Skunk Hour

A poem by Robert Lowell:

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 solves 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 is a collection of brief interpretations of this poem. My favorite? “The end of the poem provides a perfect emblem of secular communion.”

I’m not sure what that means. To me, the poem is about the daily, on-going lives of forgotten animals, human and nonhuman. Also, the image of the skunk rooting through trash is a good metaphor for all kinds of things, but especially the hatred projected on animals that have adapted to human environments.

We loathe roaches, rats, grackles, and other “pests” because they produce a reaction of disgust, and have come to symbolize unsanitary or otherwise dirty things. But their filth is a human creation, not their own.

Roaches seem digusting only because they’ve learned to thrive in disgusting human structures, and only provoke fervent ire because they dare to extend their territory beyond the subterranean or hidden world and “invade” our space. But they wouldn’t be there in the first place without a vast network of sewers, and would die off in non-tropical environments without artificial heat.

Skunks seem similarly maligned, simply because they are usually spotted rooting through trash and of course they produce a foul-smelling substance in self-defense. But skunks are only eating garbage because it’s a readily available food source (Americans produce about 251 million tons of trash a year, according to the EPA) in an ever-shrinking natural habitat. Anyway, this is a huge digression from the poem, but there you go.


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