The Nautilus of Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour”
by Scott Edward Anderson
Poet Robert Lowell turned 40 in 1957, the same year he became a father and three years after his mother’s death. Harriet Lowell was born in early January, to Lowell and his second wife, the writer Elizabeth Hardwick. In March, Lowell left for a tour of the West Coast, stopping first in Seattle, where he spent “a grand rather too active stay” with poet Theodore Roethke, drinking too much whiskey before finally escaping to the relative calm of Vancouver.
Traveling down the coast to San Francisco and the Bay Area, he met Ivor Winters, Kenneth Rexroth, and a bunch of “very modest poets waking up prophets,” one can only presume were the Beats and their acolytes. He gave a memorable reading at the Poetry Center of the University of California, Berkeley, consisting of poems from his first three books, which you can hear at https://diva.sfsu.edu/collections/poetrycenter/bundles/191213.
In the readings he gave on the West Coast – “at least once a day and sometimes twice for fourteen days,” as he relates in his Paris Review interview – he began simplifying his poems and breaking their meter. In addition, he attended readings by Bay Area poets who were using a freer style of performance, which, if he didn’t admire all of it, certainly gave him pause where his own work was concerned
By the end of his West Coast tour, he began thinking of his own poems as decidedly too New England – provincial in ways he hadn’t noticed before. It irked him, and by some accounts decided him on a different course for his work, less stuffy and constrained. In other words, a course that came to define Lowell for a generation. This is no mean feat, changing your style in mid-career. He’d had success with the path he was on, why change it? A lesser poet might resist, drag his feet or dig in his heels. Lowell wanted to change, craved a change.
Back on the East Coast, he visited with poet Elizabeth Bishop and her Brazilian lover Lota de Macedo Soares in New York, where he made unwelcomed romantic advances toward Bishop. This was a too familiar pattern: his mania often accompanied romantic overtures and Bishop was a frequent recipient. “Too much like myself,” Lowell opens a letter of apology after their visit. “We had been having too many martinis, and I was in a very foolish, exalted and exhausted state from my reading trip. Never again,” he promised. But it wouldn’t be the last time.
Late in June, Lowell drove his family up to his cousin Harriet Winslow’s house in Castine, Maine, a house she later bequeathed to him. It was a relaxing summer, filled with “picnics in small outboards, sails, a cruise with [poet Richard] Eberhart in his cabin cruiser,” he wrote Bishop. And “drives to Bar Harbor, Stonington, Camden, cocktails, whisky sours.”
At the beginning of August, Bishop and Lota visited Lowell and his family in Castine. They planned to stay a month, but left after a week when Lowell got too “excited.” He again apologized to Bishop and Lota, writing, “It almost seems as if I couldn’t be with you any length of time without acting with abysmal myopia and lack of consideration.” (In a later letter Lowell admitted he’d wanted to propose to Bishop sometime before.) He was growing progressively manic as the summer turned to autumn.
In fact, this was the latest in a string of manic episodes stretching back to when Lowell was a teenage boy. Although he’d been out of hospitals for more than three years at this point, he’d spent the better part of the previous decade in and out of sanatoriums, including Payne Whitney in New York and McLean in Belmont, Massachusetts, part of a trio of such places for the wealthy and privileged who had lost touch with reality or just needed a bit of time to “cool down.”
Despite his marriage to Hardwick and Bishop’s clear preference for her same sex, Bishop was a love-object for Lowell, especially in his manic episodes. Somehow their friendship survived, no doubt fueled by their mutual respect for and recognition of each other’s poetic gifts. Lowell remained smitten with Bishop and, if he couldn’t have her in matrimony, he could at least have her influence through her poetic example.
Lowell was loutish, and Hardwick, who put up with his mania for so many years, while no saint, was forgiving of her husband’s foibles. (1957 wouldn’t be the worst of the years they spent together, that would come later, when Lowell left Hardwick – an extremely talented writer in her own right – for a younger woman, Caroline Blackwood, and later quoted large sections of Hardwick’s post-divorce letters in his confessional poems of The Dolphin in 1972.)
At his most manic, Lowell was also most prolific as a poet. In fact, during his manic episodes, he often poured-out raw material, then edited and perfected it while in a more depressed state. Such a working method resembles the advice, attributed to Hemingway, but offered by the fictional poet Gowan McGland, a character in a 1964 novel by Peter DeVries, to “write drunk and revise sober.”
1957 was a pivotal year for Lowell’s poetry. His first book, Land of Unlikeness, published over ten years earlier to some acclaim, and his second, Lord Weary’s Castle, won him a Pulitzer Prize, but his third, The Mills of the Kavanaughs, had been sharply criticized by Lowell’s friend, the poet-critic Randall Jarrell. As Lowell himself admitted, his early work “now seemed like prehistoric monsters dragged down into the bog and death by their ponderous armor.” He needed a breakthrough and the example of Bishop’s poetry was just what the doctor ordered. (He couldn’t go as far out as the West Coast “black magic poets” or Ginsberg or even Whitman; at least, not yet.)
Bishop’s poetry, characterized by a wry wit and cool observation, which she had developed for over a decade already, was also less stuffy, more conversational in some respects, although tightly controlled and certainly not as manically inspired as Lowell’s. He read her work for inspiration and, apparently, found it in “The Armadillo,” a poem Bishop originally published in The New Yorker in June of 1957 and later dedicated to Lowell when it appeared in Questions of Travel in 1965.
One speculates about the night in late August-early September when Lowell begins his poem “Skunk Hour.” He’s in Castine, Maine, finishing up some writing in the barn his cousin renovated for him on the village common. He thinks about the locals in town – the patrician dowager, the “summer millionaire,” the “fairy decorator.” Then he climbs into his Ford Tudor sedan and drives up to a hill overlooking the town, a hill famous among locals as a place to watch the “submarine races.” As he watches the young couples necking in their cars, windows steaming in the hot summer night of their internal embrace, he thinks of Whitman being driven by horse and buggy to witness the hillside lovers in his bygone era and the internal satisfaction that poet felt from such expressions of carnal knowing.
Only Lowell isn’t thrilled by it. In fact, as he hears snippets of Fats Domino singing “Careless Love,” emanating from one of the cars, he gets further depressed, realizing he is on a fool’s mission: he won’t find what he wants there. He heads back down the hill, noticing off to his left, that autumn is already hitting the iconic presence of Blue Hill in the distance deeper on the peninsula above – as a matter of fact, in the fading light, the hill is turning fox red, as the first trees and the low shrubs start to turn. His “mind’s not right.” He needs to get home. When he reaches the house on Green and Water streets, he enters through the back door so as not to disturb his wife and child within. Ascending the back stairs, he’s startled by a noise from the garbage cans behind the house. A mother skunk and her kittens are nosing around in the spilled contents of the can, including a cup of sour cream that the mother jabs her nose into with abandon. The poet thinks of his own hunger. Come December he is institutionalized again.
But before that December came September and a very productive period – entirely too productive, it turns out, for Lowell and his loved ones; yet, for poetry and for poetry readers, it was a bounty. Over a fourteen-week period from August to November, Lowell wrote or revised close to a dozen poems, and rewrote or restructured perhaps half a dozen more, including most of the poems in the closing section of his seminal work, Life Stories, all written in that timeframe, in a fury, it turns out.
“There’s one in a small voice that’s fairly charmingly written I hope called ‘Skunk Hour,’” he wrote to Bishop on the 11th. “Not in your style yet indebted a little to your ‘Armadillo.’ If I can get two short lines and a word, I’ll mail it to you.”
In October, he sends the poem to Randall Jarrell, “with fear and trembling,” telling Bishop, “he’s never acknowledged the existence of my autobiography chapter [‘94 Revere St,’ which had appeared in the Partisan Review the previous year].”
“The first four stanzas are meant to give a dawdling more or less amiable picture of a declining Maine sea town,” Lowell writes in “On Skunk Hour,” an essay about the poem. “I move from the ocean inland. Sterility howls through the scenery, but I try to give a tone of tolerance, humor, and randomness to the sad prospect.”
In fact, he wrote the poem “backwards,” the final stanzas before the opening four, but did it with such seeming ease that the opening reads as almost a laconic warm-up exercise or scene-setter.
Sterility, if not exactly howling, runs rampant in this “declining Maine sea town,” as Lowell describes it. The “hermit heiress” on nearby Nautilus Island, who buys up “all the eyesores” within her view and “lets them fall,” presumably to protect her privacy, as well as reclaim some semblance of what the place resembled in the previous century, her preferred Victorian age. And further, to encourage or mimic the state of decay and decline in which she finds herself, “She’s in her dotage.” Her “son’s a bishop,” which some see as a nod to the stylistic inspiration for this poem; “her farmer” (or gardener, more likely) is “first selectman of the village.” It’s quite a start, as Lowell builds a vivid portrait of a threadbare New England village and its archetypes.
The opening of the poem feels like a clue: in the nautilus of “Nautilus Island.” Although the island is named for a British warship, not the cephalopod, from this point on the poem infolds until coiled like a nautilus shell into a logarithmic spiral. The poem starts with outward, external reference and observation only to move inward until it gets to the point of the mother skunk’s nose poking into the sour cream cup at the poem’s end.
More observation follows in subsequent stanzas: the “summer millionaire” who seems to “leap from an L. L. Bean catalogue.” The L.L. Bean catalogue and the sour cream cup into which the mother skunk sticks her nose make this an almost postmodern poem. And then there’s the type, decidedly un-Lowellesque, more landed gentry or gentleman farmer than Boston Brahmin. Whether in Maine, Vermont, or upstate New York, one is very familiar with him: decked out in a red and black checked flannel shirt, corduroy trousers, and an oiled field jacket, perhaps a pipe, and Bean boots. Quite literally, decked out in items ordered from the L.L. Bean catalogue or picked out at the outlet in Freeport en route to Blue Hill. I’ve always been struck by the verb – “leap” – as the man leaps from the catalogue with its hints of suicidal tendencies, which is further echoed by the auctioning-off of this fellow’s possessions and the phrase “we’ve lost our summer millionaire.”
Then there’s the business of the “fairy decorator,” actually, “our fairy decorator,” because every summer village from Provincetown, Massachusetts, to Bangor, Maine, must have one – and many do. He appropriates the tools of the local fishing and lobstering trade to decorate the windows of his shop, and would “rather marry,” presumably an heiress, since there’s “no money in his work” and he can’t marry his own sex for more than a half-century later. (Of course, this was before political correctness; Lowell would no doubt get challenged by this characterization were he writing today.)
I suspect this detailed and languorous opening section of description is what Lowell thought most Bishop-like about his poem – although the appearance of the skunks at the end, with their even more interesting juxtaposition between action and lack of reaction is perhaps closer to the type of observations Bishop gravitated to – her tendency to look askance or “tell it slant.”
Therefore, it’s easy to agree with Lowell when he confesses that “the composition drifts, its direction sinks out of sight into the casual, chancy arrangements of nature and decay,” but then he offers some clues to what he is wrestling with in his own darkness, his own crisis point. “One dark night,” he opens stanza five, ending the stanza, “My mind’s not right.”
“I hoped my readers would remember St. John of the Cross's poem [“The Dark Night of the Soul”],” Lowell writes in his essay, “On Skunk Hour.” “My night is not gracious, but secular, puritan, and agnostical [sic]. An Existentialist night.”
Some have argued Lowell was feeling suicidal, but I’d wager it was more likely he was on the verge of another manic episode and he knew it. He’d been free of such episodes for three years; at least, to the extent that he needed to be committed. Moreover, there’s his breakthrough as a poet, which was probably exhilarating and terrifying to him. It must have been troubling as much as it was exciting to be writing in this new vein.
This stanza represents a turn in the poem, a turn inward as the spiral of the nautilus curls in on itself. And, if it’s a nautilus one must recall Bishop’s mentor, Marianne Moore, whose “The Paper Nautilus,” (1941) bears its own infolding, and seems to find echoes in Lowell’s looking for love in all the wrong places, “as if they knew love/ is the only fortress/ strong enough to trust to.” Lowell, in fact, may identify with the subjects of his first four stanzas, as a writer “entrapped by/ teatime fame and by/ commuters’ comforts,” in Moore’s words, although this would contradict most interpretations of his opening observations.
By December, just before being admitted to Boston State Hospital, Lowell reports that Partisan Review will publish the poem (they did, in their Winter 1958 number). “I’m dedicating ‘Skunk Hour’ to you,” Lowell tells Bishop. “A skunk isn’t much of a present for a Lady Poet, but I’m a skunk in the poem.”
In response, Bishop writes from Brazil that her lover, Lota, “likes ‘Skunk Hour’ best and so do I, I think, and I’d be particularly charmed to have that one dedicated to me.” However, come March the following year, after seeing the poems in Partisan Review, she changes her mind. “Actually, I think the family group is the more brilliant, don’t you?” She was referring, of course, to “Memories of West St. and Lemke,” “Man and Wife,” and “To Speak of Woe That Is in Marriage,” which appeared alongside “Skunk Hour.”
The Bishop poem that inspired Lowell’s “Skunk Hour” and helped unlock his new, freer style, “The Armadillo,” is a powerful poem written in Brazil in the mid-fifties at the height of the Cold War. “’Armadillo’ is one of your absolutely top poems, your greatest quatrain poem,” Lowell writes to Bishop late in 1958. “I mean it has a wonderful formal-informal grandeur – I see the bomb in it in a delicate way.”
In fact, Bishop’s poem is hardly “free” in its style, structure or form; rather, it is complicated in its rhyme scheme, and even as it is loose in line-length and syllabic stress, its quatrains are tightly controlled. Nevertheless, Lowell closely mimics the flow, if not the form: the poet/narrator comes into view (“We…”) after five stanzas of scene-setting description to Lowell’s four; the armadillo appears off to the side, leaving the scene with its tail down, whereas Lowell’s skunk is also seen from the side with her ostrich-plume-like tail down as she goes about her business oblivious to her human interloper; the “ignited eyes” of Bishop’s rabbit mimicked by the “red eyes” of Lowell’s skunk who “will not scare.”
While “Skunk Hour” is not exactly a copy of “The Armadillo,” Lowell later told Bishop he compared her poem and his in a class at Harvard in 1958 and “ended up feeling a petty plagiarist.” The poem clearly owes a debt, which Lowell pays with its dedication. Moreover, it remained a poem important to Lowell for many years. “I carry ‘The Armadillo’ in my bill-fold” Lowell confesses to Bishop. “And occasionally amaze people with it.” Not bad for a poem its author called a mere “Nature Note,” when submitting it to The New Yorker.
“Skunk Hour,” and the other poems Lowell wrote late in 1957, turns increasingly inward only to emerge into an outward flourish of personal expression critics came to call “confessional.”
Not to belabor a point made earlier about Lowell’s beginning “Skunk Hour” with a reference to a nautilus, but the Brazilian three-banded armadillo, which is most likely the one to which Bishop refers in her poem, is one of only two species of armadillo capable of rolling itself into a ball in its defense. The result resembles – at least to this amateur naturalist – a nautilus in its shell. Could Lowell be protecting himself by wrapping up his poem in the form of a nautilus shell; indeed, by finding inspiration in an armadillo that coils to protect itself? It’s as if Lowell’s not quite sure of himself in this new mode, which ultimately takes him in a wholly different direction in his poetry, and perhaps even dedicating the poem to Bishop is a way of protecting himself from potential critics of this new direction.
Lowell’s inward turn reveals his anxiety (and the country’s in the time of the Cold War), with its multilayered, multichambered spiral signaling a new turn for his – and for American – poetry, and the subtle irony of its inspiration in Elizabeth Bishop’s own poem of Cold War anxiety, which ends,
Too pretty, dreamlike mimicry!
O falling fire and piercing cry
And panic, and a weak mailed fist
Clenched ignorant against the sky!
About the Author: Scott Edward Anderson is the author of Fallow Field (Aldrich Press, 2013) and Walks in Nature’s Empire (The Countryman Press, 1995). He has been a Concordia Fellow at the Millay Colony for the Arts and received the Nebraska Review Award.