Ci: On "Skunk Hour"

Topographically and thematically, “Skunk Hour” and “For the Union Dead” are similar projects. Both poems deal with the New England consciousness and offer indictments of the Puritan value system. The opening sequence of “Skunk Hour,” which consists of four tonally subdued stanzas, describes the arrival of autumn in the beach town of Castine, Maine, where Lowell spent the summer of 1957 (Life and Art 124). This scene ostensibly comments on a particularly dispiriting ritual of autumnal desertion specific to East Coast beach towns. Yet Lowell ascribes great meaning to the sudden desolation enacted when the summer ends and the tourists pull up stakes and take their commerce with them. Steven Gould Axelrod voices the critical consensus on what Lowell is doing here: “[Lowell] is describing more than scenery, he is describing the rotting of a whole social structure” (Life and Art 125). The figures left behind stand as conflicted or empty signifiers. “Nautilus Island’s hermit / heiress” is a post-Puritan elect who, like the elect of “For the Union Dead,” uses her wealth not as a tool of beneficence but as a weapon of desecration:


Thirsting for
the hierarchic privacy
of Queen Victoria’s century,
she buys up all the eyesores facing her shore,
and lets them fall.

Elect and preterite immediately take on connotations of economic class in postwar Maine. These lines suggest “hierarchic” domination of the underclass preterite of Nautilus Island, and we can very well imagine these “eyesores” as the former homes of the working-class “lobstermen” of the next stanza. But the hermit heiress is herself on the brink of extinction. “She’s in her dotage,” and the fact that her “son’s a bishop” suggests a sterile lineage (not to mention a weird, lighthearted nod to Elizabeth Bishop). Castine’s “summer millionaire,” the capitalist successor to her aristocracy, also proves to be less than he seems. While Axelrod suggests that the millionaire has lost his money, “[he’s] past his prime — his yawl has been auctioned off ” (Life and Art 125), a better explanation may be that he is simply finished with Castine since it has been just another part of his false summer image along with his “L.L. Bean catalogue” facade. Either way, his disappearance signals another reduction of the town’s wealth. His “nine-knot yawl” is recycled by the village’s working-class lobstermen, which along with the heiress’s purchase of “eyesores,” enacts a collapsing of the elect and preterite categories in the merging of upper and lower class. The “lobstermen,” too, are a weird monstrosity that combines haut cuisine with manual labor. Linguistically, their name denies their humanity by bringing to mind a freakish amalgamation of lobster and man. The third figure of the opening sequence, Lowell’s “fairy decorator,” performs an antithetical operation that amounts to the same thing: “And now our fairy / decorator brightens his shop for fall; / his fishnet’s filled with orange cork, / orange, his cobbler’s bench and awl.” By subsuming work implements into his shop to attract tourists and their money, the decorator has imploded preterite objects into the trappings of election, but, as the speaker explains, “there is no money in his work / he’d rather marry.” The decorator’s willingness to suppress his homosexuality for the prospect of marginal pecuniary security further contributes to the opening sequence’s milieu of capitalism gone awry, a condition that even has a seemingly detrimental effect on the ecology: “The season’s ill — / . . . A red fox stain covers Blue Hill.” It should be noted that throughout these four stanzas Lowell consistently uses the all-inclusive “our,” a narrative technique that evokes not community solidarity but universal despondency (LS 83).

This unhappy leveling effect is a result of the phenomenon that Charles Berryman describes as “the substitution of mere worldly success for the original Puritan ideal of salvation” (21). In this way, Lowell’s representation of Castine’s residents reimagines the process delineated more than half a century earlier by Max Weber in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. According to Weber, the American emphasis on worldly success finds its origins in Puritan piety. The “melancholy inhumanity” inherent in Calvin’s doctrine of predestination, the ever-present uncertainty as to whether one was among the saved, “had one result above all: a feeling of unimaginable inner loneliness of the solitary individual ” (59). As the Puritans moved away from strict Calvinist doctrine and into what Weber calls Ascetic Protestantism, they naturally had to revise and redirect this fatalist outlook in order to maintain their membership, which resulted in the “Protestant ethic.” Since God’s intentions could never be known, the only way to ameliorate soteriological anxiety was to actively search for signs of personal election and, in the process, maintain total obedience to God’s commandments and laws. Humankind’s innate turpitude obviously made utter conformity a near-impossible task. “Restless work in a vocational calling,” Weber explains, “was recommended as the best possible means to acquire the self-confidence that one belonged among the elect. Work, and work alone, banished religious doubt and gives certainty of one’s status among the saved” (66; emphasis Weber’s). From this statement, it’s not difficult to see the connection that Weber draws between Puritanism and capitalism. The “methodically organized work” advocated by Puritan ideology evolved into a pursuit of material wealth: “the acquisition of wealth, when it was the fruit of work in a vocational calling, as God’s blessing” (116). The spirit of capitalism, then, rests in material wealth as tangible proof of one’s salvation: “restless, continuous, and systematic work” aimed at the accumulation of “investment capital” becomes “the highest of all ascetic means for believers to testify to their elect status” (116–17). As Pynchon’s narrator phrases it at one point in Gravity’s Rainbow, investment capital became “money in the Puritan sense — an outward and visible O.K. on their intentions” (652). Capitalism transforms the conditioned impulse toward salvation into a secularized exaltation of wealth and its forms of outward cultural signification, forsaking any hope of election in the spiritual sense. Weber’s theory is a key framework for understanding Lowell’s treatment of Puritanism. The characters in this first section of “Skunk Hour” have all tried to display a “visible O.K. on their intentions,” only to end up collapsed into the very thing they are trying to avoid.

The final four stanzas, which are perhaps the most commented-on of the Lowellian corpus, propel the conflation of elect and preterite to the poem’s forefront. The “One dark night” of “Skunk Hour” (LS 84) penetrates “For the Union Dead,” its poetic double, modulating into “One morning last March” (FTUD 72). Both lines have a haunting, quotidian quality. Lowell has written at length on the subject of this “dark night”:

This is the dark night. I hoped my readers would remember John of the Cross’s poem. My night is not gracious, but secular, puritan, and agnostical. An Existential night. Somewhere in my mind was a passage from Sartre or Camus about reaching some final darkness where the one free act is suicide. (Collected Prose 226)

Far from St. John of the Cross’s dark night, which ultimately leads to a perfect union with God, this dark night features a wholly absent God. Lowell inverts the narrative of mystical election to create a Puritan wilderness in which none are saved; the union simply never happens. Of the three adjectives (“secular, puritan, and agnostical”) that Lowell uses to describe his night, “puritan” is the most troublesome. “Secular” and “agnostical” make perfect sense in light of the existential aura that Lowell acknowledges. But why include the word “puritan”? We are speaking, of course, about “puritan” with a lowercase p, which can simply denote a rejection of sinful pleasures, but the word is heavily freighted coming from Lowell. One explanation is that the secularized Puritan struggle of the first half of the poem has been internalized by the speaker in the second half of the poem. The collapsed “our” of the poem’s first half telescopes into an “I” in the second half, culminating in the Satanic utterance “I myself am hell.” Carrying out the Puritan impulse to look for signs of election in everyday life (Puritan Origins 16), albeit in a perversely displaced manner, the “I” watches “love-cars” for signs of love (presumably a tonic to the existential condition) but finds only mechanized tombs that seem to mechanically copulate: “they lay together, hull to hull, / where the graveyard shelves on the town.” The speaker’s strange search is closely allied to the Puritan quest to make the invisible visible, an inclination that Pynchon calls the “Puritan reflex of seeking other orders behind the visible, also known as paranoia” (188). A psychologized iteration of Weber’s observation that relentless Puritan self-examination became displaced into the accumulation of capital, the peripatetic narrator attempts to accumulate evidence of election in the world around him in order to internalize it and find some comfort in his own election.

Lowell does offer at least a modicum of hope in the skunks “that search / in the moonlight for a bite to eat,” and the skunks further explain Lowell’s use of the word “puritan.” Sandra M. Gilbert identifies them as representatives of hell, “fiery familiars who emerge from the shadows of the graveyard to march, as if punning on Milton and Dante, ‘on their soles up Main Street,’ flaunting their demonic triumph ‘under the chalk-dry and spar spire / of the Trinitarian Church,’ ” but of all the animals in the veritable bestiary of Life Studies, it is difficult to see the outcast, malodorous, mustelid skunk as a demonic conqueror or “the militant brutish new order, commanding the ruins of the former civilization” as Axelrod suggests (Life and Art131). Rather, the skunks are the preterite, Lowell’s model of endurance in a secular wasteland where those saved and those left behind have become indistinguishable from one another. What we have here is not an affirmation of redemption, as one might suspect, but merely hope for survival. Outside the “Trinitarian Church,” outside the domestic sphere of “our back steps,” the mother skunk fights tooth and nail for existence, and unlike any other creature (or car) in “Skunk Hour,” she has managed to reproduce and provide for her offspring. Without hope for spiritual election, they carry on as purely willful subjects in the poem’s world of existential crisis. Accordingly, in a letter to John Berryman, Lowell called the skunks “horrible blind energy” and verified that his speaker does identify with them in a positive way, as a desirable alternative: “i.e. dropping down to a simpler form of life, and a hopeful wish for that simpler energy” (Letters 400). Their march is a march of defiance, a thumbnail sketch of how to endure modern existence. After the implosions and erasures of election, the evaporations of wealth and worldly pleasure, the preterite skunks stand at the end of the poem as a sort of displaced persons population, fierce survivors who “will not scare” in Lowell’s wrecked allegory of universal preterition (LS 84).

“I don’t think that anyone has to get themselves to go and watch lovers in a parking lot necking in order to write a poem,” Frank O’Hara griped, “and I don’t see why it’s admirable if they feel guilty about it. They should feel guilty.” O’Hara’s cutting analysis insightfully prods at the greater issues of “Skunk Hour” and offers some much needed relief from Lowell’s anomie:

Why are they snooping? What’s so wonderful about a Peeping Tom? And then if you liken them to skunks putting their noses into garbage pails, you’ve just done something perfectly revolting. No matter what the metrics are. And the metrics aren’t all that unusual. Every other person in any university in the United States could put that thing into metrics. (Lucie-Smith 13)

Lowell explained that the detail about watching lovers wasn’t from personal experience, “but from an anecdote about Walt Whitman in his old age” (Collected Prose 228). The hidden presence of Whitman — the “bard of democracy” — is significant, especially when taken with the simultaneous allusion to Paradise Lost. David Lehman attributes O’Hara’s distaste to “the grandiose egoism of a speaker who likens the welfare of the body politic to the state of his psyche and quotes Milton’s Satan, ‘Myself am Hell,’ without saving irony” (348). However, in light of the Calvinist drama that unfolds in the first four stanzas, there is something ironic about Lowell’s identification with Satan. Lowell transposes Milton’s great Puritan struggle between heaven and hell onto Whitman’s democratic vision: “the prostitute and the President” living in perfect accord, creating a democracy of preterition where the “hermit heiress” suffers equally alongside the “lobstermen.” Theological categories collapse, and moral balance is lost. O’Hara is right; the result is revolting. That’s the point.

Perhaps Marjorie Perloff is correct when she contends that “Skunk Hour” falters when Lowell attempts to “make his own malaise representative of the larger condition of an America in decline” (“Return” 81). But one aspect of the poem that has gone strangely unnoticed is the way in which the skunks’ march presages real preterite marches, the civil rights, women’s rights, and Vietnam War protests that would erupt only a few years later. “Skunk Hour” is most important to twenty-first century readers not necessarily as a confessional testament to “America in decline” but as a mapping of the fault line between the “tranquilized fifties” and the volatile 60s, where formalism ruptures into confessionalism and the obstinate skunks transmute into Mailer’s Armies of the Night. Lowell himself, elect by most measures, took part in several protests against the Vietnam War. Underlying his support of the anti-war movement, however, is the deeply conflicted suspicion that distinctions between right and New Left, conservative and liberal, and war apologist and anti-war protestor are insignificant in the depolarized twentieth century. While “Skunk Hour” explores America’s Puritan legacy in allegorical terms, Lowell would move towards more concrete expressions of this catastrophe in For the Union Dead.