Aunt Jennifer's Tigers
Aunt Jennifer's tigers prance across a screen,
Bright topaz denizens of a world of green.
They do not fear the men beneath the tree;
They pace in sleek chivalric certainty.
Aunt Jennifer's fingers fluttering through her wool
Find even the ivory needle hard to pull.
The massive weight of Uncle's wedding band
Sits heavily upon Aunt Jennifer's hand.
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.
Hap Notes: Adrienne Rich (born 1929) has had a life that both reflects and has influenced the 20th century in a variety of ways. She's gone from gifted scholar to wife to mother to political activist to divorcee' to more activism to lesbian to even more activism to venerated poet in the course of her life so far. She lives in Northern California somewhere and she still writes. Some of her essays from the 90s are, to me, some of her finest work.
This poem is from her first book, A Change of World, which was selected by W.H. Auden in 1951 for the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award. She was in her early 20s when she wrote it. Critics often see reverberations in this poem of what she was later to do in life. It's easy to hear the rumblings of that, now, though, since we know her history and ours. I believe it's possibly one of her most famous poems.
One's heart aches for Aunt Jennifer, doesn't it? Here's a woman, using the traditional feminine art of needlepoint or embroidery, stitching a panel of harmless men and sleek tigers. Her hands are fluttering and terrified, more than likely from fear and the dull stresses of her life and Uncle, whose wedding band weighs heavily on her hand. If you wear a wedding band, you know that you don't even think of its weight much, it becomes part of you. Not Aunt Jennifer- it is part of the "ordeals she was mastered by."
Many analysts say her stitched tigers are males and that this makes it a poem of hopelessness because she's still sewing male domination in a male dominated role. I think this is hogwash. Why can't Aunt Jennifer want to be a tiger herself, pulling the thread with that difficult needle made from a tusk of a bull elephant, creating a vibrant coat-of-arms for herself, if, even in her own imagination? Does a tiger have to have a sex to be ferocious, sleek and frightening? If you came across a female tiger do you think she's any the less wild or assertive? Those pacing tigers who fear no men, why can't they be female? And if you don't think they can be female and be chivalrous, now who's being dominated by men? Look up the word "denizen" and read all the definitions. Just throwin' this intepretation out there for some air.
Anyhow, my ranting aside, if she isn't fantasizing about being a tiger (which is something I would do, so I'm projecting) then she is stitching males who are "chivalrous" and "unafraid." One doesn't suppose Uncle to be either of those things. The ivory needle is probably the easiest one to pull, and yet she has trouble with it. Aunt Jennifer is still "ringed" (and embroidery has a ring, too, doesn't it?) even in death, with her ordeals. So, I suppose the interpretation is that the males (tigers) are still in charge, prancing away on the needlepoint panel. And she's trapped in the rings.
I like to think of it in a different way- that her subverted fantasized defiance lives on in her art. And that somebody like you or me or the poet, sees it and won't let it happen any more. Our hearts beat with hers a little as we think on her life. Just as all poets thoughts live on in their poems.
So my interpretation of the poem is a little outside the norm, I guess. Don't use my interpretation if you are writing a term paper. Just warning you. You may see the poem differently. Either way you look at it, it's a fine poem.
Every time I go out on a limb with an interpretation I am reminded of a graduate class I took on Satire. We were reading Jean Genet's The Balcony and none of the students wanted to make a comment on it for fear of being wrong. I, on the other hand, have no fear of stupidity having so much of it as I do, so I stood up and gave my half-baked theory on the play which ran something along the lines of 'the characters are just trapped by their own perceptions of things'. The professor looked at me and said "You are 100% WRONG." I still think the characters in the play are goofs, one and all. And I am comfortable in my wrongness. So it is with this poem, also. Feel happily free to disagree with me.
Here's a great Rich quote (and they are legion): "The woman I needed to call my mother was silenced before I was born. "
One more: "Poetry is above all a concentration of the power of language, which is the power of our ultimate relationship to everything in the universe. "