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.
– Maxine Kumin
This poem hinges on the voice. It’s not about woodchucks, it’s not about killing, it’s about the narrator.
On first reading, Woodchucks is an almost cartoonish tale of farmer vs. varmint, only slightly more serious than Elmer Fudd going after Bugs Bunny. It was written in 1972, and it it weren’t attributed to Maxine Kumin, it could have been mistaken for Carl Spackler’s lone literary achievement.
But there’s that last line – too jarring for a folksy farmer poem, and it makes you reread the entire thing, alert for nuance from Kumin. If you know your writers, you remember that Kumin is an animal rights supporter, unlikely to let a killer of animals off so lightly.
Some commentators see a progression in the ferocity of the narrator, but I don’t think that’s quite it. Despite the narrator’s assurances, gassing the family of woodchucks is not truly more merciful than other methods of killing them. The marketing claim that it is somehow more merciful is undercut by the final lines and the reference to the lives lost in the gas chambers of the Holocaust.
The frustration of the failed initial plan annihilation does, however, reveal a deeper bloodthirst in the narrator. It’s there in the beginning, with “quick to the bone” death being sought, and the “murderer” is already “inside me” when she resorts to bullets.
Those who prefer to read this poem as a progression of viciousness are missing the more pessimistic point of Kumin’s poem. The narrator does not become more dehumanized as the poem progresses – the mass murder of gassing is no less (perhaps more?) dehumanizing than the individual deaths brought by bullets. By the end, the narrator blames the sole survivor for keeping her “cocked and ready”, but that implies that the narrator is a gun by her very nature. You can’t keep a bouquet “cocked and ready”.
On a closing note, did you happen to notice the rhyme in this poem? The rhyming pattern is so subtle – ABCACB – that it is hard to notice, yet makes the poem flow beautifully. Rhyme, in the hand of a master, does not necessarily bring a sing-song tone.