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Skunk Hour -- Robert Lowell

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.
-- Robert Lowell
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

40 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Judith Louise said...

While I hesitate to criticize Robert Lowell, the subtle bigotry of "our
fairy decorator" left a sour taste, especially when you consider that
Elizabeth Bishop herself was a lesbian.
Judith Louise

plett86 said...

although some of it was confusing because of my young maturity the parts and the way Mr. Lowell reads is absolutely amazing. he reads it, doesnt rhyme it and that is the way it should be.

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