This poem was written by Jarrell while working in D.C. as a poetry consultant. It’s set at the national zoo in Rock Creek Park and is concerned with an isolated woman. She’s working as a clerk deep within the bureaucracy of the federal government. This piece depicts the woman as forgotten, dull, overlooked, and in the end, unappreciated. She’s like the leftover food that the vultures consume. At the end of ‘The Woman at the Washington Zoo,’ the speaker uses what’s known as an apostrophe. She addresses a vulture asking that it consume her and transform her into something else. She’s attempting to shed her old identity and become someone new.
Explore The Woman at the Washington Zoo
‘The Woman at the Washington Zoo’ by Randall Jarrell is a powerful poem about a speaker’s desire to escape from her life and claim a new one.
The speaker begins this poem by comparing her “colors” to those of women wearing saris near the Washington Zoo or that located in Rock Creek Park. The speaker sees herself as dull and drab, unlike these women who are colorful like the animals at the zoo. This inspires her to delve into that comparison further. She notes that the animals are trapped behind bars just as she’s trapped in her body and within her life. But, people come to see them. People take notice of the animals, but no one sees or appreciates them. In the last lines, she asks that a vulture take her and help her become a new person.
You can read the full poem here.
The saris go by me from the embassies.
They look back at the leopard like the leopard.
In the first line of the poem, the speaker opens with a hook or a statement that’s meant to catch the reader’s attention and inspire them to keep reading. The “saris,” or women wearing saris, go past the speaker “from the embassies.” This statement is an interesting one. By using “saris” as a way to describe a group of women, the reader might find themselves taken aback.
The speaker creates this distance between themselves and these women and furthers it in the next lines. They refer to the “cloth” the women wear as “from the moon.” It’s surprisingly and seemingly unearthly. As the women explore the zoo, they stare at the “leopard like the leopard.” They are just as elegant and different as the leopard is from the speaker.
this print of mine, that has kept its color
Complaints, no comment: neither from my chief,
The Deputy Chief Assistant, nor his chief—
In the next few lines, the speaker leads up to discussing the nature of their own clothing. The “print” she has is “dull” and becomes duller through cleanings. The speaker wears colors, like “Navy,” throughout their life and “To my bed.” They juxtapose the colors and patterns of their life against the leopard-like saris. This is continued, into other aspects of the speaker’s life, in lines 11 through 19. They note that they wear the same color or live the same life, day in and day out. They’re the only one who complains about it.
Only I complain…. this serviceable
Body that no sunlight dyes, no hand suffuses
Aging, but without knowledge of their age,
Kept safe here, knowing not of death, for death—
Oh, bars of my own body, open, open!
The following lines bring in details of the speaker’s job, complaints, and the way that they’re trapped in their job and their body. The speaker exclaims over this, calling their body “serviceable.” This emotionless and passionless word conveys a very unfortunate state of being. Their body does a job, but it doesn’t bring any joy, nor does it experience any.
As the lines progress, the speaker moves into a comparison between their own body and the animal “withering among columns,” or bars. They’re “beings trapped / As I am trapped.” But, they don’t understand life in the same way that the speaker does. This includes the nature of their confinement and the limited life they have to live on earth.
The world goes by my cage and never sees me.
Tearing the meat the flies have clouded….
The next lines add to the speaker’s plea to the world. After explaining the trapped feelings, they note how life appears to pass them by, just as the world passes the animals in the cages by. But, the world doesn’t come to them as it does to the animals. The following lines use accumulation to depict the various animals the darkness and decay that is part of their lives, too, like the buzzards tearing at meat.
When you come for the white rat that the foxes left,
You know what I was,
You see what I am: change me, change me!
In the final lines, the speaker brings together a striking image of a vulture “Tearing the meat the flies have eluded” and coming for the “white rate the foxes left.” As a symbol of death, the vulture haunts all human beings and non-human animals. It’s there, at all times, shadowing everyone as it does the speaker.
When speaking to the vulture, or death, the speaker asks that when it comes to them that they are “change[d]” by it. Change me, the speaker pleas, into someone or something that’s noticed and is freed from the bars of life/aging/death.
Structure and Form
‘The Woman at the Washington Zoo’ by Randall Jarrell is a thirty-three-line poem that is separated out into uneven stanzas. The first stanza is one line long, the second: two, the third: sixteen, and the fourth: fourteen. The latter is broken up into sections due to the poet’s use of indention. This is a common contemporary technique that controls the way the reader moves through the lines. The lines are written in free verse. This means that the lines are of different lengths, don’t use a rhyme scheme, and do not conform to a specific metrical pattern.
Throughout ‘The Woman at the Washington Zoo,’ the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Enjambment: when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines four and five as well as lines twenty-three and twenty-four.
- Imagery: can be seen when the poet uses particularly interesting and effective descriptions. For example: “But, dome-shadowed, withering among columns, / Wavy beneath fountains.”
- Caesura: occurs when the poet inserts a pause into the middle of a line of verse. For example, “Complaints, no comment: neither from my chief” and “Only I complain…. this serviceable.”
- Alliteration: can be seen when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “Cloth” and “cloth” in line two and “wear” and “work” in line seven.
The tone is passionate and desperate at times. The speaker addresses an unknown listener in the first lines before turning to death and pleading with the universe to make them into someone or something new that is not overlooked or confined by life.
The themes at work in this poem are life, death, and aging. The speaker touches on all of these things while also describing the animals in the zoo and the type of life they live. This juxtaposition makes the poem very interesting.
The purpose of this poem is to explore a specific way of thinking about oneself that many readers have likely experienced themselves. Jarrell himself noted that he saw and knew women like the one depicted in the poem.
The meaning is that sometimes life feels as though one is purposely caged in without anyone to care about them. But, it’s always possible to start anew, and it’s that passion that drives this particular speaker.
Readers who enjoyed ‘The Woman at the Washington Zoo’ should also consider reading some other Randall Jarrell poems. For example:
- ‘A Country Life’ – a deeply felt depiction of the impacts of life, death, and loneliness on one’s life before death finally comes.
- ‘The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner’ – is based on his own unforgettable experiences in World War II.
- ‘In Those Days’ – is concerned with how the standing between people can alter depending on what part of life they’re in, as well as be totally different when economic situations change.