by Amy Bowers
The glowing computer screen commands my focus at 5 a.m. as I teach international middle school students literature. This week we are reading “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers” (1951) by Adrienne Rich and I am trying to prod my students to say what the tigers in Aunt Jennifer’s needlework might represent. They have no idea. They are twelve and hardly understand embroidery, let alone gender dynamics in midcentury American marriages. But we try.
In three quatrains filled with rhyme, alliteration, and imagery, Rich stitches tigers who I imagine become animated on the cloth as they are stitched. A woolen thread is drawn through and a furred foot twitches. Fingers pull a French knot taut and an amber eye glances to the side. Stray strings are snipped and the tiger’s hair rearranges itself on the skin as it intuits danger. Tigers are freedom for Aunt Jennifer; a woman caged in an oppressive marriage where her wedding band is both a physical and metaphorical weight. The tigers are wild and singular in their intent. They are a delicious desire and a safe space. Aunt Jennifer escapes her days with them, prancing through the woods, waiting for death. Her’s or Uncle’s — either will be an escape.
I wonder about my accidental collection of tigers, the ones I have gathered around me as my marriage dissolved. A succulent grows inside a tiger shaped planter I bought at Michaels. I stick incense in the dirt so the tiger smokes Nag Champa as I wash dishes and look into its black outlined eyes. So calm and strong. I need to be calm and strong. I lean back into a pillow printed with tigers who saunter in silence; I nearly feel them wiggle on my back. And the menagerie that jumped into my cart as I thrifted with my daughter. All those plastic and ceramic cats, teeth bared, silently screaming, awaken something deep. A primal will to survive framed through the ability to endure, to put my head down and creep, or stalk one slow steady step at a time.
My favorite book as a kid, Leo the Late Bloomer by Robert Krause, is about a little tiger ironically named Leo, who is drawn with wavy lines that make him appear unsure. He laments that he is unable to do anything the other tigers can do. He is messy, uncoordinated, and loud. I identified with him heartily, and waited patiently to bloom myself. I might still be waiting. For Leo, his bloom, his power comes in an ecstatic moment. All the parts of his life begin to gravitate towards each other and work as a cohesive whole. He can suddenly do everything with aplomb and style, including eating blueberries with neat little claws and tidy lips. There is the idea that if we wait long enough, all our parts will come together. But for most tigers, and women, the daily seems to keep the discreet parts of ourselves separate — as if there is a fear that if we were allowed full access to our gifts, they would coalesce into something unmanageable. Into something like Aunt Jennifer’s tigers who “do not fear … men.”
Ellsworth Kelly’s painting Tiger speaks to this sense of fragmentation. Kelly’s tiger is a whisper of an idea, a whole made from parts, but barely. Dissected, articulated, and held within hard-edged boxes. Five canvases in the colors that make up a tiger are installed close together to create a seamless rectangle that captures color and flattens it into a structure that denies the tiger its wild self.
This is not the tiger of my imagination, running free, stalking, leaping. Adrienne Rich’s “bright topaz denizens” of the wild. No. It is a cool calculation of what it would take to hold, to cage, and to tame (or break). It is overly intellectual. In general, I like Kelly’s work, but this feels like a narcissist’s tiger.
He uses more white than any other color. And the orange, the color most associated with tigers, comprises the smallest square, just a hint hanging out in the right hand corner. A reminder that the best part of a thing, might be the least valued to the captor (or husband). Kelly’s tiger exists in black and white, the hot pink, bright orange, and yellow are pushed to the edge and forced to compete garishly with each other. It is thought that the color palette, though obviously referencing a tiger’s colors, was also inspired by a panel of the resurrection in Matthias Grunewald’s Isenheim altarpiece which Kelly saw while in France. The energy of the altarpiece, with Christ’s arms held upward in triumph as he is being lifted towards a glowing sun, is absent in Kelly’s piece. Spiritual exuberance is replaced with flatted staidness. Aunt Jennifer’s “fluttering fingers” are only still in death.
Tigers have always been walking with me. When I was a kid I would stare through the thick, scratched, nearly opaque glass of the tiger display at Busch Gardens. I willed the tigers to move and romp and play. But in the Florida heat they only lay there, trapped and panting hard. Their thick rubber play ball floating, discolored in the green moat that surrounded them.
They were there too when I took my children to see a local tiger sanctuary in the Florida swamp, which could have been called the, “I got a tiger in the backyard” experience. The owner constructed a concrete pad for his tiger and surrounded that with a double layer of chain-linked fence. We were instructed to walk around the perimeter; mothers gently murmured to their kids to keep their hands at their sides while the man repeatedly told us we were looking at a “living dinosaur” and that soon they would all be gone. That was why he did what he did, including spending more money on the tiger’s diet and medical needs than his own – to save them for his own grandchildren. The tiger cub we pet at the end of the tour died a week later, from a respiratory infection.
This desire to hold and cage and protect the wild beasts for their own good, angers me. Whether in a modern painting, or a backyard, they should not be pinned in or down. Tigers are wild, full and vibrating like Leo who finally realizes his strength. Like we wish Aunt Jennifer would if she could only grip her terrified hands and jump into the world of green with the unafraid cats that she has created in the stolen moments of her days. I look to my planter, the succulent now dried up, and vow to “go on prancing, proud and unafraid.”
Amy Bowers is a Florida native. Her writing explores domestic culture, insect and natural worlds, and manufactured s/places. She has work placed in [PANK], Washington Square Review, West Trade Review, Assay, and LA Review of Books. Her essay “Manual” is anthologized in A Harp in the Stars: An Anthology of Lyric Essays.