Were the tigers always there?

Adrienne Rich, “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 finger 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.

This was another poem that was discussed in the reading-discussion group that I talked about in my previous post.

In the first reading, one’s thoughts might run in a fashion similar to this:Stanza 1.
So, there are these tigers that the Aunt has, bright topaz colored and prancing about in their green lush world. They seem confident about themselves, unafraid of men around them.

Stanza 2.
The Aunt is finding it difficult to weave, the needle resisting her, her own fingers fluttering. And then you see what the poem is about. The wedding. The wedding band from her marriage is weighing heavily on Aunt Jennifer’s hands, making it hard to weave, pulling her down.

Stanza 3.
Okay, the ordeals she’s facing will follow her even after her death. She was mastered by them while she lived and her hands remain terrified even after she will die. On the other hand, the tigers that she made, would continue prancing about, proud and unafraid.

Post reading.
Damn, the poor Aunt. She’s left her tigers alone, just like she’s been her whole life. Burdened with the marriage, living frightened of men, of Uncle. The ring piling ordeal after ordeal on her. Filling her with dread, her fingers not obeying her. Even the ivory needle seems heavy in her hands, unable to weave. The wool left lifeless in her hands. That is a sad way to live, that’s not how marriages are supposed to be.

This Adrienne Rich person is good. Twelve short lines of poetry and my brain is sent down such a path. I need to read this again.

Thoughts during later readings.
The tigers, they represent all that Aunt Jennifer couldn’t be. The perfect medium to defy the marriage that kept her enslaved. The ring that belled her. Her tigers roam fearlessly while she toils terrified. Then somewhere down those re-readings, you get slightly confused about the tigers.

Are the tigers a means for Aunt to leave a mark on the world? An outlet for her feelings, something to put her dreams, her aspirations for herself into. Or do they represent a past, before Uncle came into the picture burdening her, before the burdens and the ordeals started? What she had been before the marriage?

So, the poem is either structured as: the past, the present and the future. Or it is: what could/should have been, what is, what will be. Both are chilling accounts, stories one doesn’t want to hear, but both stories are, unfortunately, still quite common; in too many places.

Are the tigers her past, a self she lost in the marriage? Are the tigers a self she envisioned for herself, someone she wants to be? And, is it worth trying to decide which of these is true?

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