An old hermit’s heiress surviving winter in a Spartan cottage executes a small apocalypse on the adjacent shore. A lost millionaire poses in a decidedly rustic wardrobe. A broke decorator channels his angst into his work, wishing he was married. Lovers hiding lust in cars far from town. A narrator who stops short of confessing his demons; his ideas are dark, his interpretations are consistently bleak and whenever his thought-process stumbles toward how disturbed he may be, he lurches, stops short of self-revelation, and returns to watching the maritime scene.
All of these people – the hermit’s heiress, the lost millionaire, the unmarried decorator, the secret lovers, the wandering narrator – proceed through life in fear of something. In turn they deny themselves much, deny themselves an honest living (in the sense of an honest consciousness, not necessarily profitable employment).
The hermit’s heiress is a hermit herself, afraid to leave her Spartan cottage – Spartan, as was mentioned in lecture, being a warrior people who lived in a state of privation, of self-denial, for the purpose of discipline.
The millionaire’s clothes, rather than advertising his skill, maybe reveal him as a kind of poser, a man more concerned with looking expert than being expert.
The decorator keeps up an attractive shop, though it makes no money – why? Is he afraid to admit aloud that he’d rather be married, than admit that he is not? Is he afraid that if he doesn’t put such care into brightening his shop his longing to marry will overflow?
The lovers are afraid of how their lust will be judged if it is made public.
The narrator feels his mind isn’t right. But he’s afraid to admit to and thus confront his demons, as we all are, because what would that mean? What kind of person would he be if he was honest with himself? Where would directly confessing and admitting to the depth of his darkness leave him psychologically?
It seems to me that the humans in Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour” live in a state of personal privation. Existential philosophy calls this bad faith. Sartre describes bad faith as the individual freely denying freedom, living in a state of self-deception and deprivation and denial. Sounds Spartan to me.
But who in “Skunk Hour” is not afraid. (I’m afraid of over-simplifying the poem, of a reductive reading, so please know that this interpretation is in fact the germ of an interpretation, and one interpretive germ among myriad others.)
Skunks inherit the town after dark. The narrator stands on the step of his back porch watching them forage, and he calls the air “rich” – when has anyone ever associated the scent of skunk in the air with richness other than in this poem? Why “rich”? Where everyone else lives in a state of self-deprivation, the skunks make the air rich. Of course they do. The humans are poor in spirit. The skunks are rich because they don’t deny their true selves. Thus, the mother skunk, followed by her kittens and captivated by a cup of sour cream, “will not scare.”
The humans in the poem are themselves not being themselves. The animals – skunks who stink richly (who are not stinking rich) and who travel in groups – are, at least, honest in stink, honest in their pursuit of food, are not burdened with fear, and will not scare.
Also worth some comparison is Lowell’s use of the phrase from Paradise Lost, “I am hell,” with a similar phrase from Sartre. In the play No Exit, Sartre wrote what has since become his most famous quote: “Hell is other people.” (…both are f*cking depressing – if I am hell and hell is other people, then there is no escaping hell. Yeesh.)
That’s all I’ll say in that regard, so as to avoid overstating a still underdeveloped and potentially all-to-limited interpretation of what may be, on some level, at work in Lowell’s “Skunk Hour.”
Non Sequitur #1
The dusk rural/suburban east coast setting of “Skunk Hour” reminds me of some of the photography of Gregory Crewdson, whose cinematic stills of human isolation amid domestic scenes echoes in imagistic form something of Lowell’s written aesthetic. Crewdson’s photos feature, mostly, lone people appearing bewildered by some inexplicable phenomena, either on or off camera, usually during dawn or dusk, those transitional times that are neither day or night but something other and in between.
Non Sequitur #2
For those of you who wondered what the song “Careless Love” sounds like that Lowell’s narrator should describe it as bleating from the car radios of “love-cars,” here’s a version recorded in 1957 by Slim Whitman, two years before “Skunk Hour” was published:
Non Sequitur #3
Lowell dedicated “Skunk Hour” to Elizabeth Bishop. “Skunk Hour” was inspired by Bishop’s poem “The Armadillo,” which she dedicated to Lowell. For your comparison:
“The Armadillo” by Elizabeth Bishop
This is the time of year
when almost every night
the frail, illegal fire balloons appear.
Climbing the mountain height,
rising toward a saint
still honored in these parts,
the paper chambers flush and fill with light
that comes and goes, like hearts.
Once up against the sky it’s hard
to tell them from the stars —
planets, that is — the tinted ones:
Venus going down, or Mars,
or the pale green one. With a wind,
they flare and falter, wobble and toss;
but if it’s still they steer between
the kite sticks of the Southern Cross,
receding, dwindling, solemnly
and steadily forsaking us,
or, in the downdraft from a peak,
suddenly turning dangerous.
Last night another big one fell.
It splattered like an egg of fire
against the cliff behind the house.
The flame ran down. We saw the pair
of owls who nest there flying up
and up, their whirling black-and-white
stained bright pink underneath, until
they shrieked up out of sight.
The ancient owls’ nest must have burned.
Hastily, all alone,
a glistening armadillo left the scene,
rose-flecked, head down, tail down,
and then a baby rabbit jumped out,
short-eared, to our surprise.
So soft! — a handful of intangible ash
with fixed, ignited eyes.
Too pretty, dreamlike mimicry!
O falling fire and piercing cry
and panic, and a weak mailed fist
clenched ignorant against the sky!