Randall Jarrell’s “The Woman at the Washington Zoo” is a free-verse monologue of thirty lines that reveals the alienation and frustration of an isolated speaker. Indeed, since the “woman” is so detached, the words of the poem are no doubt simply thought rather than spoken aloud. Composed when Jarrell worked in Washington, D.C., as poetry consultant for the Library of Congress, the poem is set at the national zoo in Rock Creek Park.
The female speaker is an anonymous clerk in the massive, impersonal federal bureaucracy. In an essay about how he composed this poem, Jarrell described her as “a kind of aging machine-part” and said she is “a near relation” of countless women he observed on the streets and in government buildings of Washington. The zoo suggests both sharp contrasts and revealing parallels with the woman’s condition. In a place that is colorful, exotic, and teeming with energy, she sees herself as drab, plain, and lifeless. Like the once-wild animals, however, she too is imprisoned behind bars.
Although the poem has no regular stanza pattern, several line breaks do indicate the progression of the woman’s thoughts and feelings. The poem proceeds from calm description to an outburst of fervent desire. It begins with deprecation but becomes a prayer.
In the first three lines she notices other visitors at the zoo—women in saris whose intense colors make the speaker appear even more bland and...
(The entire section is 451 words.)