Signs of Life in Robert Lowell's "Skunk Hour"
Frank J. Kearful
Published in Connotations Vol. 23.2 (2013/14)
Our colloquial phrase “signs of life” presupposes signs of death, in the midst of which, or despite which, signs of life emerge. In order to detect any in Robert Lowell’s poetry, where illness and death threaten to prevail, we must become adepts in sign reading ranging from biblical typology to textual philology. This essay traces how acoustic “ill–ness” in “Skunk Hour,” in which both the season and the speaker are “ill” (stanzas 3, 5, 6), is linked with Lowell’s master tropes of hunger, food, and eating; hands and touch; falling, rising, and standing. Illness is healed phonetically in stanza 7 by a phoneme cluster lodged in a trope of hunger, food, and eating that is accompanied by a trope of standing, the foremost sign of life in Lowell’s poetry. The textual close reading on offer draws on cultural history and notes biographical contexts.
Our colloquial phrase "signs of life" presupposes signs of death, and plenty of them, in the midst of which, or despite which, signs of life emerge. In order to detect any in Lowell's poetry, where illness and death threaten to prevail, we need to become textual exegetes, rogue semiologists, and adepts in sign reading ranging from biblical typology to textual phonology. In this article I will be linking textual phonology with three of Lowell's master tropes that participate in a contested formation of signs of life in "Skunk Hour": falling/rising/standing, hands/touch, and hunger/food/eating.
Illness and death pervade Life Studies (1959), and as Part IV progresses, heading toward "Skunk Hour," Lowell shifts attention to his own recurrent manic–depressive illness. "Waking in the Blue" adverts to a stay in "a house for the mentally ill" (183) that was neither his first nor his last. The following poem, "Home After Three Months Away," depicts his homecoming as a "cured" mental patient, "Cured, I am frizzled, stale and small" (186). The sylleptic play on "cured" here at the end harks back to the "gobbets of porkrind in bowknots of gauze" that were tied on a tree to feed hungry sparrows in line 5. The poet's bouts with mental illness reach a climax in "Skunk Hour," in which "the season's ill" (stanza 3), the speaker's "mind's not right" (stanza 5), and he hears his "ill–spirit sob" (stanza 6). Furthermore, the phoneme cluster ill infiltrates the entire poem, creating an acoustic chamber of ill–ness, until in stanza 7 it is consumed in an ameliorative [→page 318] trope of hunger, food, and eating, thanks this time not to sparrows but to hungry skunks.1)
Ill first makes itself heard as a phoneme cluster in the opening line, "Nautilus Island's hermit," followed in stanza 1 by "heiress still," "her sheep still," and "our village":
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.
Ill as an acoustic sign is augmented orthographically by age in "village," which joins "cottage" and "dotage" in an age–ing weak rhyme. At the outset, "us" follows the phoneme cluster "ill" in "Nautilus," which also harbors an acoustic play on "Naut" / naught. The incorporation of ill in "still lives" fashions a sign of ongoing life that gives credit to the hermit heiress's pertinacity, however "ill" she may be. In "Skunk Hour," the terminal poem in Life Studies, the hermit heiress is the terminal "life study" of a dying New England aristocracy, to which Lowell himself belonged.
The opening stanza resounds with ill and is occupied by her, the "hermit / heiress." Everyone and everything are hers. Her cottage, her sheep, her farmer, her son fill designated roles—pastoral, agricultural, political, religious—within the mock–feudal domain of this lady of the manor. "Her sheep still graze above the sea" is the only line that does not end on a falling rhythmical note, and within it "above" rises. For a nostalgic, idyllic moment we are transported into a changeless pastoral world, a "still" world of otium and timelessness.2) Little do they know it, but the sheep also inaugurate hunger, food, and eating as a trope that skunks will appropriate in the final stanza.
In stanza 2, the hermit heiress seeks to preserve her best of all worlds by removing visual signs of a new order, the "eyesores" facing "her
shore" [→page 319]:
the hierarchic privacy
of Queen Victoria's century,
she buys up all
the eyesores facing her shore,
and lets them fall.
The phrasal verb "buys up" and the verbal phrase "lets fall" team up to invert the primal trope of falling/rising/standing that endows Lowell's poetry with signs of life restored. Pitch first rises—"she buys up all"—then falls—"lets them fall." The theme of the poem thus far might be summarized ill all fall, which also encapsulates the doctrine of original sin, that congenital spiritual "illness" which we all inherit. Puritan schoolchildren learned this while learning the alphabet as a rhyming system of religious signs in The New England Primer. Thus the letter A: "In Adam's Fall / We sinned all" (355). "Skunk Hour" adds, homophonically, the "I–sores" in "eyesores." But it is not just eyesores that disturb the hermit heiress, she also thirsts for "the hierarchic privacy / of Queen Victoria's century." "Skunk Hour" needs to be read against the foil of Cold War cultural, political, and legal issues that merged in major Supreme Court decisions regarding privacy.3)
The phoneme cluster ill becomes a full–blown predicative adjective at the outset of stanza 3:
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.
A long dash imposes a pregnant pause after two iambs, "The season's ill," before the verse spreads to iambic tetrameter in line 2. "The season's ill" was also the first line of an early draft of "Skunk Hour," which suggests the salience of "ill" in Lowell's poetic thinking during his composition of the poem.4) After the pause, it immediately infects "our summer millionaire," whom we have "lost." Did his "leap from an L. L. Bean / catalogue" anticipate a subsequent "leap," to be [→page 320] followed by a fall?5) Did he act upon what Philip Hobsbaum calls "the Death Wish" lurking in this and other stanzas (94)? I share Stephen Yenser's view that "the stanza intimates that 'the summer millionaire' was a suicide" and that "the means of suicide is implicit in 'leap'" (161). "His nine–knot yawl / was auctioned off to lobstermen" suggests that he has abruptly gone to meet his maker, leaving behind a yawl, that joins an all / fall / ill keening chorus, with "yawl" taking on its function as a verb, to wail.6) Acoustically, "L. L. Bean" is not precisely "ill ill been," but is close enough for the alert textual exegete to take aural notice. The tone of the poem at this stage is complex, and simply to refer to it as "elegiac" would miss the boat. Lowell's fellow poet Richard Wilbur got the tone about as right as anyone has: "the humor grows more emphatic in stanza III, at the expense of a deceased conspicuous consumer who looked, when alive, like a sporting–goods dummy, and whose death is a blow to the summer resort's economy and distinction. At the same time, we are half aware in this stanza of accumulating ideas of death and decay: to the addled heiress and the collapsing eyesores we must add the dead millionaire, the passing summer, and the decline of a fishing port into a vacation town" (85–86).
Wilbur's evocation of the summer millionaire in his dummy perfection summons up Lowell's image of himself in "My Last Afternoon with Uncle Devereux Winslow," the inaugural poem in the "Life Studies" sequence, which introduces the theme of pervasive illness and death: "I was five and a half. / My formal pearl gray shorts / had been worn for three minutes. / My perfection was the Olympian / poise of my models in the imperishable autumn / display windows / of Rogers Peet's boys' store below the State House / in Boston […]" (164). This first self–representation of Lowell standing in Life Studies comes to life by association with lifeless dummies standing in the windows of a traditional store favored by proper Bostonians for themselves and their suitably accoutred male offspring.7) The last self–representation of himself standing, having resisted a suicide impulse, will initiate the final stanza of "Skunk Hour." In the meantime the [→page 321] lobstermen provide a sign of life more vigorous than the hermit heiress who "still lives." Not infected by "illness," they fulfill their life–sustaining, traditional vocation of providing succulent food for the hungry.8) Summer millionaires may come and go, but they remain, now making productive use of the yawl, which I fancy they acquired at a knockdown price in coordinated bidding.
That doesn't stop ill from infiltrating a rhyme–word at the end of the stanza, which moves back to the present tense of the opening line: "A red fox stain covers Blue Hill." The line progresses deliberately, slowly, sounding six even stresses and seven different vowels, one per word: "A red fox stain covers Blue Hill."9) "Red" initially modifies "fox," but spreads to "stain" before encountering a "Blue Hill." "Stain" bears within itself etymological traces of Old Norse steinen = "to paint," as a deranged sort of expressionist painting suggests itself, one in which a blue (= "despondent") hill (infected with illness) is covered with blood, thus evoking the "blight on the country–side" topos of the classical elegiac tradition (see Race 109–10). Taken together, "The season's ill" and "A red fox stain covers Blue Hill" form a rural New England pendant to Ezra Pound's haikuish two–line "In a Station at the Metro." There are no petals on a wet black bough in Lowell's poem, but the "stained" New England fall foliage is emblematically appropriate. The season's ill, a sign of which is that leaves are "ill" and dying, as they turn from green to orange to red.
The New England fall motif continues on into stanza 4, now as a decorative orange:
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.
The line–break construction "fairy / decorator" replicates the "hermit / heiress" construct of stanza 1, but whereas "hermit / heiress" pulls [→page 322] a surprise, "fairy / decorator" delivers a type figure to make sport of. His "cobbler's bench and awl" echoes the idiomatic phrase something–or–other "and all," connoting a motley assemblage. Whereas a red stain covered Blue Hill, orange covers his cobbler's bench and awl. Orange thus tastefully applied harmonizes with the orange cork that fills his fishnet. Lowell does not actually argue, in sync with enlightened thought of the times, that homosexuality is an illness, but echoing the pervasive illness of the poem, ill acoustically occupies "filled." Within the socio–economic frame of the poem, the decorator is at home neither in the mock–feudal world of the hermit heiress, nor in the wheeler–dealer capitalist world of the summer millionaire: "there is no money in his work." The humorously crunched off–rhyme "cork" / "work" makes a jest of his plight. A parting shot, "he'd rather marry," rhythmically echoes "And now our fairy," with which the stanza began. The "fairy" / "marry" off–rhyme adds a final sarcastic note. William Doreski also has a bit of fun in juxtaposing the desperate straits of the summer millionaire and the gay decorator: "wealth leads to loneliness and death, homosexuality leads to thoughts of marriage" (90). A fate worse than death?
All this is, of course, good clean fun, at any rate in 1950s terms, before gays could tie the knot and homosexuality was still, charitably viewed, an illness. But if there is something ill in the state of this New England town, there is also something ill within Lowell's persona. Various critics have indeed found connections, homosexually inflected or otherwise, between the poet and the "ill" characters he sketches, all isolated figures: the hermit heiress, the summer millionaire, the fairy decorator.10) The poet's own illness becomes life–threatening in stanza five:
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.
[→page 323] "One dark night" evokes the opening line ("En una noche oscura") of St. John of the Cross's mystical poem "The Dark Night of the Soul" (38) and thus harbors a potential sign of life. But we should not get our hopes up. Lowell later wrote: "I hope my readers would remember John of the Cross's poem. My night is not gracious, but secular, Puritan, and agnostic. An existentialist night. Somewhere in my mind was a passage from Sartre or Camus about reaching some point of final darkness where the one free act is suicide" (Collected Prose 226). The headlights of the love–cars are dimmed this dark night, as if to ward off the canonical night / light rhyme that Dylan Thomas resoundingly employed as the governing A rhyme in his classic villanelle "Do not go gentle into that good night."11) Lowell's rhyming response to "night" is "My mind's not right." In his second tercet, Thomas himself works a right / night variation on the seeded A rhyme, but as an affirmative, "dark is right." Lowell's mind is not. Lowell's "dark night" ends with a sign of illness, "My mind's not right." Blue Hill morphs into "hill's skull," evoking Golgotha, from Hebrew gulg?leth for "skull," a verbal sign for the shape of the hill on which Jesus was crucified. A "hull to hull" rhyme with "skull" moves toward a "graveyard" that "shelves on the town." "Shelves" as an intransitive verb signifies "to slope away gradually, to incline," but "shelves on" sounds somewhat sinister, as if the graveyard were purposefully, gradually moving closer to the "ill" town.12)
The love–cars' lights are turned down, but one radio is turned up enough to be heard:
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;
What Lowell's persona hears, however, is less the bleating of "Love, O Careless Love" than the sobbing of his own "ill–spirit": "I hear / my ill–spirit sob in each blood cell."13) The ill in "ill–spirit" may denote [→page 323] illness, but it can also be taken in the sense of "hostile," "harmful," or "pernicious," as in "ill will," or "it's an ill wind that blows nobody any good." Never speak ill of the dead.
The speaker's agon with his "ill–spirit […] as if my hand were at its throat" evokes a tradition of debate poems between body and soul such as Andrew Marvell's "A Dialogue between the Soul and Body," in which the wretched body speaks of itself as "A Body that could never rest, / Since this ill Spirit it possest" (ll. 19–20). The diabolical associations of "possest" suggest that the soul, itself possessed, in turn possesses the body. In Marvell's poem the soul is indeed figuratively imprisoned in a prison cell within the body, and it complains of its ill treatment.14) In "Skunk Hour," the poet's ill–spirit possesses each blood "cell," which in turn imprison the ill–spirit.15) Lowell's line "as if my hand were at it is throat" also brings to mind, however, "your life is in your hands," the sign of life that brings closure to "The Exile's Return" in Lord Weary's Castle (1946). The idiomatic phrase now acquires a new twist: your life is in your hands, and it is there for the taking. Lowell's persona in "Skunk Hour" is on the verge of following as best he can the satanic directive in "After the Surprising Conversions": "'My friend, / Cut your own throat. Cut your own throat. Now! Now!'" (62).16)
The diabolical associations of "possessed" in Marvell's no–win debate poem, in which the "ill Spirit" is imprisoned within the body, become more dire in Lowell's next line, "I myself am hell," as the speaker's voice is usurped by Milton's Satan: "Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell" (Paradise Lost 4.75). Lowell's "one dark night" culminates, unlike John of the Cross's, in a self–identification with the archetypal "ill spirit," for whom hell is his own private cell. Lowell's virtuoso rhyming and off–rhyming conjoin "cell" and "hell"; "hear" and "hell" alliterate; assonance links "bleats" and "hear"; and the homophones "hear" and "here" sound a rich rhyme. The one end–word that acoustically sticks out painfully on its own is "throat," which rang out in Satan's call to "cut your own throat" in "The Surprising Conversions."
[→page 325] The long dash after "nobody's here" would seem to leave the isolated poet–speaker on the verge of taking his own life, but it turns out to be a bridge leading in the next stanza to a change of place and to a vision of life persisting:
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.
Whatever symbolic weight the skunks heft as they "march on their soles up Main Street," ill and its off–rhyming symptoms are nowhere to be heard.17) Instead hunger/food/eating—earlier associated only indirectly with sheep and lobstermen—begin to emerge as the dominant trope of the last two stanzas, bringing closure to the poem and to Life Studies.
The skunks find what they are looking for in the final stanza, while the poet, standing "on top / of our back steps," now views them instead of love–cars. The graveyard gives way to the poet's backyard, and standing supersedes earlier tropes of falling. The poet himself stands:
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.
This is one of Lowell's several representations of himself standing, his own erect figure constituting a battered sign of life. In this instance, the back steps serve as a pedestal for his monumentalizing self–representation.18) He also stands on top of the stanza, whose opening line—"I stand on top"—rhythmically counters the iambic dimeter—"and lets them fall"—that concludes stanza 2. In "Summer Tides," [→page 326] completed three weeks before Lowell's death, the back steps become a gradually rotting "bulwark where I stand" (853). I read "Skunk Hour" and "Summer Tides" as responses to the injunction "Stand and live" in "Where the Rainbow Ends" (69), the terminal poem in Lord Weary's Castle. There it is accompanied by remedial tropes of hunger/food/eating and of exile/return.
The spatial transition from the hill's skull, to Main Street, to the poet's backyard where the skunks head, has been rapid. Their march had an end in view. The skunks put in, as it were, a guest appearance, designed for the poet's viewing.19) He is no longer a voyeur of "love cars," but a witness to an emblematic scene, a sign of life that is as much olfactory and acoustic as visual. The phoneme cluster ill which has spread through the poem like a virus is, finally, swilled by a trope of hunger, food, and eating when the mother skunk with her column of kittens "swills the garbage pail." Surrounding sound patterns, also symptoms of illness, are simultaneously swilled. Pail, a homophone of "pale," harbors "ail" and off–rhymes with ill. But having been swilled, ill is converted into will, a sign of life. As a modal verb, will is, admittedly, part of a negation, "will not scare," that is potentially both transitive and intransitive. A reader who activates both grammatical senses ratifies an easeful mutuality: the mother skunk will not scare the poet and she will not be scared. She and her kittens will not run away, nor will he. But still the reader must choose, either / or, between two senses of "will": as staunch determination or, quite simply, a serene statement of fact. A reader who consciously opts for the latter joins in the formation of a healing fiction.20)
On another level of twoness, there are now, thanks to "Skunk Hour," two indomitable mothers in Life Studies, and two families, one dysfunctional, the other marvelously functional. Hunger, food, and eating are recurrent tropes in Life Studies, and the family dinner that brings closure swills, as it were, those earlier family dinners that Lowell endured as a child, "absorbing cold and anxiety from the table" (147), as he puts it in "91 Revere Street." The dysfunctional family theme enters the closing "Life Studies" sequence at the very [→page 327] outset in "My Last Afternoon with Uncle Devereux Winslow," which begins with a family dinner (163).21) In "Skunk Hour" it ends with one. Thanks to a family of skunks, Lowell as an adult can now stand and live, breathing "the rich air." For the reader who has been keenly attentive to acoustic signs and their askew suggestions, the poem comes homophonically full circle. The hermit heiress is now superseded by a rich heir, as Lowell's persona, himself a "dotty" isolate, is reanimated.22)
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