Jones is an Australian poet whose past works include “Zoos for the Dead”, a poem in which a narrator converses with a captive parrot called Narcissus and “the survivor of an atrocity”, about the last speaker of a lost language. Jones is interested in separation, in this case the Australian government’s historic policy of the removal of children from Aboriginal families. In her poetry she explores the theme through interesting deployment of imagery and ambiguous meanings which leave the reader to ponder an interpretation. Her word has been described as a “challenging surrealist collage” and “strikingly original” revisiting of Australia’s dark past.
“The Tiger in the Menagerie” appears in a collection called The Striped World (2009) in which Jones fixates upon animals in their habitats. One of the key motifs is captivity. Jones remarks:
There’s also a lineage of caged animals in poetry… the title of the collection came to me quite late, though looking back it unites so many of the poems. I’d been trawling through and reread my poem “Sentimental Public Man” – which isn’t openly about zoos at all, and came across the lines ‘my barred heart / saw the striped world move like a beast’, which I realized was a concentration of what many of the poems were on about – the way subjectivity is a little enclosure, and the world the thing that is looked at, and that looks at you. (thedrunkenboat.com)
Jones describes the complex arrangement in enclosures and discusses the ideas of spectatorship and ownership as being artificial structures.
How to View the Poem?
I see this poem not just as an appreciation of the deadly beauty of the tiger or a metaphor for the violence that exists in all of us, but more symbolic of abolishing the barriers which we construct to separate and categorise the world.
The message of the poem is quite ambiguous. Here I will follow the line that the tiger is the saviour and not the aggressor, although this is debatable.
The opening stanza “no one could say how the tiger got into the menagerie” suggests a mystery which has perplexed the humans. Immediately the reader is drawn into the scene. The following lines “it was too flash, too blue” suggest the speed at which the tiger entered. The word “blue” is not usually associated with a tiger, which works here as it fits with the ambiguous nature of identity which Jones explores in her poetry. In the third line of the stanza “it was too much like the painting of a tiger” we are encouraged to question our perceptions of the animal. Does capturing a still image of an animal mean that we understand it less? We always attempt to categorise things and sometimes the consequences are that we forget their true power.
In stanza two there is a shift to night time, a time when our perceptions naturally change due to the darkness. The mood is dreamy as the tiger’s eyes are said to “rock shut”, creating a sense of the hypnotic and causing us to consider the tiger’s calm and still poise. Now the bars of the cage and the tiger’s stripes are focused on one another for so long that in stanza three the bars become the “lashes of the stripes” and the stripes become the “lashes of the bars”. Again there is a merging of identities. The choice of “lashes” for stripes implies the power and the speed that the tiger possesses, which is in turn transferred to the cage bars in the menagerie, implying that this dynamism is not only reserved for the tiger.
In stanza four the dreamlike state is further developed as the tiger walks down amongst the columns of the “long colonnade”, the word conjuring up images of a colony of settlers, perhaps the British in Australia or India. The long colonnade of the tiger’s dreams evokes images of historical movement, something which is further evoked with imagery of the “fretwork”, the ornamental decoration which is “shed” like an animal would shed its skin, on the way to the “Indian main” symbolic of the tiger’s ancestry and its reach for freedom. It is ironic that the tiger has come into the menagerie to upset the animals, when the question of how the tiger itself got into the menagerie, arguably links to the oppression of humans in imprisoning it there in the first place.
In stanza five the nature if the tiger is further explored through the use of the metaphor that “when the sun rose…the tiger was one clear orange eye”, this connection of the tiger to the sun is quite dazzling as we perceive the sun, the giver of life, and the tiger, whose appearance has made all of the animals disappear: has the tiger eaten the animals, are they all dead? There are no remains described so this theory does not work for me. Rather it would seem that the animals have been liberated. Now it is said that the tiger had “walked” into the menagerie, implying relative ease.
Stanza six echoes stanza one as the narrator relates “no one could say how the tiger got out in the menagerie”. The menagerie has become “too bright, too bare”. The bareness arises from the disappearance of the animals and the brightness refers to the breaking of daylight brought by the sun. The menagerie cannot speak but if it could it would say “tiger”. The animals have no power of speech and they have no control in the environment in which they are held captives.
The personification is continued into the final stanza: “if the aviary could, it would lock its door”. The final stanza has an ominous tone as it appears the tiger now moves on to the bird enclosure where the heart of the aviary “began to beat in rows of rising birds”. The alliteration here creates a pulse in the poem and indicates the adrenalin or anxiety felt amongst the birds as the tiger comes to their enclosure. Again the question o
f whether the tiger represents the aggressor or the saviour is prominent as we are left with the stark image of the tiger that “came inside to wait”