Goodbye, Adrienne Rich!
An article on the Los Angeles Times website had me running upstairs for my copy of “20th Century Women’s Poetry”, a book I had pilfered from my sister’s shelf years ago. Adrienne Rich passed away at age 82. She is considered as one of the most notable feminist writers in the US.
I didn’t realize she was all that until yesterday. Had no idea she was an important writer and that she was multi-awarded. All I know is that her name got stuck in my head after reading her “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers”. Then I mentally filed her away under my category of “good writers of the 20th century”.
On this occasion of her death, let me share her poem that left a lasting impression on me.
Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers
by Adrienne Rich
Aunt Jennifer’s tigers prance across a screen,
Bright topaz denizens of a world of green.
They do not fear the men beneath the tree;
They pace in sleek chivalric certainty.
Aunt Jennifer’s finger fluttering through her wool
Find even the ivory needle hard to pull.
The massive weight of Uncle’s wedding band
Sits heavily upon Aunt Jennifer’s hand.
When Aunt is dead, her terrified hands will lie
Still ringed with ordeals she was mastered by.
The tigers in the panel that she made
Will go on prancing, proud and unafraid.
Aunt Jennifer is very skillful in needlepoint. The speaker in the poem is admiring the work she has done. The creatures depicted in her work stand in stark contrast with their creator. These tigers are courageous, confident, fierce, fearless, and proud. They are everything that she is not, everything that she wants to become. Aunt Jennifer is “terrified”. Her hands bear the scars of painful experiences that have made her subservient. She is in an abusive relationship and this marriage weighs her down. Her potential for growth, for doing, and achieving things, is restricted by that “massive weight of Uncle’s wedding band” on her hand. Aunt Jennifer will eventually die, but her beautiful work will remain.
I had read this back in 2007 and I couldn’t quite put a finger on whatever it is that draws me to it. Learning about the author’s death yesterday compelled me to examine this poem once again. Why do I like it so much?
There’s a certain musicality to it. That’s a plus factor. And I suppose if you grow up with Dr. Seuss, you can’t help but be a sucker for anything that rhymes. I went to sleep last night thinking about Aunt Jennifer. She is weak, fearful, and unable to overcome her oppressive situation, but though she is down, she’s not totally defeated. There’s something deep inside her that her oppressor can’t touch: her hopes and dreams, which are embodied by the tigers in her needlework. That’s what gives her the strength to endure. Bruised and battered, she marches on through life. On the outside she does not even remotely resemble the tigers that she hopes to become, but what she doesn’t know is that, by not giving in to despair, she actually possesses the fighting strength of a tiger. God knows it takes tremendous courage and strength to go on living when you’re in an abusive relationship. Some people have nervous breakdowns. Others contemplate suicide. But Aunt Jennifer survives because she embroiders beautiful tigers. She holds on to her dreams. When she dies, the tigers will still prevail because they represent a universal dream for womankind. All women long to be confident , strong, and unafraid of men. All women desire equality with men.
Thanks for this poem, Adrienne. RIP.