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Excerpt from Chainsaw Versus the Pampas Grass by Simon Armitage
It seemed an unlikely match. All winter unplugged, grinding its teeth in a plastic sleeve, the chainsaw swung nose-down from a hook in the darkroom under the hatch in the floor. When offered the can it knocked back a quarter-pint of engine oil and juices ran from its joints and threads, oozed across the guide-bar and the maker's name, into the dry links.
One of the predominant themes in this poem is the idea of masculinity versus femininity. The main way in which Armitage presents this theme is through the use of personification. The chainsaw is personified throughout the poem in order to portray several stereotypical aspects of masculinity, for example:
- Inability to refuse a challenge – e.g. “When offered the can / it knocked back a quarter-pint of engine oil” (stanza 1), with the phrase “knocked back” implying a grudging desire to complete the task it has been set.
- Violent temper – e.g. “No gearing up or getting to speed, just an instant rage” (stanza 3), which highlights how the chainsaw (and, by extension, stereotypical men) will very quickly unleash pent up anger (which is not often expressed until it reaches extremes – another typically masculine feature).
- Overreaction – e.g. “This was the sledgehammer taken to crack the nut … Overkill” (stanza 5), which suggests that men are prone to reacting in an extreme manner to things which make them angry, even though this is not necessary, and may not even be effective (which is seen in this poem, when the pampas grass grows back).
- Sulking – e.g. “Back below stairs on its hook, the chainsaw seethed.” (stanza 8), which implies that the chainsaw (and, similarly, men), will remain angry for a long time after the loss of a battle, without moving on or admitting defeat.
Meanwhile, the pampas grass represents many stereotypical aspects of femininity, for example (all in stanza 4):
- Narcissism – e.g. “The pampas grass with its ludicrous feathers and plumes”, in which the word “ludicrous” implies that such accessories are unnecessary and self-centred, suggesting that the pampas grass (and, by extension, women) has a high opinion of itself.
- Desire for attention – e.g. “taking the warmth and light … stealing the show”, which implies that the pampas grass (representing women) will go to great lengths to be the centre of attention, often imposing itself on others in order to direct their attention towards it.
- Preoccupation with physical appearance – e.g. “sunning itself”, which suggests that women will spend large amounts of time trying to make themselves look attractive.
In this conflict, it is implied that femininity is victorious against masculinity, as, in spite of the speaker’s violent attempt to destroy the pampas grass, it quickly grows back, with the poet stating that “by June it was … wearing a new crown”, which suggests both that it has defeated the ‘masculine’ chainsaw (as a “crown”, whether literal or metaphorical, would clearly mark something out as a ruler or victor) and that such defeats occur regularly (as the adjective “new” implies that this ‘crown’ is one of many).
Certain lines in the poem also suggest a conflict between nature and the man made; for example, the opening line, “It seemed an unlikely match.” could suggest that the speaker feels as though machinery such as the chainsaw was not intended to be used against nature in this way, while the fact that the pampas grass regrows itself without any human intervention (“new shoots like asparagus tips sprang up from its nest”) while the chainsaw requires extensive assistance by the speaker (such as needing “engine oil” to function, and requiring the speaker to switch it on in the first place in order for it to do anything) hints that the speaker sees nature as being superior to anything created by humans.
- Sibilance (repetition of ‘s’ sounds) and assonance (repetition of vowel sounds) create an impression of hissing and seething (e.g. “The seamless urge to persist was as far as it got.”).
- Assonance when describing the pampas grass implies a lack of substance (e.g. “ludicrous feathers and plumes”).
- Hard and plosive consonants create a sense of anger and aggression (e.g. “back to the socket and flicked the switch”).
- The shorter stanzas at the end of the poem imply that the anger and confidence which the speaker (and the personified chainsaw) had at the beginning of the poem have been subdued.