“Please God Let the Chicken Bucket be OK”: A Bucketful of Social Satire in Jennifer Knox’s “Chicken Bucket”
Romance and familial life, at first glance, do not appear to be of much importance in Jennifer Knox’s “Chicken Bucket”—but upon closer inspection, romance and family life are really what the poem is all about, albeit these themes are perceived through the eyes of a thoroughly debauched thirteen year old girl transitioning from childhood to adulthood in a cascading fit of booze, schedule 1 narcotics, underage sex, and fried fast food. One could be excused for calling Knox an ironic poet, because if romance and familial relations are the dominant themes of Chicken Bucket they are only so by way of their rather conspicuous absence—at least, a quick examination would lead one to think this. However, romance and familial life are really the heart and soul of Knox’s “Chicken Bucket”—they are just presented in a torpid, mile-a-minute, MTV-addicted, ADHD-suffering manner—which means if you blink you will miss them because they are wedged in between endless lines of drug use, sex, drunkenness, more drug use, and more sex. Finally, however, Knox pulls back just long enough to deliver a macro-perspective on what, till the end, has been a series of microcosmic looks at the thought processes and actions of a day in the life of the poem’s main character. The macro-perspective indeed puts it all into perspective and shows that in modern America, where the girl next door happens to live in Trailer Park, USA, romance and familial relations have degenerated into a type of savagery that would make a less robust reader blush and balk at the ribaldry contained therein. This paper will show that, in spite of the savage satirical takedown of the poem’s characters, Knox presents a no-holds-barred, unapologetic characterization of life in America that is equal parts sad and hilarious—because ideas of romance and family life are so far what traditional expectations have groomed most to think await them out in the real world.
Knox presents reality without any sentimental dressings: “Chicken Bucket” is about as real as anything can get—even if its characters are exaggerated for comedic effect. Anyone who has ever read or watched the news, tuned in for two minutes of Jerry Springer, Dr. Phil, or any of the other daytime talk shows where circus freaks disguised as people take the stage to outdo one another in feats of crass exploitation, recognizes these characters and can identify the current of truthfulness that carries them forward. The reader is quickly introduced to Cassie, the real-world narrator in “Chicken Bucket,” who is having a special day: she is turning thirteen—and to celebrate, she engages in a series of inappropriate sexual relationships portrayed as perfectly normal and suitable actions for a thirteen year old girl—like shaking hands with friends. As though this were not shocking enough, she also uses a range of drugs—from weed to crank to Whip-It, which contains, according to Ross and Chuchmach, nitrous oxide that can give a brief high when inhaled. In short, the young, underage teen Cassie lives a life of indiscriminate sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll (her rabbit—before he was lost—was named REO Speedwagon) and is portrayed as being on a crash course with destiny—which, in Knox’s takedown of modern America, is marriage to her mother’s boyfriend Rick.
Cassie trades the traditional, modest and mainly innocent culture of the 4-H for the whirlwind lifestyle of a modern teen straight out of an MTV-style Real World catastrophe where the main starlets are undoubtedly bound for a Jerry Springer type of denouement by the time they hit age 17. Cassie is just embarking on her life as a young adult—but not in a way that would be recognizably suitable if judged by any traditional mores or standards. For this reason, Knox’s poem is a pointed social satire: it gives a rich and profane look at the modern life of a thirteen year old caught between two worlds—adolescence and adulthood—and having nothing to navigate these two worlds by other than crank given to her by her teacher, alcohol sold to her by the guy at Hardy’s liquor store who gives “moustache rides” for 10 cents (according to his t-shirt), which elicits a wry remark from Cassie: “All I got’s a nickel” (Knox 31).
Every line contains a zinger: Mama tells Cassie to go get dinner—a chicken bucket—and throws her the keys—not to the car but to Mama’s wheel chair. Yet this seems an appropriate mode of transportation given that Cassie, her Mama and Rick live in a trailer park where, conventional stereotyping is not only welcome in Knox’s satire but dialed up as high as it can go. When Cassie returns home, for instance, she finds the heads ripped off all her stuffed animals—a symbol of the end of her childhood and innocence and an appropriate allegory given the way she ripped herself out of the wholesome world of the 4-H club in the poem’s opening lines—renouncing her childhood because “I smoke way too much pot for that shit” (Knox 2) and “Besides, Mama lost the rabbit and both legs / from the hip down in Vegas” (Knox 3-4). In other words, Cassie has no more connection to the ordered world of the 4-H club than her mother has connection to her toes. The reader is never told of how Mama lost her legs—and in typical style for the poem, Knox does not hesitate long enough to allow Cassie to even think it an important detail to provide. Cassie is on to what interests her now—growing up fast.
She breaks the news to her teacher, Mr. Ortiz, whose response really sets the tone for the poem’s ribald take on modern American youth: “I'll miss you, Cassie,” he says, “then he gives me a dime of free crank and we have sex” (Knox 8-9). Cassie, being a good girl, takes the drugs home where she shares them with her family: “I do up the crank with Mama and her boyfriend, Rick” (Knox 10). Papa, whoever and wherever he is, gets no mention: in his place is the live-in…