Skunk Hour

(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)

Writing Ideas

1. What kinds of wildlife do you see in your daily life? Write a poem that, like Lowell’s, describes an encounter between human civilization and nature.


2. Circle all the pronouns in “Skunk Hour.” What do you notice about they organize the poem? Try to write a poem that, like Lowell’s, moves through different points of view before ending with “I.”


3. Lowell’s poem seems divided in half by the startling admission, “My mind’s not right…” Write a poem that suddenly turns on an unexpected statement by its speaker.


4. How many colors does “Skunk Hour” mention? Circle all you can find and write a poem that uses the same “color scheme.”

Discussion Questions

1. Lowell’s poem begins with seemingly straightforward description, but what kinds of words does he use to describe “Nautilus Island” and its inhabitants? How does your image of the island change throughout the poem, and why?


2. Where does the speaker himself enter the poem? What is the effect of such a late entrance? How would the poem be different if the stanzas were rearranged?


3. Does “Skunk Hour” have a rhyme scheme? Go through the poem and circle all the rhymes—what effect do the rhymes have on you as you read the poem? Do you notice them? Why or why not?


4. Troy Jollimore, in his poem guide, notes that “Skunk Hour” is “built around an analogy between art and voyeurism.” How might poetry be like voyeurism? What similarities does Lowell seem to be making between the two in this poem?


5. How are the skunks described at the end? Compare their description to the opening stanzas—what do you notice about Lowell’s word choices?

Teaching Tips

1. As a class, listen to Robert Lowell read his poem (or ask students to read it aloud). Have students draw a “map” of Nautilus Island and the speaker’s journey around it. What happens within each stanza in the poem, and across stanzas? Ask students to think about why Lowell chooses to describe the inhabitants and sights he does, and in the way and order that he does. What undercurrents—about class, for example—do they see in the poem the more they read it?


2. Robert Lowell famously wrote “Skunk Hour” for Elizabeth Bishop, who just as famously had written “The Armadillo” for him. Have students read Bishop’s poem as well, and perhaps briefly introduce their friendship. (There is a good review of their correspondence in Poetry, “There’s Something Haunting and Nihilistic About Your Hairdresser.”) Discuss the similarities between the two poems—how are animals described in each? Why might both poets choose un-heroic, even unappealing, animals like armadillos and skunks to base their poems around?


3. Have students read Troy Jollimore’s well-written poem guide, or introduce its main themes to your class. Ask students to think about Lowell in his context as a “Confessional Poet,” and perhaps provide some further examples of Confessional poetry for them to read. Where does Lowell get most “confessional” in this poem? How does his “confessional” language differ from the other kinds of language at work? What does a poet risk by being emotionally transparent? Is all poetry confessional, in some sense? Should it be? After discussing Confessional poetry as a movement and an idea, have students write their own “confessional” poems. If they’re comfortable doing so, have them share with the class and discuss how their “confessional” poems differ, or do not, from their usual work.

More Poems by Robert Lowell