‘Animal Crackers’ by Richard de Zoysa is a ten stanza poem that is separated into irregular sets of lines. This poem has been constructed in such a way that it has a lot of visual interest. The lines are of different lengths, there are portions in all caps, and there are a number of commands and lines written in quotations throughout. This style of composition is reflective of the general feeling with which the poem imbues a reader. The situation which is described is chaotic, so too are the stanzas of the poem.
Summary of Animal Crackers
The poem begins with the drawing of a lion. It represents the Sinhalese people who are going to be caught up in the middle of the rebel Tamil terrorists. This group is depicted by the speaker as a tiger and is completely ignored, partly out of ignorance and part fear, by the ruling party. The government of the time was added to the poem through the image of an elephant.
The poem concludes with a depiction of the chaos caused by the terrorists and the fact that no one is doing anything to stop it. In fact, groups are actively trying to ignore the threat and get the citizens of Sri Lank to do the same.
You can read the full poem here.
Analysis of Animal Crackers
“Draw me a lion.”
Colour it yellow.
In the first stanza of ‘Animal Crackers’, a conversation begins between the two main characters of this piece. First, there is the speaker who gives directions. This person commands the other to “Draw me a lion.” The artist is not surprised by, nor does he question, this request. He sets right to work.
The main speaker of this piece is the artist himself. He states that the picture he drew is of “a lazy, kindly beast…” This animal is not depicted in the way that one would expect. “Kind” is not a word that is generally associated with lions.
It is important at this point to refer to the poet’s original notes which accompanied the text. The full “author’s note” can be found after the poem here. The note states that the “lion is the heraldic emblem of the Sinhalese” people of Sri Lanka. This group is native to the island and make up the largest percentage of the population. When the poet writes of a lion, he is speaking metaphorically about his own people.
In the second stanza the other speaker, the one who directed the artist to draw, asks a question” “Does it bite?” He is referring to the lion which was drawn “kind[ly]” by the artist.
The main speaker answers the question saying that it does…
but only when its angry—
If you pull its tail
Once again, these phrases do not refer so much to a lion or a drawing of a lion as they do to the Sinhalese people. They might be a “lazy and kind” group but they will not be stepped upon or insulted. The next line expands on this when the speakers say another reason the lion might bite is if one “say[s] that it is just another cat…” From this line, it is clear that the Sinhalese will not stand to be thought of as any less than they are.
In the last two lines of this stanza, the speaker contrasts himself once more. He says that they might be strong-willed, but they are…
for the most part, indolent, biddable
They spend most of their time “basking in the sun of pride.” One is able to interpret from these statements that the poet and the speaker he has created are not above criticizing the Sinhalese. He holds a particular set of facts to be the truth and is willing to share it.
(Outside, the sunlight seems a trifle dulled
from long, deep sleep).
In the third stanza, the speaker moves back from the intimate communication between the two characters to describe what the general setting of the moment is. There is “sunlight” outside which is not making a great impression. It is “a trifle dulled.” The day does not appear to be anything special, at least at the outset. The next phrase adds a bit of mystery to the moment. There is a “roaring” in the distance. It sounds like “a pride / of lions.” They sound to the speaker as if they are “cross at being awakened.” They’ve been sleeping for a long time and are finally rousing themselves.
It is almost as if the lions, which are still representing the Sinhalese people, are responding to the words of the speaker. They are preparing for a change.
“Draw me a tiger.”
stalks through my mind, blazing Nature’s warning,
black bars on gold.
In the fourth stanza of ‘Animal Crackers’, the narrative moves on to the next drawing. This time the speaker is asked to draw a tiger. This animal is different from the one which proceeded it. It is too is spoken of in the author’s note. The tiger has been chosen to represent the Tamil terrorist group which was active in the north of Sri Lanka. This group was referred to as “The Tigers.” Their campaign to create an independent state in the north and east of Sri Lanka for the Tamil people led to the Sri Lankan Civil War. This conflict lasted from 1983 to 2009.
The image that the speaker comes up with reminds him of two different things. He sees the lion and thinks of Blake’s poem ‘The Tyger,’ as well as “Jim Corbett.” Corbett was a British hunter and tracker, as well as a conservationist and author who had a national park named after him in India. The park was established in 1936 and is the oldest in the country.
These images move through the speaker’s mind like a “warning,” and the tiger’s stripes “blaze” like bars of black “on gold.”
You turn and draw the gun
all hell breaks loose; quite suddenly the sky
is full of smoke and orange stripes of flame.
In the fifth stanza, the speaker reveals additional details in regards to the other person in the room who has been directing him to draw.
This section opens up with an exclamation of the word “DRAW!” This person who is yelling turns, and draws “the gun / on me.” The drama of this moment is enhanced by the use of enjambment, and is immediately deflated when it is revealed the other character is a “three-year-old.” This child has turned on the speaker. The speaker states that the child asks as if he “understands force majeure,” or an irresistible compulsion.
The child pulls the trigger of the plastic gun and “all hell breaks loose.” There is suddenly smoke filling the sky alongside “orange stripes of flame.”
BUT HERE THERE ARE NO TIGERS
HERE THERE ARE ONLY LIONS.
The orange stripes which symbolized the coming of tigers are fought back against in these two lines. They are written in all capital letters in an effort to show how strongly the new speaker feels about what is being said. This new speaker is unwilling to admit that the presence of the tigers is real. They are a real threat to his world, but all he is able to see are the “LIONS.”
And their jackals
run panting, rabid in the roaring’s wake,
if, did he venture out to quell this jungle-tide
of rising flame, he’d burn his tender feet.
In the seventh stanza, the speaker begins by describing how there are “jackals” running through the streets. This image is meant to represent the reactions of normal people. Everyone is panicking and doing whatever they can to get out of harm’s way. “Madness” is spreading.
In the second half of this stanza, the speaker mentions the “Elephant.” This is the last animal symbol of the poem and is represents the ruling United National Party. The party, acting through the image of the elephant, does nothing. He stands in the “shaded arbor” and thinks about the situation. The elephant does not want to leave his safe haven for fear of burning his feet. This shows the speaker’s dislike of the ruling party and his belief that they were not doing enough to deal with the terrorist threat.
“Put down that gun. If you do, and you’re good,
A curious beast that you must understand . . . .”
In the eighth stanza, the speaker is attempting to placate the young boy. He tells him that if he “Put[s] down that gun” he will draw “an elephant.” It is a “curious” animal the speaker says, and one which “you must understand.”
DONT LOOK OUT THE WINDOW—
The ninth stanza is only composed of one line and it asks that the speaker, and any reading this poem, “DONT” venture beyond their home and look out the window. This is once again the voice of those who do not believe in the threat the Tamil terrorists pose and wish to keep the panic under control.
Just a party down the lane
No, not a tiger—just some silly cat.”
In the final section of the poem, the narration asks that you just “party down the lane.” One must not look at the fire and see a “bonfire,” instead one should see “fireworks.” They are willing to ignore what is going on and want all the listeners to believe that there is nothing wrong or dangerous about their present situation.