Here is a “microessay” done for Professor John Schilb at Indiana University’s Summer seminar, which I’ll be attending next week. It is a brief analysis of the speaker in Maxine Kumin’s poem, “Woodchucks.”
First comes the poem, then the analysis. Enjoy:
Gassing the woodchucks didn’t turn out right.
The knockout bomb from the Feed and Grain Exchange
was featured as merciful, quick at the bone
and the case we had against them was airtight,
both exits shoehorned shut with puddingstone,
but they had a sub-sub-basement out of range.
Next morning they turned up again, no worse
for the cyanide than we for our cigarettes
and state-store Scotch, all of us up to scratch.
They brought down the marigolds as a matter of course
and then took over the vegetable patch
nipping the broccoli shoots, beheading the carrots.
The food from our mouths, I said, righteously thrilling
to the feel of the .22, the bullets’ neat noses.
I, a lapsed pacifist fallen from grace
puffed with Darwinian pieties for killing,
now drew a bead on the little woodchuck’s face.
He died down in the everbearing roses.
Ten minutes later I dropped the mother. She
flipflopped in the air and fell, her needle teeth
still hooked in a leaf of early Swiss chard.
Another baby next. O one-two-three
the murderer inside me rose up hard,
the hawkeye killer came on stage forthwith.
There’s one chuck left. Old wily fellow, he keeps
me cocked and ready day after day after day.
All night I hunt his humped-up form. I dream
I sight along the barrel in my sleep.
If only they’d all consented to die unseen
gassed underground the quiet Nazi way.
From Our Ground Time Here Will Be Brief, by Maxine Kumin, published by Penguin Books. Copyright © 1972, 1982 by Maxine Kumin.
L202 Prep class
Professor John Schilb
22 June 2017
How Much Good Can a Woodchuck Suck?: an analysis of the speaker in Kumin’s “Woodchucks”
The speaker of Maxine Kumin’s “Woodchucks” might be described as a well-meaning farmer whose efforts to rid his/her garden of a common nuisance have made him/her aware of his/her animalistic, predatory nature. At the end of the poem’s story, the speaker has become a discontented, obsessed killer, and a reader may infer a message that relying on conventional notions of compassion and justice will not keep “civilized” people from behaving in dehumanizing, “barbaric” ways, and in fact that such reliance can make the taking of others’ lives easier.
From the first line of the first stanza, the speaker’s word choice is brutally direct. It sounds appropriate to what the poem develops into: a speaker’s private guilty confession, rushed and laconic. The first line–a startling, complete sentence–immediately hearkens up images from the second world war, when “Gassing the [human] woodchucks didn’t turn out right” for anyone involved. The Nazis efficiently “gassed” their victims (deemed to be vermin and thieves), and the speaker starts his/her story confessing that Hitler’s “Final Solution” was his/her first choice in dealing with the problem of the woodchucks. The complications the speaker describes thereafter spring from his/her initial behavior not being Nazi enough, which is echoed in the very last line of the poem. In the first stanza’s irregular meter (balanced with a regular ABCACB rhyme scheme), the speaker relates how his/her illusions of being compassionate and just get called into question when technology fails him/her. The speaker represents him/herself as person whose bloodshed is civilized, insofar as it was motivated by legal reasoning (“the case we had against them was airtight”), and technologically designed to be “merciful” and “quick.” This attenuated and morally easy method of killing (the same as the Nazis’, which was “gassing” their victims far away from German citizens) fails, however, which destroys the speaker’s wish for an easy extermination and leads to the death-obsessed Ahab the speaker shows him/herself in the final stanza.
It is significant that once the speaker must reckon with the killing directly, his/her response ends up being enthusiastic, not reluctant–his/her “hawkeye killer [comes] on stage forthwith.” His/her naturalness in the role of assassin supports the claim that at their core, even humans who like to think of themselves as peaceful and civilized are predisposed to “Darwinian” struggle. Once the woodchuck’s resourcefulness has put the killing into the hands of the speaker, s/he is “righteously [thrilled/ [at the] feel of the .22 bullets’ neat noses.” True, even with the superior technology of the rifle, the speaker initially needs to be “puffed with Darwinian pieties for killing” before s/he can shoot the babies and mother, but once the first bloodletting is accomplished, the speaker feels utterly transformed (“the murderer inside me rose up hard”), and s/he becomes dedicated to continuing in his/her role as executioner. S/he claims that the elusive chuck “keeps/me cocked and ready day after day after day,” and even the speaker’s sleep is filled with dreams of the hunt (“All night I hunt his humped-up form”).
Kumin’s poem could be read as a reminder that despite the lofty advances of human civilization (with its “airtight” lawsuits and sophisticated, “featured” technologies), people like the speaker are only too ready, when feeling their survival threatened, to become animalistic competitors, unencumbered by feelings of goodwill toward other species or, as the second stanza suggests through the comparison of cyanide’s effects on the chucks to that of alcohol or tobacco on “us,” to their fellow humans. The last lines of the poem suggest that in a civilized person’s ideal world, those considered to be undesirable would “die unseen.” The speaker sighs “If only” the “quiet Nazi way” had not failed, which suggests that in the speaker’s mind, Hitler’s plan was not diabolical, but, for those with the upper hand, eminently practical and pacific.