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 unappealing. These saris “go by” the speaker, and their purposeful movement is a foil to her physical and emotional stagnation. In lines 4-18 she describes her own dull clothing, laments the monotony of her thankless job, and compares her situation to that of the trapped animals. However, her metaphorical cage is even more onerous than the literal animal cages because she is her own trap, and she must also cope with the distinctly human knowledge of aging and death.
Lines 19-23 descend to an image more ominous and distasteful than that of the caged animals. Now the woman—unnoticed, unappreciated, unloved—sees herself as the leftover food (“meat the flies have clouded”) ignored by the zoo animals and now consumed only by scavengers. Near the end of line 23 the woman begins a passionate apostrophe. Addressing the vulture, she implores that he pay her as much attention as he does the white rat left uneaten by the foxes. Desperate for affection, she asks that the bird step to her as a man. Having fantasized a dramatic metamorphosis of the vulture, she begs for an equally miraculous transformation for herself. The reiterated imperatives of the final line (“change me, change me!”) reveal her desperation to discard her old self and embrace a new identity.
The power of this poem (described by one critic as Jarrell’s most visual) derives mainly from its rich images and metaphors. First, the poem uses clothing images as correlatives for the people inside. As viewed by the speaker, the colorful saris are not merely fashions from a foreign country. In contrast to her mundane clothing, they seem like garments—and lively people—from a completely different world. The speaker’s whole wardrobe is mentally reduced to one drab navy dress because both her attire and her entire life are so morbidly uniform. Line 11 confirms that the speaker’s dull dress is perfectly analogous to her vacuous body and soul. No sunlight dyes her pale body; “no hand suffuses.” Presumably, in the right context, light could animate and a loving touch could fill the empty container.
Along with this image of lifeless clothing, Jarrell uses several other images to suggest the woman’s diminished...
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status. Since this is a poem of self-examination, the speaker repeatedly studies her reflection in mirrors. Looking into fountains, she sees an evasive, wavy image. Furthermore, that image is not on the surface but beneath the water, suggesting that she is drowning. Later she observes her reflection in the eyes of caged animals and, like her self-image, it is small and far-off. Such simulacra show that the woman is far removed from real life. Her failed attempts to engage it produce images that are shimmering, miniature, and remote.
Although many images in the poem connect the speaker with caged animals, one line may reduce her state to that of a vegetable. Shadowed by the many domes of Washington and “withering among columns,” she is like a helpless plant that cannot flourish amid marble and granite. The architectural grandeur of the city overpowers its human inhabitant.
The poem has no regular rhyme scheme, but Jarrell uses occasional repetitions and rhyming words to emphasize the oppressive monotony of the speaker’s situation. According to Jarrell, such echoes and verbal duplications imitate the condition they describe. Note, for example, the internal rhyme that describes the woman’s dress as “dull null.” Continuing to stress negativity, lines 4-18 display frequent repetitions of “no,” “neither,” “nor,” and “not.” In lines 5-7, reiteration of the word “so” underscores the sameness of the woman’s routine.
In spite of its bleak imagery and deliberately monotonous sound effects, the poem does exhibit brief flashes of humor. The official title of the speaker’s supervisor, “The Deputy Chief Assistant,” is delightfully oxymoronic. His “no comment” response to her work is perhaps a parody of the bureaucrat’s mechanical reply to an unwelcome question. Such fragments of levity may actually reinforce the grim atmosphere of the poem, since neither the woman nor anyone else in her office is likely to perceive any comedy in those circumstances.
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