Inspired by yesterday's poem...
(Poem #1309) 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.
Having read a lot of fiction set in small, desolate and dwindling coastal towns, I found the imagery in today's poem instantly familiar and instantly captivating. The jarring intrusion of the modern, and even more, the outside world is set against the inevitability of decay - the passing of an age not being killed from without, but dying from within. Interestingly, Lowell himself says (see links) that "The first four stanzas are meant to give a dawdling more or less amiable picture of a declining Maine sea town"; however, my reading of the poem was closer to Axelrod's The amiability of his tone is a ruse. He is describing more than scenery, he is describing the rotting of a whole social structure. The skunks, for all their infusion of energy and life into the scene, sustain the overall image of decay and desuetude - the final impression is of a rather grim desolation in which nature and the detritus of civilisation have sunk into a sort of weary equilibrium. The first person viewpoint does lead to an interesting note of ambiguity, but I think the lines "I myself am hell/ nobody's here -- only skunks" tip even that balance in favour of a sort of - well, I think Lowell's phrase "Existentialist night" sums it up nicely. Links: A set of (increasingly far out, if you ask me) writings on the poem: http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/g_l/lowell/skunk.htm Axelrod comes closest to my personal interpretation, though I'll admit that this is one of those poems that I think searching for hidden meanings only weakens. Poem #573 is another snapshot of a decaying sea town. I've just noticed that we've run only one other Robert Lowell poem (fairly recently, that too), and no biography. So here it is: [broken link] http://www.holycross.edu/departments/english/sluria/rolowell.htm martin