Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 459 words.)