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

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edcon | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Assistant Educator

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Kumin's poem is an extended metaphor about how people are able, in their own minds, to justify violence against others.

The speaker begins by describing a relatively passive and discreet way of killing the woodchucks that are devouring her garden. She traps them underground and attempts to poison them. When that fails and the woodchucks eat her marigolds, broccoli, and carrots, her indignation deepens into what she believes is righteous anger, and she takes to shooting them with a .22 rifle.

Her justification for killing the animals is that they are stealing "the food from our mouths." One wonders if she really eats marigolds. She invokes Darwin's "survival of the fittest" and takes pleasure in killing, one after another, a whole family of woodchucks, marveling at how quickly she has warmed to becoming a sniper. She even adopts gunslinger descriptions like "I dropped the mother."

She recognizes her obsession with one woodchuck who evades her and wonders why he and the other woodchucks couldn't just die in the manner of the Nazis' victims: quietly poisoned, out of public view. It's as if she blames them for awakening her overt brutality--something she might prefer to keep under wraps.

The poem underscores how readily people's malevolence is awakened when they feel affronted. It is ironic that Darwin's name should be invoked, because the gardener's response is not a very "evolved" way of thinking. The speaker seems very self-aware yet unable to transcend a fairly barbaric reaction to another creature's attempt to survive.

litteacher8's profile pic

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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