Favorite Poem of the Week: Woodchucks by Maxine Kumin

I’ve had the privilege of substitute teaching a beginning creative writing class for one of my professors several times this summer. It’s been a fantastic experience. Such brilliant students. Such great material to teach. Getting paid to talk about one of the things I love most in this world: writing. Yesterday we discussed “Woodchucks” by Maxine Kumin. I’ve read the poem many times, always enjoyed it, but never has it spoken to me and echoed my thoughts as it did this week.


Gassing the woodchucks didn’t turn out right.
The knockout bomb from the Feed and Grain Exchange
was featured as merciful, quick at the bone
and the case we had against them was airtight,
both exits shoehorned shut with puddingstone,
but they had a sub-sub-basement out of range.

Next morning they turned up again, no worse
for the cyanide than we for our cigarettes
and state-store Scotch, all of us up to scratch.
They brought down the marigolds as a matter of course
and then took over the vegetable patch
nipping the broccoli shoots, beheading the carrots.

The food from our mouths, I said, righteously thrilling
to the feel of the .22, the bullets’ neat noses.
I, a lapsed pacifist fallen from grace
puffed with Darwinian pieties for killing,
now drew a bead on the little woodchuck’s face.
He died down in the everbearing roses.

Ten minutes later I dropped the mother.She
flipflopped in the air and fell, her needle teeth
still hooked in a leaf of early Swiss chard.
Another baby next.O one-two-three
the murderer inside me rose up hard,
the hawkeye killer came on stage forthwith.

There’s one chuck left. Old wily fellow, he keeps
me cocked and ready day after day after day.
All night I hunt his humped-up form.I dream
I sight along the barrel in my sleep.
If only they’d all consented to die unseen
gassed underground the quiet Nazi way.

Maxine Kumin


As I’ve read news about the massacre in Aurora, Colorado, I’ve been thinking about human nature. And violence. And our society. My heart is broken. I hurt for the victims and their families. I hurt for the family of the gunman. I hurt for the gunman, for the deep, dark place he had to visit to do something so horrific.

I have seen opinions for and against gun control.

“If the theatre hadn’t been a gun-free zone, someone with a legal gun could have taken him down.”

“If gun control were tighter, someone would have questioned why someone had acquired so much weaponry.”

Here’s my thought:
Do we really have to live in a world where we even contemplate using guns against each other for any reason, a world of such deep antagonism?

I know that sounds very hippy-dippy, very “all you need is love,” but it all just baffles me.

Guns don’t bother me. I grew up with a dad who was a gunsmith, a hunter. I’ve grown up around law enforcement. Guns are not scary to me. What baffles me is that people I know to be kind and compassionate own handguns, expecting they will need to use them to protect themselves or others. People carry concealed handguns into church, just in case. Very good people spend a great deal of time contemplating the killing of another human being, in self-defense, because it seems a given that it will be necessary at some point. Why is violence the answer? Why aren’t we questioning what makes guns necessary, trying to fix that? (Both the NRA team and the GunControl team seem to support the violent status quo in one way or another.)

I am baffled by a society that glorifies violence in Batman movies, gritty violence that should utterly shock and sadden us. We pay big money to recreate it. We ask for it.

Then we are surprised when Aurora happens.

I don’t know the answers. I want to think that humanity is generally good. But I also know that Maxine Kumin was onto something in her poem. Whether it’s gas, or gun, or both, even in confirmed pacifists lies the potential for violence.

And I wish I knew what we could do to make that not so.

Update: This is a start. I am very touched that Christian Bale took the time to visit victims and first responders in Colorado.


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