Maxine Kumin Questions and Answers

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Maxine Kumin's "Woodchucks" alludes to a particular relationship between practical human endeavor and the difficulties that might arise. Write an essay that discusses this poem's presentation of the challenges that humans face in trying to accomplish or build things.

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Well, to start answering this question, we first need to identify what the people in the poem are trying to accomplish. Arguably, there are two separate goals which have been met by challenges from the natural phenomenon in the garden: the woodchucks. The first goal the family has is to grow their own food—the woodchucks circumvent this by eating the "food from our mouths," from marigolds to broccoli and carrots.

As such, the family then try to "gas" the woodchucks out of existence but are then thwarted by the fact that the woodchucks have a "sub-sub-basement" lower down than the area affected by the cyanide bomb. The humans then have to overcome this by shooting at the woodchucks and, at the end of the poem, one "wily" character still remains at large.

The next key question is how does Kumin present this interaction between humans and their animal enemies? Certainly, "enemy" is a useful word—Kumin's imagery personifies the animals: she suggests she and the family have "a case against" them. Then the language she uses to describe their assault on the plants is warlike—they "brought down" the marigolds and "took over" the vegetable patch. It is as if the humans and the animals are on separate sides in a war which has caused the pacifism of the speaker to lapse, turning her into a "killer."

The final two lines of the poem are particularly notable, however—the allusion to Nazis creates an uncomfortable comparison between the humans trying to gas the weaker woodchucks and the Nazis gassing Jews. This forces us to question what right the humans really had to try and eradicate these woodchucks, who are simply trying to survive. As far as they are concerned, this is their land; the humans are simply building vegetable patches on it. This allusion makes us question whether it is we humans, really, who are attacking nature; are their challenges to us acts of bravery on their part?

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