‘Chainsaw Versus the Pampas Grass’ was first published in the poet’s 2002 collection The Universal Home Doctor. Within this piece, Armitage delvers into themes of man versus nature, violence, and defeat. The tone is direct, but also at times humorous.
The poem begins with the speaker going into detail about a chainsaw. He’s preparing it for a task, and like a caged animal it is ready to let its anger loose on whatever source the speaker chooses. Armitage makes use of personification throughout this poem, using it to describe the chainsaw as a snarling dangerous animal, but also its victim, the pampas grass. This large plant is located somewhere in the speaker’s yard and he’s determined to use his very angry chainsaw to destroy it.
At first, things seem to be going well. He attacks the plant with the machine and it is felled easily. It is compared throughout these stanzas to something weak, floral, and in the end feminine. It presents a striking contrast against the chainsaw which is all testosterone and unmanaged rage.
Things take a turn towards the end of the poem when the only thing left is the base of the plant. The speaker can’t get it ripped out of the ground so he sets it on fire. Unfortunately for him, the plant survives and by June it has regrown and nature has asserted its dominance once more over humankind.
‘Chainsaw Versus the Pampas Grass’ by Simon Armitage is made up of eight stanzas of irregular lengths. They vary from five lines up to eleven. Armitage did not choose to use a specific rhyme scheme to unify the lines of the poem, nor did he structure the lines to a particular metrical pattern. The lines themselves are very different from one another in length and the use of end punctuation.
Armitage’s diction is straightforward and easy to understand. He uses colloquialism such as “one last gulp,” “sweet tooth,” and “a good pull or shove”.
Armitage makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Chainsaw Versus the Pampas Grass’. These include personification, alliteration, and enjambment. The first, personification, occurs when a poet imbues a non-human creature or object with human characteristics.
This is the most important technique in the poem. It powers the entire narrative as the very animal, and sometimes human, seeming chainsaw goes up against the pampas grass.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, “double doors” in line two of the second stanza and “blur of the blade” in line four of the fifth stanza.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For instance, the transitions between lines one and two of the second stanza and two and three of the fourth.
It seemed an unlikely match. All winter unplugged,
grinding its teeth in a plastic sleeve, the chainsaw swung
oozed across the guide-bar and the maker’s name,
into the dry links
The speaker opens the poem with a simple description of an unknown “match”. The reader is immediately told that whatever the match is, it is “unlikely”. On one side, there is the chainsaw. It is personified, depicted as an animal with “grinding teeth”. It spent all winter unplugged, suggesting that it’s been in wait this whole time.
Eventually, it’s time for the chainsaw to come down again, and it is “offered the can”. This is the gasoline that someone is filling it up with. Again, like an animal, it guzzles the liquid. Alliteration is used to describe the way that the “juices” ran from its “joints”. It feels powerful, masculine, and determined. It’s easy to compare the way that the chainsaw took the gasoline to how someone might over-drink, forcing the liquid to flow from the corners of their mouth.
From the summerhouse, still holding one last gulp
of last year’s heat behind its double doors, and hung
with the weightless wreckage of wasps and flies,
back to the socket and flicked the switch, then walked again
and coupled the saw to the flex – clipped them together.
Then dropped the safety catch and gunned the trigger.
In the second stanza, the speaker breaks into the first-person, using the pronoun “I”. He describes how he got the bright orange power-line the chainsaw needs out of the summerhouse. The space it emerged from is vivid and easy to imagine. Armitage taps into the reader’s senses to depict the heat and the wasps and flies.
There is a sense of anticipation in these lines, also of danger. The cord and the ways the speaker brings it out is compared through a simile to feeding out “powder from a keg”.
Every step of this process is depicted. He walks here and there with anticipation building as to what is going to happen with this chainsaw. Although the last line of this stanza is end-stopped, it acts as if it were enjambed. It’s a cliff hanger, encouraging the reader to go to the next stanza and find out what happened after the speaker “gunned the trigger”.
No gearing up or getting to speed, just an instant rage,
the rush of metal lashing out at air, connected to the mains.
The chainsaw with its perfect disregard, its mood
I let it flare, lifted it into the sun
and felt the hundred beats per second drumming in its heart,
and felt the drive-wheel gargle in its throat.
At this point, the build-up is over. The power flows directly into the machine and it jumps to life with an “instant rage”. The speaker can very clearly feel the danger of the machine in his hands. It could tangle with “cloth, or jewellery, or hair” with complete disregard for the damage it does. This alludes to even worse bodily harm and how pleasurable that would be for the animal-like machine.
The poet does not back away from the gruesome imagery that’s inherently connected to a running chainsaw. He speaks of the machine’s “sweet tooth / for the flesh of the face and the bones underneath”.
Although the speaker is aware of the damage it could do, he doesn’t flinch. He leans into it. The speaker lifts the machine into the sun as if it’s a valiant weapon and he a very masculine hero/villain with a plan.
The pampas grass with its ludicrous feathers
and plumes. The pampas grass, taking the warmth and light
This was the sledgehammer taken to crack the nut.
Probably all that was needed here was a good pull or shove
The fourth stanza of ‘Chainsaw Versus the Pampas Grass’ is only five lines long. Here, the reader is introduced to the other side of the “match”. As the title states, the chainsaw is up against the “pampas grass with its ludicrous feathers”. This large plant is the exact opposite of the violent machine. It is feathered, light, and feminine in this equation. It suns itself luxuriously, but, one should not be fooled. There is another side to this plant. It also has “twelve-foot spears,” suggestive of phalluses.
or a pitchfork to lever it out at its base.
Overkill. I touched the blur of the blade
against the nearmost tip of a reed – it didn’t exist.
plant-juice spat from the pipes and tubes
and dust flew out as I ripped into pockets of dark, secret warmth.
The fifth stanza opens with a metaphor comparing the chainsaw to a sledgehammer and the pampas grass to a nut it opened. This metaphor is meant to depict the very prominent difference between the two sides of this match. It seems as though the pampas grass doesn’t stand a chance.
When the speaker does get to work on the grasses they are cut down easily. Just as it was introduced, the plant is continually described in a weak, stereotypically feminine way. It swoons and has “fringe”. The speaker is confident that what he’s doing is working. His task feels more like a game than a challenge at this point.
As if he’s killing a human or animal the plant spits out “juice” from “pipes and tubes” like blood. The last lines of this stanza allude to an upcoming change in the speaker’s ability to defeat this plant. There are “pockets of dark, secret warm” suggesting that there’s something about this plant he’s not prepared for.
To clear a space to work
I raked whatever was severed or felled or torn
towards the dead zone under the outhouse wall, to be fired.
I poured barbecue fluid into the patch
and threw in a match – it flamed for a minute, smoked
for a minute more, and went out. I left it at that.
The speaker is quite confident at this point. He’s raking the “severed or felled or torn” bits of the pampas grass to the side. All around him is a battlefield of carnage. There’s a specified “dead zone under the outhouses wall”. Eventually, he plans on burning “the dead”.
Armitage makes use of repetition in order to emphasize the process of cutting down and discarding the bits of plant. Finally, all that was left “was a flat stump the size of a manhole cover or barrel lid”. This last stump is all he has left to contend with, but it won’t be “dug with a spade or prized from the earth”.
It’s at this point that things take a turn and the speaker is unable to make any more progress. He stabbed the chainsaw into the earth vertically, trying to dig down into the base of the roots. But it got chocked up with soul and weeds. Despite his best, violent efforts, every step he takes is mended “somehow…like cutting at water or air with a knife”.
In the last attempt, he pours barbecue fluid on the stump and sets it alight. Feeling confident once more, he leaves the remains of the plant to its death.
In the weeks that came new shoots like asparagus tips
from the upstairs window like the midday moon.
The seventh and eighth stanzas of ‘Chainsaw Versus the Pampas Grass’ are shorter. The seventh explains how in the next few weeks, unsurprisingly to the reader but shocking to the speaker, “new shoots like asparagus tips / sprang up from its nest”. By the time that June rolled around, it was “wearing a new crown”. It’s won the battle, riding “high in its saddle” like the winner it is.
Back below stairs on its hook the chainsaw seethed.
The seamless urge to persist was as far as it got.
In the final stanza of ‘Chainsaw Versus the Pampas Grass,’ the speaker describes the anger, the chainsaw felt over being defeated. Like a human, it “seethed” at this outcome. But, the speaker left it there to work over its issue. In reality, this is a reference back to the speaker himself who has to come to terms with his defeat. In the end, nature won out over the best effort the speaker could put forward.