Skunk Hour

By Robert Lowell 1917–1977 Robert Lowell

(For Elizabeth Bishop)

Nautilus Island’s hermit
heiress still lives through winter in her Spartan cottage;
her sheep still graze above the sea.
Her son’s a bishop. Her farmer
is first selectman in our village;
she’s in her dotage.

Thirsting for
the hierarchic privacy
of Queen Victoria’s century,
she buys up all
the eyesores facing her shore,
and lets them fall.

The season’s ill—
we’ve lost our summer millionaire,
who seemed to leap from an L. L. Bean
catalogue. His nine-knot yawl
was auctioned off to lobstermen.
A red fox stain covers Blue Hill.

And now our fairy
decorator brightens his shop for fall;
his fishnet’s filled with orange cork,
orange, his cobbler’s bench and awl;
there is no money in his work,
he’d rather marry.

One dark night,
my Tudor Ford climbed the hill’s skull;
I watched for love-cars. Lights turned down,
they lay together, hull to hull,
where the graveyard shelves on the town. . . .
My mind’s not right.

A car radio bleats,
“Love, O careless Love. . . .” I hear
my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell,
as if my hand were at its throat. . . .
I myself am hell;
nobody’s here—

only skunks, that search
in the moonlight for a bite to eat.
They march on their soles up Main Street:
white stripes, moonstruck eyes’ red fire
under the chalk-dry and spar spire
of the Trinitarian Church.

I stand on top
of our back steps and breathe the rich air—
a mother skunk with her column of kittens swills the garbage pail
She jabs her wedge-head in a cup
of sour cream, drops her ostrich tail,
and will not scare.

Robert Lowell, “Skunk Hour” from Life Studies. Copyright © 1956, 1959 by Robert Lowell, renewed © 1987 by Harriet W. Lowell, Sheridan Lowell, and Caroline Lowell. Reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC.

Source: Life Studies (1987)

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Poet Robert Lowell 1917–1977

POET’S REGION U.S., New England

SCHOOL / PERIOD Confessional

Subjects Nature, Relationships, Pets, Fall, Living, Growing Old, Disappointment & Failure, Landscapes & Pastorals, Social Commentaries, Money & Economics, Class

Poetic Terms Rhymed Stanza, Confessional

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Robert Lowell: “Skunk Hour”

Witness the making of a new American poetics.

By Troy Jollimore

“Skunk Hour” depicts a man at a moment of crisis.

In the early 1950s, Robert Lowell was a successful, even famous poet, yet was writing few poems. American culture was changing rapidly and dynamically in those postwar years, and Lowell—due in part to his encounters with Allen Ginsberg and Beat culture—was beginning to feel that his work was archaic and staid. His poems, he worried, were too old-fashioned, too tight-lipped and taciturn, to capture the vivid immediacy of contemporary American life. “Prehistoric monsters,” he called them, “dragged down into the bog and death by their ponderous armor.” But how could he incorporate more personal matters into his poetry without violating the privacy of his loved ones, and turning his life into mere material?

That his life at this particular point in time offered up so much material only exacerbated the sense of crisis. In a span of about three years, Lowell turned 40 and became both an orphan and a parent. His mother, with whom he had had a complex and difficult relationship, embodied the “double-edged sword”—liberty and privilege on the one hand, social constraint and oppressive propriety on the other—that his Boston family’s high social status represented. And Lowell had inherited something else from his family, too: a debilitating manic depression, whose agonizing cycles repeatedly institutionalized him during this period.

“Skunk Hour” expresses the turmoil of Lowell’s personal life at this crucial point. It is a poem framed by matriarchal images, and built around an analogy between art and voyeurism. It also dramatizes an inner debate between the demands of formality and discretion on the one hand and, on the other, the longing for an open and candid poetry that would capture the life of a privileged and educated American man in the middle of the 20th century.

The first framing matriarchal image to which we are introduced is “Nautilus Island’s hermit / heiress”:

Nautilus Island’s hermit
heiress still lives through winter in her Spartan cottage;
her sheep still graze above the sea.
Her son’s a bishop. Her farmer
is first selectman in our village;
she’s in her dotage.

Thirsting for
the hierarchic privacy
of Queen Victoria’s century,
she buys up all
the eyesores facing her shore,
and lets them fall.

Lowell uses the pronoun “her” to denote nearly every noun in the first stanza. The hermit heiress owns everything in her little world; she seems to know no form of relationship other than that of possession. While she may be a stand-in for Lowell’s mother, at a deeper level she represents Lowell himself, and his fears of what he might become: an isolated, irrelevant creature of the past, ensconced in his social class like an island dweller facing an empty shore.

Lowell’s language is replete with words indicating aristocratic status (“heiress,” “above,” “selectman,” “hierarchic”), isolation (“Island,” “hermit,” “privacy”), and the anachronistic persistence of relics of the past in the vastly changed conditions of the present. Phrases such as “Spartan cottage” and “Queen Victoria’s century” suggest specific historical eras that contrast with the liberalized, modernistic present. The hermit heiress’s venture into real estate, meanwhile, seems to express a deep-seated revulsion toward the present era, in favor of the bubble of privilege and “hierarchic privacy” that she desires to preserve.

Lowell’s conflict is also evident in other images he presents. Beginning in the third stanza, Lowell introduces a series of images relating to the color red:

The season’s ill—
we’ve lost our summer millionaire,
who seemed to leap from an L. L. Bean
catalogue. His nine-knot yawl
was auctioned off to lobstermen.
A red fox stain covers Blue Hill.

This image is followed later by the blood cell that houses Lowell’s sobbing spirit in stanza six, and the “red fire” of the skunks’ “moonstruck eyes” in stanza seven. Two of these images are explicitly linked to animals, while the third is connected to Lowell himself, metaphorically reinforcing the ongoing inner conflict between the poet’s civilized self and his wilder impulses.

In the first four stanzas, the poet’s presence is signaled indirectly, through possessive phrases such as “our village,” “our summer millionaire,” and “our fairy decorator.” In stanza five, halfway through the poem, he finally makes a direct appearance:

One dark night,
my Tudor Ford climbed the hill’s skull;
I watched for love-cars. Lights turned down,
they lay together, hull to hull,
where the graveyard shelves on the town. . . .
My mind’s not right.

Even here he seems hesitant about fully entering the poem as an active participant. It is not Lowell, after all, but his “Tudor Ford” (another anachronistic reference to a bygone era) that climbs the hill, almost as if it were acting of its own volition.

It is not long before we realize the explanation of Lowell’s reluctance to assume responsibility. He is engaged in illicit and voyeuristic activity, spying on the “love-cars” in which young lovers, inspired by the era’s pop songs, are pursuing their furtive trysts. The link between poetry and voyeurism is the vertebral metaphor of the poem: Lowell’s spying is a metaphor for his art, which, as he was coming to realize, could not be as honest as it needed to be without revealing confidences and risking pain. Even as he finds himself drawn toward a new, more candid type of poetry, he worries (“My mind’s not right”) that this desire is a manifestation of a base impulse, perhaps even a consequence of his mental instability.

This inner conflict reaches its climax in stanza six, before giving way to a new set of images:

A car radio bleats,
“Love, careless Love. . . .” I hear
my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell,
as if my hand were at its throat. . . .
I myself am hell;
nobody’s here—

only skunks, that search
in the moonlight for a bite to eat.
They march on their soles up Main Street:
white stripes, moonstruck eyes’ red fire
under the chalk-dry and spar spire
of the Trinitarian Church.

The skunks are presented as outsiders, rebels, figures of strength who have taken over the sleepy town’s Main Street and whose vivid, almost demonic colors—“white stripes, moonstruck eyes’ red fire”—appear in sharp contrast to the wan “chalk-dry and spar spire / of the Trinitarian Church.” The skunks manifest power rather than privilege: they “march . . . up Main Street” as would an invading army. Lowell’s admiration of them, and the potential freedom they represent, is palpable.

The structure of the poem, we now realize, is highly symmetrical: two stanzas devoted to a matriarchal figure; two to a society in crisis; two to an individual—the poet—in crisis; and two to a society led by an alternative matriarchal figure who represents a potential resolution to Lowell’s dilemma. The hermit heiress, who would have had him forgo artistic candor and continue to write “prehistoric monsters” all his life, finds her nemesis in the mother skunk:

I stand on top
of our back steps and breathe the rich air—
a mother skunk with her column of kittens swills the garbage pail.
She jabs her wedge-head in a cup
of sour cream, drops her ostrich tail,
and will not scare.

What Lowell finds in the mother skunk is an image for the artist he is becoming. It is a rich and deeply ambivalent image: the poet as garbage-pail-swiller, rooting about in humanity’s trash and finding nourishment there, bringing what is hidden to light. The metaphor seems both mocking and derogatory. There is something ridiculous about the image of the skunk with her nose plunged into the sour cream cup, and also something a bit disgusting. Yet what is most clear is that the skunk is entirely unconcerned with our reaction to her. We are beyond her notice—almost, one senses, beneath her contempt. And it is this, perhaps, that injects an element of potential liberation into the scene.

Lowell would never give himself over entirely to the path of the skunk. Though he would become known as one of the first and most significant of the so-called Confessional poets, his poetry would eschew the uninhibitedness and frequent anti-intellectualism of many of the Beats. What feeds his later work is precisely what energizes “Skunk Hour”: the perpetual, irresolvable tension between the wild and the civilized, between the artist’s need to reveal and the human being’s need to conceal.

At times, particularly in his later years, he would ask how well he had balanced these. In the last poem of his penultimate book, The Dolphin, Lowell would wonder whether he had “plotted perhaps too freely with my life, / not avoiding injury to others, / not avoiding injury to myself— / to ask compassion. . . .” The conflicts that would continue to shape the remainder of Lowell’s artistic career—and, to a great extent, his personal life as well—are all present, microcosmically, in the deeply illuminating self-portrait that “Skunk Hour” ultimately reveals itself to be.

Skunk Hour

By Robert Lowell 1917–1977 Robert Lowell
 Robert  Lowell

Biography

Robert Lowell is best known for his volume Life Studies, but his true greatness as an American poet lies in the astonishing variety of his work. In the 1940s he wrote intricate and tightly patterned poems that incorporated traditional meter and rhyme; in the late 1950s when he published Life Studies, he began to write startlingly original personal or "confessional" poetry in much looser forms and meters; in the 1960s he wrote . . .

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Nature, Relationships, Pets, Fall, Living, Growing Old, Disappointment & Failure, Landscapes & Pastorals, Social Commentaries, Money & Economics, Class

POET’S REGION U.S., New England

SCHOOL / PERIOD Confessional

Poetic Terms Rhymed Stanza, Confessional

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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