by James McWilliams
Life Studies / From the Union Dead
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 176pp
In 1958, The Partisan Review published Robert Lowell’s poem “Skunk Hour.” This was a notable moment in American literary history. The poem was closely linked to Lowell’s friendship with Elizabeth Bishop. Reading and re-reading Bishop’s work allowed Lowell to escape, as he put it, “the shell of my old manner.” It is to her that he dedicates this poem.
“Skunk Hour” is worthy of close study because it captures Robert Lowell in the midst of creative transformation. He alters himself from a formal to a confessional poet in the middle of the poem. It happens “right before our eyes,” as one critic aptly put it.
What follows is my own stanza-by-stanza attempt to make sense of it. I’ve always loved this poem for the way it hits my ear, and the shifting imagery. But I’ve never really slowed down and tried to figure out why. This is what I’m doing here. My comments are italicized —jm———
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.
Robert Lowell’s mother died just before he started writing this poem. This opening stanza surely seems like a reference to her and her noble heritage. The “small b” reference — bishop — perhaps indicates that Lowell might be envisioning himself as a chess piece, setting himself up for a move.
Lowell in the late-1950s was anxious for a change. He wanted to transition from the formal stodginess that characterized his previous work. Though a Bostonian to the core, he was taken with the southern Agrarians (Allen Tate and that group) for their commitment to classical poetic form. But now he hoped to embrace a more openly confessional style. This was not natural for a Boston Brahmin to do. The Agrarians, for their part, were not at all interested in such a move.
Few critics would agree, but I see suggestions that Elizabeth Bishop could have been the island’s hermit / heiress. Granted, she was hardly in her dotage in 1958 (she was 47), but her private nature and self-assured presence of mind impressed Lowell for being both aristocratically dignified and liberated from convention. Plus, her work was mature. Bishop, for her part, adored this poem, and her own poem “The Armadillo” (dedicated to Lowell) inspired it.
Whomever the subject may be — and it could be a composite — there is a mix of heady notions in play. Aristocracy, Spartan simplicity, privilege, and death (or at least disintegration) are all suggested. From the start it seems that this poem is aiming for something grand and profound.
But the greatest thing about it — it’s biggest surprise — is that it ends with rodents rummaging through trash. There is no transcendence. Instead, it goes in a radically inward direction, spiraling centripetally on itself like a Nautilus, down to the tip of a skunk’s nose.
the hierarchic privacy
of Queen Victoria’s century,
she buys up all
the eyesores facing her shore,
and lets them fall.
The hermit heiress plays her own game of chess. Her moves are private, aesthetic, confident. They swell with aristocratic pretension. Maybe they are driven by a vague need for isolation, a self-serving desire for Victorian decorum, a wish to lord over her seashore in peace. In her mind, none of these desires require justification.
There’s considerable ambivalence in this stanza. Her motives seem judged by the narrator — gobbling up all the eyesores that inconvenience her and what not. But there is something dignified in our hermit’s desire. And there’s something undignified — not necessarily in a bad way — about Lowell invading this privacy and wondering if he wants to carry on tradition.
Where will the bishop move?
The benefits of not moving are clear. As Auden notably noted, “poetry makes nothing happen.” This is a world where the eyesores don’t fall on their own but await the authority of the hermit / heiress to allow them to topple into the sea. Hard to sail away from that. Will a poem make something happen for Lowell?
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.
The season is ill. Whatever illness are we talking about is a bit unclear, but we can guess. The prospect of new wealth, tacky wealth, invading the “Spartan” aristocratic culture of Nautilus Island is evident in the ephemerality of the island’s status. It’s an insecurity suggested by the fleeting millionaire (it seems so quaint, millionaire, in our era of billionaires). And then the lobstermen — not one, but a gang of them — buy the yawl at auction. The nouveau riche LL Bean guy has moved on to another distraction, another showy display of shiny bad taste. For the islanders, such developments constitute tragedy.
The fox “stains” the Blue Hill (blue blood?). Lowell said that the image was chosen merely to portray the rusty fall color on Blue Hill. But I’m not buying that, as Lowell also called this Maine town “declining.” That can only mean one thing to a Brahmin: invasion.
Lowell was a guarded, mentally troubled, and closely watched fixture of one of the East Coast’s most established families. Perhaps he is trying to commiserate with the stoic hermit, forge a connection over that gauche yawl and that LL Bean millionaire. Reestablish royal hierarchy. Maybe that is what the poet wants. A return to tradition, a return to the Agrarian poet Allen Tate’s front lawn where Lowell once camped for a month, in a tent, in rural Kentucky, and showed Tate his formalist poetry, seeking his approval.
Or maybe not.
And now our fairy
decorator brightens his shop for fall;
his fishnets filled with orange cork,
orange, his cobbler’s bench and awl;
there is no money in his work,
he’d rather marry.
Today, when poems come with trigger warnings, you could not get away with “fairy” (but that’s for another discussion). For now, fall is coming, and the gay shopkeeper displays the tools of traditional trades — the symbols of real work: the cobbler’s awl, the fisherman’s net.
But it’s all for show.
No cobbler or fisherman could afford to live on this island of rarified old money. This exclusion seems especially unfair as, before the Brahmin consolidation of cultural and social power, the fishermen and lobstermen and even the cobblers were the pioneers who did the actual work of colonization. The pilgrims and their guts paved the way for the island’s reserved elite, who now enhance their sense of worth by allowing the old shacks to fall. Such is the privilege of such privilege.
The decorator is disingenuous and shallow, at least as the narrator presents him. Orange, noted twice, suggests his need for attention. The decorator does not even decorate, he “brightens,” a word that draws a contrast to the muted sensibilities of our hermit / heiress and her Spartan ways. To even keep his shop the decorator has had to deny his sexuality and earn a living the old-fashioned way: marriage. The full catastrophe.
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.
Here is the poem’s fulcrum — the right before our eyes moment. At this point the narrator-now in the first person — breaks away from his earlier obsession with the island’s elite occupants and the culture they harbored so loyally. In a parallel way, Lowell breaks from his formalist poetic habit. He initiates his own emotionally inward and isolated spiral into himself.
“One dark night” suggests that we’re getting ready to hear the kind of story you might tell around a campfire. But it’s also a reference to The Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross. And it’s the latter, heavier meaning that Lowell has in mind. He’s about to embrace a life-altering shift in perspective, all of it rooted in his decision to train his poetic focus in a more confessional direction. Notably, it begins by looking into other worlds. Or, in this case, spying on them. Isn’t that what every artist must do? Spy into other worlds, before taking on your own?
An old Tudor Ford takes him up the “hill’s skull” — a reference to the place where Jesus was crucified. He seeks lovers in “love-cars” that “lay together.” And we now have some sex amid its counterpart, death, as symbolized by the shelf of graves overlooking the sea. (I mean, is there anything more darkly poetic than sex above a graveyard?) Lowell is losing some control. The car climbs the hill; the narrator does not drive it. This is a considerably different position to be in than letting the eyesores crumble.
The term “love-cars” has a connection to a poet who seems exactly the right poet to evoke for Lowell’s transition: Whitman. In his own dotage, Whitman used to have his carriage driver follow other carriages in the park to find lovers slumped down in intimacy. It gave him a thrill. (Poets writing about Walt generally seem to do that, show him in thrall — think of Allen Ginsberg’s “I saw you Walt Whitman . . . eying the grocery boys” from “A Supermarket in California.”)
Lowell’s mind, indeed, is not right under such foreign circumstances, under the distant spell of the Beats. And that’s just the thing. The poet must become unhinged, leap from a familiar place to a foreign one, and become sensually disoriented through sex and death. Spying into love-cars represents the kind of voyeurism at the heart of the poetry Lowell wants to write, and the poetry that Whitman wrote. Later, near the end of his career, Lowell would wonder if he had “perhaps plotted too freely with my life.” Here we find see the earliest seed of that regret.
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;
With Lowell skulking around love-cars, that one word — “bleats” — returns us to the sheep grazing above the sea from the first stanza. This poem has several such call-backs. They do a keep the past and present tethered in the poem. Themes persistently crawl back on time, as if Lowell might be second guessing himself. Thus, even as the poet has wandered away, the hermit / heiress and her quiet aristocratic poise remain a constant backdrop, a reminder of the journey he has taken from tradition. As he sinks into moral degeneracy (“I am myself hell” — a Milton reference), anguish, and shame, Lowell frees his poem to find its roots in rawness, a quest he will never abandon.
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’ve read several interpretations of this stanza, and I think it makes the most sense when we remember that skunks are mammals that spray a foul odor from anal sacs and scavenge trash to stay alive. They are unrefined and opportunistic, nasty and shameless animals. When white-striped and moonstruck skunks march down Main Street, seeking food and salvation, as if they were dignified families seeking affirmation under the “chalk-dry and spar spire” church, it’s hard not to think of them as an unrefined gathering Lowells, reduced in stature, let loose on the world.
As we see in the last stanza, that switch in perspective, that rejection of the Brahmin tradition, is a declaration of independence. The fact that it’s delivered from the back porch, by a man not lording over the world he owns, but a swirl of skunks, only heightens the power of the transition.
I stand on top
of our back steps and breathe the rich air—
a mother skunk with her column of kittens swills the garbage
She jabs her wedge-head in a cup
of sour cream, drops her ostrich tail,
and will not scare.
Skunk hour has arrived. And so has Lowell’s.
Nota Bene: For a song inspired by this poem, see–
James McWilliams is an historian and writer based in Austin, Texas. His books include The Modern Savage: Our Unthinking Decision to Eat Animals (Thomas Dunne Books), Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly (Little, Brown) and A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America (Columbia University Press). His writings have appeared in The Paris Review daily, The New Yorker.com, The New York Times, Harper’s, The Washington Post, Slate, The American Scholar, Texas Monthly, The Atlantic, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. He is a contributing writer at Pacific Standard, and his literary non-fiction has appeared in The Millions, Quarterly Conversation, The New York Times Book Review, and The Hedgehog Review.