Updated: Aug 22, 2021
(for Elizabeth Bishop) 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.
This is one of the great confessional poems of the 20th century,
and perhaps Robert Lowell's best. Certainly, I would say, his most famous.
What makes it so? Detail of observation and tone, which is increasingly
mournful until the last stanza, in which the mother skunk shows
enough spunk to fight ferociously for food, where all else in the village is failure. Lowell makes two key confessions in the poem (remember this is 1959):
His mind is not right, and he himself is hell. These are exclamations of torment,
imbalance, of a desperate search for stability, meaning, for a North Star to guide
his steps. The skunks distract him long enough to show their unity and tenacity,
qualities he so lacks. Here, the air is rich; here, the kittens seem so much more
than cute; here, courage takes physical form in a mother's fearlessness. The great detail at the start of the poem immediately draws us in; personality
and colors point to salient parts of village life. But underlying all: one dark night,
alluding to St. John of the Cross' "Dark Night of the Soul." "Nada" is John's refrain,
and Lowell hears only a melody of careless love. That, too, is nada. So much more could be said about the stellar poetics of this piece. What is
more important, though, is simply to read and re-read it, letting each phrase sink in,
each detail light up our eyes, our minds, our spirits. Elizabeth Bishop, so great
in her own right, has received a timeless, heart-breaking gift of tenuous beauty.
And so have we.