced poem of her early period, she can discover clear (if latent) feminist concerns (Lies 40). Perhaps most interesting, however, is the fact that the needlework tigers, like Rich's poem itself, are ineffectual as rebellion, because the very means of their rebellion are inscribed in the oppressor's language, and thus reveal an unhealed split in the psyche of the oppressed.
The tigers display in art the values that Aunt Jennifer must repress or displace in life: strength, assertion, fearlessness, fluidity of motion. And the poem's conclusion celebrates the animal images as a kind of triumph, transcending the limited conditions of their maker's life. Accepting the doctrine of "ars longa, vita brevis," Rich finds in her character's art both persistence and compensation; she sees the creations as immortalizing the hand that made them, despite the contrary force of the oppressive structure of Aunt Jennifer's conventional marriage, as signified by the ring that binds her to her husband. This doctrine is utterly consonant with what was, according to Rich, "a recurrent theme in much poetry I read [in those days]. . . the indestructibility of poetry, the poem as vehicle for personal immortality" (Blood 168). And this more or less explicit connection helps show how deeply implicated Rich herself was in Aunt Jennifer's situation and her achievement, despite the "asbestos gloves" of a distancing formalism that "allowed me to handle materials I couldn't pick up barehanded" (Lies 40-41).
The problem, however, is that the tigers are clearly masculine figures--and not only masculine, but heroic figures of one of the most role-bound of all the substructures of patriarchy: chivalry. Their "chivalric certainty" is a representation by Aunt Jennifer of her own envisioned power, but it is essentially a suturing image, at once stitching up and reasserting the rift between her actual social status an her vision. Aunts name, after all, echoes with the sound of Queen Guinevere's; her place in chivalry is clear. Her tigers are only Lancelots, attractive because illicit, but finally seducing her to another submission to the male. So long as power can be envisioned only in terms that are culturally determined as masculine, the revolutionary content of the vision, which was all confined to a highly mediated and symbolic plane in any case, will remain insufficient. Indeed, the fact that assertion against the patriarchy is here imagined only in terms set by the patriarchs may be seen as this poem's version of the tigers' "fearful symmetry." And the "Immortal hand or eye" that framed their symmetry is not Aunt Jennifer's framing her needlework, but patriarchy's, framing Aunt Jennifer.
From World, Self, Poem: Essays on Contemporary Poetry from the "Jubilation of Poets." Copyright � 1990 by The Kent State University Press.
Meg Boerema Gillette
Deborah Pope's and Thomas B. Byars's readings of Adrienne Rich's "Aunt Jennifer's Tigers" describe the poem as a contest between the individual and the social, between "imagination" and "gender roles and expectation" (Pope), between the "oppressed" and the "oppressor" (Byars). Reading the poem through oppositions, these critics search for the poem's resolution. The question for Pope and Byars seems to be, who wins? Imagination or gender roles? The oppressed or the oppressor? For Pope, the answer is an evasive, Rich fails to "recogniz[e] the fundamental implications of the division." For Byars, the answer is the unforgiving, "Rich's poem itself [is] ineffectual as rebellion, because the means of their rebellion are inscribed in the oppressors language." Ultimately, as these critics argue, "Aunt Jennifer's Tigers" fails to resolve the conflict between the individual and the social.
My reading of the poem, however, is that the poem resists those oppositions upon which Pope's and Byars' criticisms depend. I would argue that "Aunt Jennifer's Tigers" does not stage a contest between the individual and the social, but rather characterizes them by their interdependence. (The personal in this poem is deeply implicated in the political, and vice versa.) In the central symbols of the poem--the tapestry tigers and the Uncle's wedding band--the individual and social, the personal and the political meet. The tapestry tigers are not just individual artistic expressions; they are politically inflected, engaged in patriarchal chivalry myths (as Byars argues), and--as icons of colonialism (I would add)--suggestive of capitalist regimes of power (notice too they are sewn with an "ivory needle" (line 6)). The personal and the political again meet in the intimacy of "Uncle's wedding band" (line 7). By the physical intimacy of a wedding band and by the familial presence conferred by "*Uncle's* wedding band" (emphasis added), "Aunt Jennifer's Tigers" personalizes the presence of patriarchal politics.
The poem's structure also draws the personal into the political and the political into the personal. The parallel syntactical structures of verses one and two suggest the relatedness of their content. Both follow the construction "Aunt Jennifer's," with verse two substituting "tigers prance across the screen" (line 1) with the similar sounding "fingers fluttering though her wool" (line 5). The use of color in the second lines of each verse--"topaz" and "green" (line 2) and "ivory" (line 6)-and the presence of men in the third lines-"the men beneath the tree" (line 3) and "Uncle's wedding band" (line 7) persist in the stanzas' parallelisms. These parallelisms draw associations between the images described. Owing to such parallelisms, the straining "fingers" of the second verse resonate with the energetic "tigers" of first verse. Reading the second stanza back to the first, the weight that "sits heavily upon Aunt Jennifer's hand" of its final line (line 8) lends sobriety to the "chivalric certainty" of the final line of the first stanza. Though verse one nominally describes artistic freedom, and verse two nominally describes patriarchal power, the structural affinities between the two verses resist the strict binarizing of rebellion and repression. The final verse of the
poem persists in this destabilization as here rebellion and repression meet in the simultaneity of the fearless tigers and the lifeless aunt:
When Aunt is dead, her terrified hands will lie
Still ringed with ordeals she was mastered by.
The tigers in the panel that she made
Will go on prancing, proud and unafraid. (lines 9-12)
To condemn "Aunt Jennifer's Tiger's" then, as Byars does, for its rebellion's indebtedness to patriarchal culture is, I would argue, to miss the point. What makes the poem interesting, I think, is the very interplay between rebellion and repression, between the individual and the social, between the personal and the political. To demand a resolution wherein individual expression wholly escapes the social/political, magically rising above patriarchal discourse, seems to me a least a little naive and largely dismissive of the poem's more sophisticated conceptualization of power.
Copyright � 2001 by Meg Boerema Gillette
Return to Adrienne Rich
In surveying the are of Adrienne Rich's extraordinary career it may be useful to take as touchstones the titles of two of her books. Her first (1951) was called A Change of World; her fifth, twenty years later, was The Will to Change (from Charles Olson's "The Kingfishers": "What does not change / is the will to change"). The first marks an acceptance of the world's changes; the second enunciates the possibility of changes in that world and in oneself.
Rich was born, "white and middle-class," the elder of two sisters, in Baltimore, Maryland, on May 16, 1929. Her father encouraged her to read and to write, "so that for twenty years I wrote for a particular man, who criticized me and praised me and made me feel `special,' " she was later to write in her influential essay "When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision." "The obverse side of this, of course, was that I tried for a long time to please him, or rather, not to displease him."' As for Rich's mother, "my gentile grandmother and my mother were also frustrated artists and intellectuals, a lost writer and a lost composer between them."'
She graduated from Radcliffe College in 1951, and in the same year W. H. Auden 'chose A Change of World for the Yale Younger Poets series. In his preface Auden wrote, approvingly, "The poems a reader will encounter in this book are neatly and modestly dressed, speak quietly but do not mumble, respect their elders but are not cowed by them, and do not tell fibs . . ." Male poets were her model in those days, for it then seemed that the best a woman could do was to write as well as a man, "the men I was reading as an undergraduate--Frost, Dylan Thomas, Donne, Auden, MacNeice, Stevens, Yeats." But, she later said, "Looking back at poems I wrote before I was twenty-one, I'm startled because beneath the conscious craft are glimpses of the split I even then experienced between the girl who wrote poems, who defined herself writing poems, and the girl who was to define herself by her relationships with men. 'Aunt Jennifer's Tigers' (1951), written while I was a student, looks with deliberate detachment at this Split."
Rich's first book "seemed to mean that others agreed I was a poet. Because I was also determined to prove that as a woman poet I could also have what was then defined as a `full' woman's life," she married in her twenties and bore three sons before she was thirty; she also published another collection, The Diamond Cutters (1955), which was praised for its "gracefulness." She seemed to have everything a woman was supposed to want in the American fifties, and "if there were doubts . . . these could only mean that I was ungrateful, insatiable, perhaps a monster."
The fifties and early sixties were desperate years for her. She wrote in a notebook at the time that she felt "paralyzed by the sense that there exists a mesh of relationships--e.g. between my anger at the children, my sensual relationships, pacifism, sex (I mean sex in its broadest significance, not merely sexual desire)--an interconnectedness which, if I could see it, make it valid; would give me back to myself, make it possible to function lucidly and passionately. Yet I grope in and out among these dark webs." She said, later, of this observation, "I think I began at this point to feel that politics was not something `out there' but something `in here' and of the essence of my condition." Then, in the late fifties, she "was able to write, for the first time, directly about experiencing myself as a woman," in the poem "Snapshots of a Daughter in Law." Prosodically, it was "in a longer, looser mode than I'd ever trusted myself with before."'
It had taken eight years to write the poems of Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law (1963), but now the books began to come more quickly. The final poem in Necessities of Life (1966), "Face to Face" (1966), is part of her ongoing quest for a dialogue with another that will in some way heal the split between the "girls" of a decade before. The poem imagines an encounter of a pioneer couple, with each person's "God-given secret" "a loaded gun." As the critic Albert Gelpi has observed, "This is a poetry of dialogue and of the furious effort to break out of dialogue."
"Orion," in her next volume (Leaflets, 1969), was written as "a poem of reconnection with a part of myself I had felt I was losing, the active principle, the energetic imagination." It also poses a choice "between 'love-womanly, maternal love, altruistic love--a love defined and ruled by the weight of an entire culture--and egoism--a force directed by men into creation, achievement, ambition, often at the expense of others, but justifiably so. . . . I know now  that the alternatives are false ones--that the word `love' is itself in need of re-vision."' In "Planetarium" (The Will to Change, 1971), a synthesis of sorts is reached, as in it "at last the woman in the poem and the woman writing the poem become the same person."'
In the late sixties, when her husband accepted a teaching post at the City College of New York, they both became involved in radical politics, especially in opposition to the Vietnam War. She also taught inner-city minority young people, and teaching has since become an important vocation. The new concerns enter the poems of Diving into the Wreck and A Will to Change. That Rich confronts political issues in her poems has divided readers; it may be worth noting, with the critic David Kalstone, that "people who frame questions about the effect of her ideological commitment upon her poetry are, I think, looking in the wrong direction. Part of the ideological commitment is to poetry and the special powers of its language to probe or reveal. The critics's job is to help judge from poem to poem whether Rich is finding an adequate language for the dramatic situations she discovers and projects, and for the investigative powers she believes poetry to possess. "lo
The language in these books becomes more urgent and fragmented, the images starker, and the prosody more jagged. Poems often reach to become letters, throwaway leaflets, photographs, shooting scripts. Moreover, ever since "Snapshots," Rich has been dating her poems, as if to underline their provisional or journal-entry nature.
"I had been looking for the Women's Liberation Movement since the 1950s. I came into it in 1970 . . . I identified myself as a radical feminist, and soon after--not as a political act but out of powerful and unmistakable feelings--as a lesbian," she wrote in 1986 in the Foreword to her second collection of essays. " She has also found the prose speech or essay a valuable tool in exploring feminist issues. A larger prose work was her book Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (1976; reissued in a Tenth Anniversary Edition, 1986). It is made up of "personal testimony mingled with research, and theory which derived from both," on the private feelings and social experiences of motherhood.
The essay "It Is the Lesbian in Us . . ." (1976) explores another controversial issue. She does not restrict the word "lesbian" to female homosexuals, but expands it to mean "a primary intensity between women, an intensity" which the world at large has "trivialized, caricatured, or invested with evil . . . I believe it is the lesbian in every woman who is compelled by female energy . . . It is the lesbian in us who drives us to feel imaginatively, render in language, grasp, the full connection between woman and woman. It is the lesbian in us who is creative, for the dutiful daughter of the fathers is only a hack."
In her more recent books--The Dream of a Common Language (1978), A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far (1981), and Your Native Land, Your Life (1986)-- number of the poems continue to reshape the "poetry of dialogue" begun so much earlier. The extraordinary sequence "Twenty-One Love Poems"--which recalls only to undermine the Elizabethan sonnet-sequences written by men to an impossibly idealized lady-love--is a dialogue with a lover who becomes a former lover, while other poems are addressed to named and unnamed women in the present and in history: Willa Gather, Ellen Glasgow, Ethel Rosenberg, her own grandmothers. The long poem "Sources" contains complex and moving talk with her father, the Jewish intellectual--"For years all arguments I carried on in my head were with you. / . . . It is only now, under a powerful, / womanly lens, that I can decipher your suffering and deny no part / of my own"--and her husband, "the other Jew. / . . . both like you and unlike you." In its totality it is, however, as Rich has said, "a `dialogue of self and soul,' an interior conversation with and about memory. " Still another complex dialogue is that with Robinson Jeffers, Walt Whitman, and the Hebrew Bible in "Yom Kippur, 1984."
The best of these new poems, as the ones before, articulate "the dream of a common language" for a poet "neither unique nor universal, but a person in history, a woman and not a man, a white and also Jewish inheritor of a particular Western consciousness, from the making of which most women have been excluded." And a poet who will continue to change.
Rich's work has been signally honored in recent years. In 1986 she was the first winner of the newly inaugurated Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, awarded by the Modern Poetry Association and the American Council for the Arts, while in 1987 she received a Creative Arts Medal from Brandeis University. She lives in California, and teaches at Stanford University.