“Wellfleet, Cape Cod”, a poem by Maxine Kumin

White Crest Beach at Wellfleet, Cape Cod. Matt Wade Photography via Wikimedia Commons.

White Crest Beach at Wellfleet, Cape Cod. Matt Wade Photography via Wikimedia Commons.

Wellfleet, Cape Cod

Lionesses do almost all of the hunting. They creep stealthily through vegetation and leap upon their unsuspecting prey.

Defenders of Wildlife

That frantic time we found the children

in a sweet-smelling heap in the dune grass

sprawled and vulnerable, the oldest one dozy,

they younger two deeply asleep after

an idyllic July afternoon, how tenderly

you untangled them, lifting the boy

to your shoulders, cupping the girl

in your arms as I whispered the eldest awake

and we formed a silent procession

back to the little cottage.

Of course the lioness would have eaten the children

if she found them huddled asleep on the veldt

all but invisible in the tall grasses while

we searched for them calling and calling…

Instead, all five settled at sundown, I poured

the wine, you pried open the oysters

we had wrenched from the rocks at low tide

not knowing the children had gone missing.

At midnight I saw the lioness. Her eyes were

two little green moons shining in the darkness.

Response to “Wellfleet, Cape Cod”

Note: Don’t read this until you’ve pondered the poem a bit on your own! There is no such thing as a correct response, and yours may be quite different!

There’s nothing like a vacation day when you’re a child, when the day seems to go on forever and you feel like the world is yours.

As parents, it’s also nice to be in a place where your normal responsibilities loom less large, and the adults get time for a little recreation too.

But nature is not a benevolent place, and if we let our guard down for a second, someone is always there, waiting to pounce.

Just as the speaker spends the afternoon oysters “wrenched from rocks”, (their home, remember), the “lioness” waits to snatch their children. There are no literal lionesses on Cape Cod; in this case the darkness brings possible danger and fear…the “two little green moons”, which are beautiful, also show that night has fallen, leaving the children in danger of being lost, at least until morning, and exposed.

There is a contrast between the parents in the poem, searching and protecting their young, and the lioness, which the epigraph informs us is almost always the hunter for the family, and human family…although they are also hunters (oysters). We are all a part of a cycle of killing to nurture and nurturing by killing.

Intertextual Connection

Although lions and tigers are two different animals, the imagery in this poem makes me think of William Blake’s “The Tyger”, which you remember comes from Songs of Experience, and the image of the children sleeping in the grass evokes its contrasting poem in Songs of Innocence, “The Lamb” (free downloads from Project Gutenberg of Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience.

Personal Response

I have lived in a coastal community most of my live, and over the years I remember people dying at the beach, including children, from dangers such as rip currents and as fantastical as it might sound, shark attacks. These deaths usually happen from what I call the “Disneyland Effect”, when people lose sight of nature as a place that hides danger in its scenery and recreational possibilities and ignore both common sense and the warnings that our local authorities actually do clearly post.

Nature is not there to be our play land, and we should take a lesson from the animals and remember to always respect it.

Find “Wellfleet, Cape Cod” and more in Maxine Kumin’s collection, And Short the Season

About Maxine Kumin and links to more of her poems.