The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“You Are in Bear Country” is a poem of seventy-three lines parodying a bureaucratic guidebook with futile warnings about bear attacks, which, for some reason, seem much more frightening to people than the threat of mass human violence such as nuclear annihilation. Maxine Kumin is a teacher, wife, mother, and author residing in Newton, Massachusetts; a collection of her poems, Up Country: Poems of New England (1973), won a Pulitzer Prize. Whether writing in verse or in prose, Kumin strives for the precise image, a lucidity of insight, and an economy of language.

The epigraph of “You Are in Bear Country” sums up the humorous content of the first sixty-five lines, which provide a satirical exemplum for the poem’s concluding message; according to the epigraph, it is “advice from a pamphlet published by the Canadian Minister of the Environment.”

What follows is a tongue-in-cheek parody of the Canadian pamphlet’s directives to avoid contact with bears, even to the point of stifling the sound of one’s own whistling, which it claims is too much like the siren sounds of bears mating. The implicit advice may be, ironically, to steer clear of joy and beauty springing from an unguarded immersion in nature.

The next verse paragraph continues the nonsensical advice and makes the vaguest of distinctions between grizzly and black bears—so vague, in fact, that it renders the advice useless and makes the bureaucratic speaker a fool. The third and fourth verse paragraphs express ironically the culminating stupidity of bureaucratic advice about ensuring one’s safety around bears. Nothing ultimately guarantees safety: Running away does not work; climbing a tree will not help; playing dead might not protect one against mauling or worse.

The final stanza is the poem’s reductio ad absurdum—the climactic absurdity of the previous catalog of tidy and futile advice. It is a moral commentary on the absurd fears of human beings. Death in nature is far less of a threat than death by human inventions that by the early 1980’s (when this poem was published) had created a nuclear capability of killing every man, woman, and child on Earth.