Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 459

McDonald is not a confessional poet—his poems are fictions, and his mask remains intentionally in place. He is, however, a jet pilot and a Vietnam veteran, and he has drawn upon his war experience extensively in both his poetry and fiction. He is also a regionalist who writes of rugged outdoor activities such as hunting and ranching in the American West. It is not surprising then that these inner regions would come together in the story of a man, home from the war, who is trying to define himself. It is typical of McDonald’s work that the narrator is acting with courage under intense psychological distress: He is facing the fact of who he is, and he is coping with that fact—even with the fact of evil within.

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The divided self, the war within between evil and good, is one of the most ancient and persistent themes in literature. In this poem, the interior struggle is enhanced and objectified through the pursuit of the cougar. At first the wounded cat seems little more than a formal necessity: If the speaker is stalking, he needs to be stalking something. Yet it is thematically significant that two hunts are taking place. The narrator is hunting for the cougar, but he is also hunting for some post-Vietnam understanding of himself. Both hunts take place in rough terrain: The cougar is hunted on a steep and thickly wooded hillside; the self is hunted through years of dreams and inner turmoil. Both are seeking a wounded prey that leaves a difficult trail—the cougar was wounded by the hunter and is tracked by spoor on the brush; the self was wounded by its Vietnam experience and is tracked by its sometimes irrational, violent action. Finally, both are dangerous when wounded. A cougar, generally little threat to humans, is likely to attack when wounded; similarly, the wounded self the hunter seeks must remove himself from his friends, lest they see—and maybe suffer at the hands of—the “damned madman.”

The poem offers no simple or even permanent solution for what must be done after the noise of Saigon. The struggle to adjust is continual, and no end is coming into sight. McDonald provides only a glimpse of how one former soldier deals with the violent strains of his woundedness, doing his best not to hurt others and working hard to come to terms with who he is now. If he finds self-definition, it is only this: He is a man who, by the most strenuous perseverance, can function in society and even be a good friend, but he is also a man who sometimes must remove himself from society and exert himself in the strenuous and violent spilling of “bad blood.”

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