“The Woodchucks” illustrated #vizpoem

Maxine Kumin’s “Woodchucks” begins with an ambiguity concerning how aware the speaker is of her own culpability in massacring the family of woodchucks destroying her garden, and ends with an ambiguity over whether her self-blame has gone too far. The opening line, “Gassing the woodchucks didn’t work out right” is suspended between an acknowledgment that the “knock-out bomb” she got from the Feed and Grain Exchange (a farming co-op equivalent to Southern States here in Richmond) was inadequate to the task of exterminating them and a recognition that it was the first of many steps she would undertake to get rid of them (it didn’t work immediately, or outright). Two lines later the attempted extermination is qualified as if it were an execution after a trial and conviction: “The case we had against them was airtight,” where the speaker is more of a courtroom prosecutor than a hobbyist gardener. This too is ambiguous, since in order for underground gassing to work one would need to close off the openings and make it as likely as possible that the gas wouldn’t dissipate until the woodchucks were killed. The fact that the gas didn’t work (despite “both exits [having been] shoehorned shut with puddingstone”) also suggests that the speaker believes in retrospect that she did not, in fact, have just cause to kill the woodchucks, however mercifully painless might prove to be. And in retaliation the woodchucks respond with an execution of their own: the carrots are “beheaded.”

“Quick at the bone” gas would kill woodchucks just as completely as her next weapon of choice, the .22 calibre handgun; the main difference is in the attitude of the speaker towards the act. She is much more invested in the deaths of the woodchucks while packing heat, because she is personally responsible for carrying out their deaths — and the diction shows it: “drawing a bead”; “I dropped the mother.” The speaker notes the dissonance of this new appropriation of violence into her character — she is now a “lapsed pacifist,” but only very recently lapsed, as in the moment she picked up the gun was when she lapsed. Also, the righteous thrill she feels when the gun is in her hand is not the righteousness we might normally associate with justice (the justice obliquely invoked in the first stanza) but that of “Darwinian pieties”: a different standard of morality that would justify the killing of the wookchucks because of the speaker’s superiority — and survival is won by the stronger/fitter species, in this case the one with the bullets and the Scotch whisky. But of course, such a view completely negates the speaker’s earlier attempt to justify the woodschucks’ extermination as a trial, conviction, and execution, since there was no due process or jury of the woodchucks’ peers. Once she invokes Darwin, there’s no going back to any sense of fairness or equality between the woodchucks and the farmer. “The food from our mouths!” also rings false, since anybody growing backyard swiss chard is not starving. That’s a coterie niche green.

So my question at the end of the poem is not whether the speaker believes it was right or wrong to kill the woodchucks — their deaths haunt her dreams, so it’s pretty clear she has a guilty conscience. Rather, I’m wondering whether the speaker blames herself too strenuously for what she did. There is no circumstance under which comparing your actions with the Third Reich could be favorable: “if only they’d consented to die unseen / gassed underground the quiet Nazi way” is utterly self-condemnatory, even if so ironic it would not be admissible evidence in court (perhaps). Of course she wishes that, now that her dreams are haunted just as much by nightmares of the slain woodchucks as of the one that got away — which is further evidence that this recently emerged side of her personality has not gone away and was perhaps always there to begin with. Of course she wishes never to have been so personally involved in their deaths — although since gassing would still have been extermination, perhaps in a way she is grateful for having had her choices made so real by that involvement, so that she was forced to become aware of what she was doing and her personal responsibility in ending their lives.

HOWEVA, let’s take a step back for a moment. She’s a gardener, and vermin were eating her crop. Is that the same thing as the systematic extermination of the Jews in Hitler’s Germany? Does the comparison of her killing of the woodchucks to the Holocaust look like an overly cavalier reference to the Holocaust, and make us dislike the speaker even more for the gall required to compare her emotional discomfort to that far vaster horror? Or is it a helpful reminder that the “Darwinian pieties” that led her to the complacent assumption that her backyard was more important than the lives of living things was exactly the same impulse that led the Germans to their own overly complacent assumptions, which may have sounded harmless during an election (Germans are better than Jews) but were absolutely and utterly unspeakable when the Nazis zealously put them into practice?

This is the sort of HOWEVA moment we will come back to in two weeks when we discuss posthuman poetry. For now, let me end by saying that this poem is a great example of the ways poems can send us back to the beginning, possibly several times, unfolding new layers of meaning each time we do so. Our reckoning what a speaker is truly saying, and why they are talking in the first place, and what they meant to accomplish by saying what they have to say, gets modified each time we get a new piece of evidence, or consider alternate explanations for why this word or figure and not this other one was chosen, or for why the form of the poem draws our attention to features of what the speaker says in ways that may or may not be in league with that speech. For example, the rhyme scheme of “Woodchucks” is one of the best reasons I can give you for why the first and third lines are ambiguous — “out right” is rhymed with “airtight,” and since both of those phrases prove to be ironic because of the content, and those ironies are related to one another, I can reasonably say that the poem means for us to consider both ambiguous options (justified retribution vs speciesist holocaust) simultaneously.

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