This poem was originally published in Monkey Shadows in 1991 and describes the way that two young children of different species observe and appreciate each other through the transparent glass of a zoo. The monkey is too young to feel confined by its surroundings or feel fear for the nearby human beings. The child, similarly, is too young to feel superior or fearful of the “wild” creature.
Explore The Stare
‘The Stare’ by Sujata Bhatt is a poem about human/animal connections and the power of language.
In the first stanza of this poem, the speaker outlines a specific situation she’s observing. That is, the young human child and the young monkey child staring at each other through the transparent glass of the zoo. They observe one another for a long time, young enough to enjoy studying one another without fear, “let alone arrogance.” Their stare lasts a long time, with neither child wanting to look away first. There is “such curiosity brightening” on their faces, the poet says.
This is something that she admires but also brings up feelings of sorrow. She knows that this type of interaction cannot last forever. It only exists because neither child has grown old enough to fear the other. The human child does not yet understand the abstractions of language and the way that words.
You can read the full poem here.
The main theme of this poem is human/animal interactions. The poet also emphasizes the power of language in the poem as well. The communication between the monkey and the boy is entirely through a stare. They’re brightly curious about one another in a very innocent and endearing way. Neither is old enough yet to have a fear of the other, and the boy isn’t old enough to have a different way of using words that would make him feel superior over this child from another species.
Structure and Form
‘The Stare’ by Sujata Bhatt is a sixteen-stanza poem that is written in free verse. This means that the poet did not use a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. The lines do not rhyme evenly, or in some cases, at all. They also vary in length to a significant degree.
For example, the first line of the first stanza is four words, followed by a five-word line, and then a one-word line, “stares.” This focuses the reader’s attention on the shorter lines, making sure they are emphasized. There are a few times throughout this poem that the poet places additional emphasis on the word “stare” or “staring.”
There are several literary devices at work in this poem. For example:
- Repetition: occurs when the poet repeats the same literary device multiple times. For instance, the use of the word “stare” in stanza one.
- Imagery: the use of particularly effective descriptions. These are meant to trigger the readers’ senses and help them imagine a scene in great detail. For example, “eyes of water / eyes of sky.”
- Alliteration: the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words, usually in succession. For example, “lasts” and “long” in stanza three.
- Anaphora: occurs when the poet repeats the same word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines. For example, “innocence” in stanza two.
- Metaphor: a comparison between two things that do not use “like” or “as.” For example, “The word is / the thing itself.”
Stanzas One and Two
There is that moment
when the young human child
at the monkey child
who stares back –
innocence in a space
where the monkey child
is not in captivity.
In the first stanza of ‘The Stare,’ the speaker begins by drawing readers’ attention to a specific “moment.” It is at the heart of this poem and the entire reason that Bhatt chose to write it. She’s interested in how a young child and a young monkey stare at one another through the glass of a cage.
They are similar in so many ways, she’ll go on to say. Both are innocent and young but they live different lives.
Stanzas Three and Four
There is purity
the soul can still fall through
Has yet to learn fear—
let alone arrogance.
Between the two, the speaker says, there is a “purity” and “clarity.” She’s alluding to the way that the two immediately connect (due to their shared innocence and youth) as well as the glass that divides them. They stare at one another for a long time as though trying to understand each other. The two connect because of a few other reasons as well, the poet adds.
The child and monkey are young and have yet to “learn fear.” The monkey does not yet know of the danger that human beings pose, even at a young age, and the child doesn’t yet know that humans are meant to fear wild animals. The child also has yet to be exposed to a certain way of carrying himself, where he is implicitly more important than other living creatures.
Human beings, according to most world views, hold a place of higher importance than other animals in the world. But, the child has yet to learn that.
The two unique lines at the beginning of the fourth stanza apply to both the young child and the monkey. They have “eyes of water” and “eyes of sky.” This is a suggestion that, despite their different lives and appearances, they share the fundamentals of life.
Stanzas Five and Six
Witnessing it all
he would look at leaves
or at his own siblings.
The speaker, and others, are “witnessing it all” as the two communicate without words through the glass. Clearly, the speaker feels as though observing this encounter is something noteworthy.
The two stare at one another, unblinking, making it possible to “count the eyelashes” and “count the snails” or wait for eyes to blink or to see who’s going to look away first. They are entirely focused on one another.
The speaker makes it clear that the monkey is well aware that he is not looking at one of his own siblings. He looks at the human differently, and also different from the way he might look at “leaves.” The discussion of the differences is continued in the seventh and eighth stanzas.
Stanzas Seven and Eight
And the human looks
at the monkey knowing
The human being is looking at the monkey, knowing that this creature is “some totally other being.” But, this knowledge, from both sides, does not alienate them from one another. Instead, there is “good will” and “curiosity brightening” in their faces. The two have no ill will or fear of the other. This is something that the speaker feels is unique in today’s world and worth acknowledging.
Stanzas Nine and Ten
I would like to slip inside
of alphabets, of abstractions.
There is a transition in the ninth stanza when the poet, for the first time, includes first-person pronouns. This speaker is so interested in the interaction that’s occurring between the two, without words, that they would like to slip inside either mind to get a better understanding of what they’re thinking. The speaker mentions the human child and the monkey child in the stanza, putting the two on level ground and expressing their belief that either mind would be worth exploring.
While directing their words to whoever is reading them, the speaker asks anyone listening to “remember” that the human child is old enough to know words and use them with power but far enough away from the challenging and sometimes detrimental ideologies of human society to feel bias or superiority. The poet symbolizes this fact through the description of the child’s distance from “alphabets” and “abstractions.”
Stanzas Eleven and Twelve
and he wants
to awaken her.
The poet uses the next few stanzas to define the child’s way of thinking. It’s clear that the speaker does have some insight into how the child thinks, despite her inability to actually enter into their mind if they previously wished they could do.
The speaker uses stanzas eleven through thirteen to describe how, with only a brief mention, a child immediately engages with the “thing” that’s been mentioned. The poet uses the example of bread and a cat to depict the child’s instinctual reaction to words. The “word” they add in the thirteenth stanza is “the thing itself.”
Stanzas Thirteen and Fourteen
to the child’s own heartbeat.
The fourteenth stanza summarizes the way that the speaker believes the child understands the world. To the child, at this age, language is something musical and necessary that connects the child’s love for one thing or another to the thing itself.
Words do not have the same power that adults understand them to have. The child does not use them in the same way either. They are joy, passion, and interaction, not a tool to belittle or inspire fear.
Stanzas Fifteen and Sixteen
While the young monkey child
Who knows what?
What remains burning
with intense gentleness…
The speaker returned to the “young monkey child” in the fifteenth stanza. They acknowledge that this child grows at a different rate and will grow to have a very different understanding of the world than the human child does. The monkey child thinks, “Who knows what?” This question is rhetorical and meant to convey humanity’s true lack of understanding when it comes to the lives of other creatures on the planet.
The final stanza concludes the poem in a peaceful and optimistic tone, however, one that is also filled with a sad acknowledgment of the future. The two children consider each other, with the same “newly formed heads” balanced on “fragile necks.” They are, the speaker concludes “absorbing each other / with intense gentleness.” But, this is something that (as the previous lines alluded to) will not last forever. The child will grow, and words will take on a new meaning. No longer will they feel that they are on level ground with other living beings, like the monkey. Superiority and “abstractions” will take over.
The purpose is to praise and admire an interesting interaction between a young boy and a young monkey at what is presumably a zoo. This interaction is made more meaningful by the fact that the speaker knows that this kind of gentle consideration of one another is not going to last forever.
There are a few different themes going on in this poem. They include the value of all living things, the power of words, and fear of the unknown. Neither the child nor the monkey is old enough to have developed a fear of one another, something that will change eventually.
The message is that human beings should do a better job trying to understand their fellow living creatures, like monkeys, instead of instinctively giving into fear and arrogance. The child is at an age where this is still possible.
‘The Stare’ is about a brief interaction that the speaker, usually considered to be the poet herself, observed. That is, a young human child and a young monkey child staring at each other through the glass at a zoo.
Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some other Sujata Bhatt poems. For example:
- ‘Partition‘ – describes a woman’s journey to a railway station to provide for those in need.
- ‘A Different History‘ – revisits the poet’s history in a curious way.
- ‘The Peacock‘ – was inspired by the poet’s interaction with a peacock.