What is the poem "Woodchucks" by Maxine Kumin about?

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litteacher8 | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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This poem is about attempts to eradicate woodchucks from a garden on a literal level.  On a figurative level, it is about how little it takes to turn a person to evil.

In the poem, the speaker is trying to eliminate an infestation of woodchucks.  The speaker first attempts to take out the woodchucks in the most humane way possible by gassing them with cyanide.  When the “merciful” method does not work, the speaker gets more and more frustrated.  The woodchucks are still destroying the garden.

I, a lapsed pacifist fallen from grace
puffed with Darwinian pieties for killing

Soon she takes a shotgun and begins shooting the woodchucks.  The speaker justifies this by the fact that she is killing the woodchucks, but she is actually beginning to enjoy it.

The key to the poem is in the last lines.

If only they'd all consented to die unseen

gassed underground the quiet Nazi way.

Although all of the woodchucks are gone, they have left a lasting effect on the speaker.  The speaker cannot be the same person, and has instead been turned into a killer and one who enjoys killing, if only woodchucks.  The allusion to the Holocaust demonstrates that the speaker wishes to have been able to euphemistically avoid taking responsibility for the killing and acknowledging the result.


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