Robert Lowell

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Skunk Hour

Lowell, Robert

Last Updated: Nov-19-2009
Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poem


Skunk Hour is the penultimate poem in Lowell’s 1959 volume of poetry, Life Studies. It is composed of 8 sestets with an internal rhyming scheme in each sestet that can only be called irregular from sestet to sestet. The poem moves slowly, beginning with a descriptive tone that is somber ("she buys up all / the eyesores facing her shore, / and lets them fall."), progresses to frankly pessimistic ("the season’s ill") and ultimately becomes confessional and egoistically relational ("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.")

The poem opens with a series of portraits of people and phenomena that comprise the poet’s current landscape: "Nautilus Island’s hermit heiress" who is "in her dotage"; the "summer millionaire" whose nine-knot yawl / was auctioned off to lobstermen"; the decorator who brightens his shop but appears as hopeless as the narrator, who draws yet another contrast between appearance and reality, remarking that the decorator knows "there is no money in his work, / he’d rather marry."

The fifth sestet marks a turning point and, to signal it, Lowell takes as his first line the famous "Una noche oscura" of St. John of the Cross, another dour poet/mystic: "One dark night". (In a collection of essays cited on the Internet (reference 1) Lowell writes, "Then all comes alive in stanzas V and VI. This is the dark night. I hoped my readers would remember St. John of the Cross’s poem. My night is not gracious, but secular, puritan, and agnostical. An Existentialist night.") This line begins the first of two consecutive sestets that are concerned with corporal love, bracketing a middle line that announces, to no reader’s surprise, "My mind’s not right."

The second of these sestets moves from a maudlin song refrain to a frankly depressive, almost suicidal pose: "I hear / my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell, / as if my hand were at its throat. . . ." and ends with "I myself am hell; / nobody’s here --", which, as James E. B. Breslin reminds us, is a quotation from Satan in Book IV of Paradise Lost. (ref.1)

Enter the titular skunks: as a parenthetical predicate to the final line of the preceding sestet ("nobody’s here --"), the poet corrects the apparently psychological meaning of "nobody’s here --" to refer to physical presence, noting that in fact there is someone here, namely a family of skunks.

The final two sestets are among the most visually powerful images in poetry with the paradoxically high drama one would not expect from skunks. The hungry skunks "march on their soles up Main Street" in search of food with fiery red eyes as the poet, in response to their upward march, stands "on top / of our back steps" and takes a deep breath of the "rich air", watching the mother skunk jab her head into a cup of sour cream--a mother skunk who, in a fitting yet curiously ambiguous final line, "will not scare."

reference 1. accessed January 5, 2005.

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