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Alone as Children Ever Are

In one of his most moving poems, "The Woman at the Washington Zoo," Randall Jarrell (1914-1965) presents a woman of no particular accomplishment who—feeling her life drab and colorless—looks at the caged animals, "these beings trapped / As I am trapped but not, themselves, the trap." Given the banality of her life, it is her foreknowledge of impending death that preoccupies the poet. The routine, the ordinary, the humdrum have become too much for her. She seeks deliverance, even at the price of some imagined violence. In the end, thinking about the vulture, tearing at "the white rat that the foxes left," she begs it to transfigure itself and step down to her "as man." And the poem concludes, "You know what I was, / You see what I am: change me, change me!"

This longing for change is Jarrell's most emotionally intense, most highly charged theme. To transformation, to metamorphosis, even to transmogrification in its more grotesque forms Jarrell returned, again and again, in poem after poem. That in some profound way he was always dissatisfied with himself seems inescapable. And the shocking news, in October 1965, that this distinguished poet had been struck by an automobile on a dark highway in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, raised an ambiguous question as to whether it had been an accident or whether he had thrown himself in front of the speeding car. I shall return to...

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