Chainsaw Versus the Pampas Grass

Simon Armitage

What appears at first to be a hymn to macho power tools ends with a note of the superiority of natural forces of growth. It starts with the cocky confidence of ‘It seemed an unlikely match’ and ends with frustration at limitations – ‘The seamless urge to persist was as far as it got.’

Although the title just refers to the chainsaw battling the pampas grass and that piece of throbbing machinery takes centre stage, the poem presents a man and machine joint effort and therefore also a joint ultimate failure. The narrator might try to abnegate responsibility in the title, but he is in control, evident in the preponderance of the first person pronoun – “I trailed…//…then walked//…and gunned’; ‘I let it flare’; ‘I touched…// I dabbed…//I lifted’; ‘I raked…// I poured…//I left it at that.’ While the speaker suggests that it is ‘the chainsaw’ that ‘seethed’, it is his failure too, which he seems reluctant to admit.

Instead the poem focuses on a rabid personification of the saw itself, starting with its pent-up urge to get going, ‘grinding its teeth’ through the winter before ‘it ‘knocked back’ oil like a shameless boozer. The second stanza pauses the personification to build up the suspense with power leads and sockets, though the explosive quality is hinted at with the simile of ‘powder from a keg’, before the language and the speaker’s action treat the garden tool as a weapon for war, as he ‘dropped the safety catch and gunned the trigger.’ Rambo, Mad Max, Dirty Harry – the role fits all the tropes of masculine power behind a big gun.

That violence is unleashed in the third stanza, the responsibility linguistically handed back to the saw and its ‘instant rage’, its ‘lashing out’ and its ‘perfect disregard’. Here the violent tone becomes uncomfortably mixed with the sensual, with references to the saw’s ‘bloody desire’, ‘sweet tooth / for the flesh’ and the ‘drumming in its heart’. It is interesting too that Armitage presents the pampas grass as showy and feminine, with ‘feather/ and plumes’ taking comfort among ‘footstools, cushions and tufts’.

Though these plants seemed armed with ‘twelve-foot spears’, they are useless against the saw in the following stanza. It only needs a touch to ensure that a stem ‘didn’t exist’. The lines combine a lexis of femininity in ‘swooned’, with violence as the speaker wields the weapon ‘with a sideways sweep’ and ‘carved’, then with pleasure in the ‘game’ and sensuality again with those ‘pockets of dark, secret warmth.’ The associations are disconcerting and remain so as the final actions are reminiscent of deliberate desecration as the speaker ‘drove’ the saw ‘vertically downward’ into the remnants of the plant before ‘I poured barbecue fluid into the patch/ and threw in a match’, the rhyme making the action seem casually playful.

Ultimately, though, man and machine are defeated and with the lexis of fertility, like ‘new shoots’ and ‘nest’, the grass recovers, grows ‘high’ again, leaving the speaker impotent, looking on like a spectator ‘from the upstairs window’, rather than the action hero he has presented himself as, while his tool hangs unused.

We can read this poem as a celebration of the resurgent power of nature, reclaiming its territory after attack, but much of the language and imagery suggests a less comforting concern with male aggression and delight in violence which the speaker portrays but does not confront.