Poetry Review: Robert Lowell, “Skunk Hour”

13 Feb

“I myself am hell;/nobody’s here–”

The northeast has many small villages that are absolutely full in the summer, but empty out in the fall and winter, leaving them as veritable ghost towns.  It’s an interesting space because the inhabitants resent the visitors, but at the same time feel left behind each year when they leave.  After all, the visitors tend to be wealthy, and act like they own the place when they’re there.  However later, the town feels terribly empty, even the restaurants close at the end of the season, and it’s like nature can take its place again.  That’s exactly the sort of village we’re looking at, off-season, in winter and fall, a whole lot of emptiness and a whole lot of loneliness to follow.

We start out with a story of the famous hermit heiress, who bought out all the houses in the view of her island mansion, and let them fall.  She probably had them destroyed, but I like more the idea of her just buying them and letting them crumble slowly as the years go on.  We know she’s old, and that she never leaves (they compare her to Queen Victoria who similarly hid herself away when her husband died.)

And then one of the summer visitors, a millionaire who fancied himself a “sailor” died.  There’s a certain irony that his super fancy boat ended up being owned by lobster fishermen (the locals.)    The speaker states that “the season’s ill–” adding a sort of bad season feeling to the poem, and the interjection makes these two stories seem to be connected, like there’s something bad in the air.  “A red fox stain covers blue hill.”  Yes, this is just fall colors, but there’s something inherently wrong with blue hill being red, like a bad omen.

The third character–a “fairy decorator” (a gay man) puts things up in his shop.  A fishnet filled with orange cork (decorative).  He’s a cobbler.  We hear an ironic complaint that there’s no money in his work and that he’d rather marry.

So the king is dead, the queen is hiding, and the prince is a dandy.  That’s a simplification for sure, but the idea is that these three characters from this town are all messed up, things are in disorder.

Now we get to his story.  He goes up to make-out hill, looking for the parked people.  He never says why, but he’s being drawn to community and this is the only community he can find in this place, at this time of night.  He notes they are at a graveyard, but stops those thoughts.  “My mind’s not right…”

He hears a song from a radio.  He feels sorrow, like his spirit is being choked (by himself).  Then we get to the lines “I myself am hell/nobody’s here.”  which can mean that he has nobody, that he IS nobody, or just be a really nice transition to the skunk part of the poem.

He sees from his back steps (I imagine him smoking), a skunk walking down the middle of main street with her kittens.  She starts going through the garbage for food.  She drops her tail (skunks hold up their tails when they’re about to spray, so dropping it means she feels safe).  And “will not scare.”

The end image is ambivalent enough to not really mean one thing or another, but I find it to be a positive symbol, that though the people might be falling apart, even the town, nature still goes on its way and adapts to whatever happens around it.  It is not a comfortable image, one of scavenging in a deserted town, but the skunks seem to thrive on living off the remains of modern life.  When the end of the world happens, another world  always begins, and the speaker in his desolate inner world sees this.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: