Robert Lowell

Lowell's "Skunk Hour" is often cited as the quintessential poem of the confessional movement, though its landmark status is due less to its content -which now strikes us as rather tame compared to some of the later products of the confessionals - and more to its historical place as the first poem to be written in the new style. In fact, "Skunk Hour," which appears as the last poem in Life Studies, was the first poem in the volume to be finished and the work that Lowell considered "the anchor poem of the sequence." He began the poem in August 1957 while he was visiting the coastal town of Castine, Maine. As Lowell tells it, he had been struck with the sense of "having nothing to write, of having, at least, no language." With the writing of "Skunk Hour," he was able to abandon his previous formal style and, inspired by his friend Elizabeth Bishop's poem "The Armadillo," write a poem in "short line stanzas with drifting description." Though different from Lowell's previous style, the poem is in fact highly crafted. It is composed in eight six-line stanzas with a variable meter and rhyme scheme; the first four stanzas address the decay of the town, and the second four deal with his personal ordeal, the "dark night of the soul" from which he is saved by the appearance of a family of skunks.

The style of the first half of the poem is gently mocking of the town and its inhabitants. There is the eccentric heiress who prefers "Queen Victoria's century" to the present; now, "in her dotage," she tries to resist the modern world by buying "all / the eyesores facing her shore," but then "lets them fall." Below her on the social scale is the "summer millionaire" who represents the superficiality and lack oftaste among the town's newer inhabitants; he "seemed to leap from an L. L. Bean catalogue," but even he has now left the town and sold his "nine-knot yawl" to lobstermen. Finally, the town's "fairy decorator" has painted everything in his antique shop orange, perhaps attempting to promote his now useless objects (a cobbler's bench and awl) to tourists. Lowell's portrait of the town presents everything as somehow out of key; or, as he more emphatically puts it, "the season's ill." The town, which seems devoid of productive labor or ideas and in the process of social and physical decay, serves as an analogue for the state into which Lowell fears his own poetry has fallen.

In the second half of the poem, the tone dramatically shifts as the "illness" of the "season" turns into Lowell's own "ill-spirit" and his disturbing sense that "my mind's not right":

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 -

The poem's most striking lines are those in which he implicitly compares the landscape of "love-cars" lying "hull to hull" with his own mental state. He is isolated in his "Tudor Ford" (its name - a pun on "two door" - created by the era's tastemakers to enhance its appeal), and can only experience the encounters of lovers within their parked cars as perverted and morbid. The hill is transformed into a "skull" - intensifying the earlier imagery of the town's illness and the "red fox stain" covering "Blue Hill" - and the line of parked cars is placed right next to the town's cemetery. Lowell packs the stanza with a densely figurative language: there is a metonymic substitution in which the cars stand for the lovers within, followed by an implied metaphor comparing the cars to boats. The nautical metaphor of cars' bumpers as ships' hulls is perhaps suggested by the proximity of the sea and the imagery of boats and fishing nets in the early section of the poem, but it lends an almost surreal feeling to the stanza, which is in turn intensified by the haunting image of the graveyard which "shelves on the town." Lowell is presumably using the word "shelves" in the sense of sloping or inclining, but the word remains ambiguous in its connotation. Do the shelves here suggest the interlocking fates of the living and the dead, or do they suggest a "shelving," or putting aside, of a town that has become useless?

At the poem's climactic moment, Lowell contrasts a popular song playing on the car radio with a quote from Milton's Paradise Lost: "I myself am Hell." The song's lyrics in fact contain another buried reference to death -"Now you see what careless love will do... Make you kill yourself and your sweetheart too" - and Milton's Satan is the agent behind the destruction of the earthly paradise created around the love of Adam and Eve. But what brings Lowell back from the brink of suicidal despair is a group of skunks searching "in the moonlight for a bite to eat." The sudden appearance of the skunks - who seem to wander into the poem out of nowhere - once again shifts the tone from agonized to humorous:

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.

Here, as James Breslin suggests, Lowell makes his first movement toward an "authentic connection with otherness."6 The skunks present such a comical sight, marching unabashedly up Main Street and sticking their heads in cups of sour cream, that Lowell cannot maintain the high seriousness of his nocturnal vision. The pun on "soles" ("souls") suggests that these physical creatures are unconcerned with human forms of religious and moral doubt: they simply go about their business, in contrast with both the "chalk-dry and spar" morality of the Trinitarian Church and the social and political realities represented by "Main Street." Charles Altieri sums up the symbolic significance of the skunks:

By returning to the prereflective natural order . . . Lowell makes the skunk embody the determination and self-concern of all living beings and beyond that, as mother, a willingness to face danger in order to accept the responsibility of her role . . . Now one sees both a parody of the Eucharist and, on another level, a genuine moment of communion, for, as the skunk swills from the garbage pail, Lowell finds precisely the image of endurance and survival he had sought in vain in the rest of the volume ... As the skunk makes her way beneath the "chalk-dry church spire" reminding the reader of the dead vertical world, she embodies whatever possibilities Lowell can find for restoring a context of value within secular and biological necessity.7

The skunk's appearance is at best a partial restitution of meaningful value in the life of the poem's speaker. Having rejected the options of both civic responsibility (Main Street) and organized religion (the Trinitarian Church), the speaker finds value only in an animal associated with garbage and noxious odors. As Altieri suggests, the figure of the skunk resists our attempt to see it as some form of redemption: the identification of man and skunk is "too foreign to one's sensibilities for there to be completely affirmative resolutions." Lowell's use of this highly untraditional metaphor for the poet's survival suggests his new understanding of the "confessional" poet. In a strategy that will be adopted by other confessional poets as well, the association of the speaker or protagonist with an image of debasement maps the poet's damaged psyche onto the outside world.

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