Sreekumar K Facilitator, L’ecole Chempaka International, Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, India
Tiger in the Menagerie by Emma Jones is more like a collage of images than a poem. It catches in very few words the ferocious nature of a Tiger enclosed in a small and oppressive place. There is also a fine play of words as the poet uses one part of speech for another deliberately to create a great impact on the reader. The end result is that the poem can be read several times and each time our mind responds differently to the poem.
The poem is also an example of how real poetry will defy any kind of rephrasing or translation. It is generally said that poetry is what is lost in translation. It can be said about simplification or explanation. Poetry works on the limitations of language. It goes beyond the limitation and any attempt to bring it back to the confines of language is bound to fail.
Literature is, in general understood by most people as allegorical in nature. Those who are not well trained in literature will always try to figure out what each line and phrase is ‘trying to tell’ them. This leads to lot of far fetching. Since we don’t do this for an abstract painting, breaking it down to the colours or lines, we should not do this to poetry either breaking it down to its fine elements. Like an impressionist painting this poem gets written on our mind and each time in a different way.
However, a close look at the structure, content and style might help the ordinary reader. First of all the poem has an interesting structure. On the page the lines look like those on the flanks of a tiger. Two three-line stanzas in the beginning, middle and end and two two-line stanzas in between them, together, give us the image of something seen through the bars of cage. The lines resemble the stripes on the tiger too.
On the content side, the basic elements in the nature and appearance of the animal are brought to the front. The poet plays with time and space to effect a certain universality to her theme. The narrative strain has an obscure beginning.
No one could say how the tiger got into the menagerie.
But what was encased and shown around was not as real as a tiger. It was like the painting of a tiger, not comprehensive or complete but only what was needed by the painter or the artist was there. It was too brilliant to look like a dirty predator.
too much like the painting of a tiger.
But at night the captured and the capturer were one and the same. At an unguarded moment, the alertness drops off and so does the distinction. That which is caught and that which caught it became one and the same.
when it was time for those eyes to rock shut
That which inhibited or prevented the tiger’s movements merged itself into the tiger giving it total freedom.
the bars were the lashes of the stripes
the stripes were the lashes of the bars
Aggression, unashamed of itself, with no eyes whatsoever to see itself, walked the world especially the Indian subcontinent.
and they walked together in their dreams so long
through the long colonnade
that shed its fretwork to the Indian main
But when the sun rose, all was made bare and the great tiger had become nothing but an image in someone’s eye or mind. An eye seeking the tiger saw it wherever it looked.
that when the sun rose they’d gone and the tiger was
one clear orange eye that walked into the menagerie.
But eventually at some point in history the tiger lose its ‘tigerness’ and it was not something worth looking at, let alone looking up to.
No one could say how the tiger got out in the menagerie.
It was too bright, too bare.
Even the menagerie wanted to ‘cry tiger’ just to scare people since there was no tiger there at all.
If the menagerie could, it would say ‘tiger’.
But the cautious but weak birds were careful. They would have locked the door of the menagerie and let the tiger spend its life as a ‘exhibition item’.
If the aviary could, it would lock its door.
They fluttered their wings and warned one another whenever the tiger came inside.
Its heart began to beat in rows of rising birds
when the tiger came inside to wait.
Thus a very simple imagist poem uses its own obscurity to lend itself to political readings against imperialism. History is written by the victors and so the tiger was held high above the birds and the menagerie above the aviary. But as light was shed on them, and as the darkness of ignorance came to an end all idols were found to have feet of clay.
However, it is not necessary to analyze the poem for its political connotations to appreciate its beauty. The poem lends itself to several readings right from a focus on animals to the light shed on human nature. The best way to understand the poem is to avoid tearing it to pieces but going for a holistic appreciation like going back to a painting over and over.