Jul 29, 2011

Movie Review: Horrible Bosses


 
It’s Friday, movie time, so I’m confessing that I did thoroughly enjoy Horrible Bosses, a delightful, dumb popcorn movie if there ever was one.

But how dumb is a movie when clever quips fly, physical humor gooses your inner child, and the plot turns like a pretzel epidemic?  Comic energy and synergy sparkle among the three main guys (Justin Bateman, Charlie Day, Jason Sudeikis), as they engage in a plot too outrageous (I hope) too be amoral:   they hatch plans to kill their three bosses (Jennifer Aniston, Colin Farrell, Kevin Spacey), all nasty (and hysterical) people in their own ways. Jamie Foxx is also superb in a supporting, comic vein.

If you do decide to go, pay attention during the surprise party toward the end. Keep your eyes open for Kevin Spacey's entrance. 

Not much is more subjective than humor, so I feel out on a limb with this one, especially if you’re going in the evening and paying full price. And do be warned, gutter talk is plentiful, though not nearly so invasive as it was in the Hangover movies, for example. But if you don’t laugh fairly hard at least six times (I predict fifteen if you count mere chuckles and chortles as well as wheezy heehaws--fifteen, I say, and I don't even know you) . . . if you don’t laugh at this one, one of us needs to see a specialist, and I don't mean a podiatrist. Not that there's anything wrong with podiatry.  (Don't worry, the movie quips are better than that).



**

Jul 27, 2011

Sharon Olds' "Victims": Again, Sympathy vs. Judgment

Tilt
Cormorant

The Victims by Sharon Olds












Sharon Olds’ “The Victims” is another poem about the death of a character who is problematic for the speaker.

 (Here I confess I feel a little silly insisting on the distinction between author and speaker, since Sharon Olds created an entire book of poems about her troubled relationship with her father. However, if even one of a poem’s details is fictional or unverifiable, I think it justifies the convention of separating author from speaker or narrator.)

Sharon Olds call her speaker’s character into question much more than John Crowe Ransom did in “Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter” (my last post). Olds is willing to speak ill of the dead. In fact, she might revel in it.  

Therefore, is sympathy vs. judgment (again, see the July 24 Banjo52) the main tension in which are we caught in “The Victims,” or are both the speaker and her father likely to elicit more judgment than sympathy?

Remember, “sympathy” is not pity, which is condescending. Sympathy is a feeling of connection to, identification with, even respect for that other character—whom we find appealing in some way, perhaps to our alarm.

The Victims by Sharon Olds

Asymmetry

Jul 24, 2011

John Crowe Ransom, "Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter": Sympathy vs. Judgment and the Dramatic Monologue

Agrarian Movement

Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter by John Crowe Ransom : The Poetry Foundation

I've thought several times of posting John Crowe Ransom's elegant poem, "Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter," but each time I hesitated to post something as dark as the death of a child. I've also wondered if Ransom's formalism and air of southern gentility on the subject might feel alienating or even offensive. For no particular reason, I've decided today to post it anyway.

I've admired the poem for many years, and I think Ransom's inability or unwillingness to express more than vexation in such a situation is painfully honest, if not consoling. Shall we require the speaker to roll on the ground, spew tears, gnash teeth, and wail skyward? Is there one right way to do death?

Or, coming at it from the other direction, how many of us are willing to say of any recently deceased person that we didn't much like her. In this case, the Whiteside child was something of a pest--nothing criminal, nothing serious, just an annoying little human, maybe trying to pass for a charming belle-to-be, and that makes it diffiicult to go through the formal motions of mourning without being dishonest. In the end, all we can say is that we are "vexed." The decedent's youth dramatically increases the tensions among acceptable shows of emotion, ceremonious restraint, and honest feelings or thoughts.
Ceremonious Restraint

The poem's rhyme and meter invest in the speaker an additional stiffness, which may get in the way of our liking him. We might be close to the situation Professor Robert Langbaum describes in The Poetry of Experience and his study of dramatic monologues. In the end, readers are likely to find themselves in a tension between sympathy and judgment. We sympathize with the speaker in that we are drawn to him; as our equal or in some way our superior, we find him appealing. Maybe he is smart or charming or silver-tongued. For whatever reason, we find ourselves liking and respecting the speaker.

We don't pity or condescend to him; instead, Langbaum's "sympathy" means we feel some affinity or sense of identification with him. At the same time, however, we want to, need to judge him, almost always on moral grounds, or in something like a moral context. He is engaged in something (act, deeds, words, thoughts) we find wrong, or at least suspicious, ethically uncomfortable. So we are caught in a genuine tension, and the poem leaves us there rather than resolving the conflict, especially if resolution would have meant some facile swooping in of gods, heroes, resolving platitudes, or some such.

Though unnamed, the speaker in "Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter" might be called an identifiable character in an identifiable situation, like a scene from a play (hence "dramatic" monologue). However, the poem lacks an identifiable listener and therefore does not technically fit the genre of dramatic monologue. (By the way, Robert Browning's "My Last Duchess" and Tennyson's "Ulysses" are two of the most famous dramatic monologues, as is T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," although both speaker and listener are Prufrock, as he thinks to himself en route to a taking of tea).

However, Langbaum's tension between sympathy and judgment is likely by the end of "Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter," and so much the better, I say. The situation is full of complexity, and the speaker's manner and content both add to that. There is probably no right way to mourn any death and be honest with ourselves. Ransom makes us re-discover that, makes us feel it, makes us squirm. That's not bad for a 20-line poem.

Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter by John Crowe Ransom : The Poetry Foundation

Jul 20, 2011

ANIMAL MISCELLANY featuring Pitbull vs. kitten

I Am Not a Pit Bull
Speaking of circus animals and horse whispering (recent posts here), today I offer a dog and kitten video, three minutes long. I dare anyone to try to watch less than the whole thing. 




Bambi times Bambi


Jul 16, 2011

Movie Review: Buck


While it’s still a weekend, let me recommend the movie Buck, a documentary about Buck Brannaman, the real-life horse whisperer. One of moviedom’s greatest lines—even if it’s an instant clich√©—comes from a sadistic prison guard in Cool Hand Luke:   “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”  Buck is all about communication and empathy between a man and any horse.

We also see some of Buck Brannaman’s remarkable biography, which is a study of human character with special attention to courage, endurance, and luck, as an abused boy comes out standing tall, on the other side of meanness.

Buck should be required viewing for all teachers—a refresher course on why they do what they do, even in the midst of a public with too many loud morons among the citizenry and politicians.  Teachers might feel better if they can be coaxed to ponder the benefits of not just training and controlling youth, but also experiencing every student the way Buck Brannaman experiences horses. He too is surrounded by idiots (along with some awfully good people); he’s able to stay focused on the goal, which in many ways amounts to an escape from the idiocracy.



But I’ve I stopped too soon. Buck should also be required viewing for educational administrators. No, that’s too modest. Anyone who manages people or other creatures, or who simply lives among other beings, including skunks and cauliflower, must see this film. Moderation tells me to avoid claiming a movie might be the antidote to sociopathy and, at the other extreme, extreme isolation and loneliness. But maybe we just weren’t listening hard enough to the Other.

What do I know about the organism standing next to me? Might I be less boring, less aggressive and obnoxious, less isolated, less self-absorbed, if I wondered, harder, about what it’s like to be that Other standing two feet away?

What made him a Hater, a me-first hoarder? How can I coax him a few inches away from that, a few steps toward generosity? Surely not by imposing my will on him. Surely it will have to do with listening to what he does and doesn’t say—and thereby persuading him to listen to himself. Maybe a "horse movie" won't cure humanity, but a journey of a thousand miles, and so forth . . . .

All that is what Buck is about. If you’re thinking “touchy-feely Disney pabulum,” please reconsider. Although there is very little profanity, no sex, and only one scene with violence, there are some meaningfully tough moments; it’s a movie for adults, in the best sense of that word.

The handful of negative reviews I’ve read have said:
1.    It’s too much about bromides for humans and not enough about horses.
2.    It’s too much about horses and not enough about bromides on human issues (an assertion that’s downright dumb).

Perhaps you hear the contradictions and see that you need to make your own judgment. But especially if you love animals, you are deprived if you haven't seen Buck.  It won’t hurt anyone, and it might enlarge some feelings you’re glad you have.

Jul 14, 2011

Yeats' "The Circus Animals' Desertion": Back to Basics

Now that my ladder's gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart. 

 
My circus animals were all on show,
Those stilted boys, that burnished chariot,
Lion and woman and the Lord knows what.



Yeats’ “The Circus Animals’ Desertion” is like Lowell’s “Skunk Hour” in the way the voice shifts from personal to public, then back to the personal.  In this case, the poet himself is aware of his change in tone; he actually divides a one-page poem into three numbered sections, each in a voice that's different from the other two.

"The Circus Animal's Desertion" - The Poem


I’m somewhat interested in the first section, but the second and longest section, which reviews the poet’s career in a somewhat detached, academic, public way, leaves me cold. If a reader is not fairly familiar with Yeats’ oeuvre, how is he to understand or care about the specifics in Section II?   Furthermore, the language, in spite of being self-deprecating, feels rather clinical, as it conveys an equally detached summary of Yeats’ plots, themes, tropes and strategies over his writing career.

But in Section III, we return to real people and their issues, which are both specific and universal—especially the awareness of encroaching old age, decrepitude, and death. Reviewing a life, how shall a writer, how shall any of us, confront the need to keep reinventing ourselves, our work, our sense of purpose? It is an intensely personal matter, and it requires a personal language if it's to ring true.

Themes of the embittered heart, or so it seems,
That might adorn old songs or courtly shows;
Yeats’ answer comes right out of the streets. It is urgent, visceral, and full of basic human concerns. It has not one iota of academic or public distancing. That old ladder is gone; it is now too late in life to call upon those same circus animals that once danced, performed, deluded, distracted. How can anyone feel distance in these lines, which challenge us all, from the perspective of raving sluts and garbage in the street? 

If we look back and review our own lives, and find them full of frippery, what then? Lie down and begin again, where all the ladders start—in the “foul rag and bone shop of the heart.”  Stamina, courage, integrity, work—they’ll wear us out, they’ll make us stink, but no other way means anything.

"The Circus Animal's Desertion" - The Poem

 
Those masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind, but out of what began?










Jul 13, 2011

Aristocrats and Skunks

A Litter of Aristocrats

In the visitor comments last time, Brenda’s Arizona tossed in a few large questions. They touch on important components of poetry and other writing, and they pose the still larger question for everyone, not just writers, "How does the way we speak affect what we say and the way we're heard?"

Skunk Hour- Poets.org - Poetry, Poems, Bios & More

Marjorie Perloff's comment about the speaker’s voice in “Skunk Hour” was part of a larger point:  Lowell is addressing things in both a public and private way. There are moments, says Perloff, “when Lowell wanted more than autobiography, wanted to write a poetry of witness, of cultural commentary and political assessment.”
(http://marjorieperloff.com/reviews/lowell-return/)

The opening stanzas show Lowell expanding the poem into public concerns—Nautilus Island as a historical and sociopolitical place. By the end of the poem, Lowell has zoomed his lens to a more specific, smaller point of focus and a more personal voice.

I am not a skunk

Is constancy of voice and tone widely accepted as a requirement in a poem?  Surely it depends upon the poem’s need for such shifting or fluctuation. First, let’s remember that some kinds of constancy can become boring  and static.  Secondly, if there is fluctuation in voice, it might reflect the speaker’s character developing through the poem. Or maybe the situation changes in a way that requires him to change emotionally, speak differently, or shift to different kinds of imagery.  I think that happens in “Skunk Hour.”  Consider: we begin with an heiress, a bishop, a millionaire, and a gay merchant/decorator. We end with skunks—and a more or less anonymous speaker. Can we identify what has happened to take us from  A  to  B,  and does that begin to explain any changes in the speaker's voice, his way of being in his world?  

I find it hard to imagine a case in which an unmotivated, inexplicable change is purposeful, organic, and therefore acceptable. For me, “Skunk Hour” flirts with crossing that line, and because of that, I still don’t care about the speaker until the humanization of him, as I see it, in the last few stanzas.

Also, remember that my original comment was that I felt uninterested, left out, a bit clueless during those first seveal stanzas. I’m not much of a believer in heiresses, bishops. or millionaires in L.L. Bean attire. If the speaker misses them in some important way, how shall I make myself care?

I am not a skunk
Aristocrat Stalks Lovers in Parked Cars
So mine was a personal response—or lack of response—more than an analytical argument about a weakness in the poem, and the gap in communication may be my fault more than Lowell’s. This is one of the major poems of a major poet. But once I heard Marjorie Perloff agree that there was a change, something curious, if not downright wrong, a shift in the speaker from a sociological survey by an enervated aristocrat (more or less) to something like a plain old guy deserted by what he’s always known and encroached upon by skunks—then I felt better. Then I cared.

**

Jul 10, 2011

Skunks Are Lovelier the Second Time Around: Robert Lowell Again



The Crooner Guards the Gate against Skunks


I realize I’m probably the only one still interested in Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour,”  but I checked some secondary sources on the poem and found some interesting commentary. I’m offering it up whether or not anyone reads or cares about it. Some would call that heroic on my part (don’t ask me who).  Others might offer “stubborn,” “tedious,” “obsessive,” “pedantic” . . . .

(For those who just can’t stand more skunk time, here again are those delightful cloggers from days of yore.  Some of you have expressed restrained pleasure as you watched. However, I want to travel back there and live in that house, and watch them dance 24/7.    Or do I???).  

YouTube - ‪Best Bluegrass Clog Dancing Video Ever Made

Here is the poem, in case someone does want to think about it again.

  Skunk Hour- Poets.org - Poetry, Poems, Bios & More

First, there’s the matter of Lowell’s “fairy decorator,” which I ignored because I was stumped. I couldn’t believe that even in the 1950s a man of Lowell’s stature could get away with such flagrant gay-bashing, or would want to. Aren’t artists and intellectuals more enlightened than that? Isn’t there a higher percentage of gays in those circles than in the general population?  Wasn’t Elizabeth Bishop, a lesbian, his good friend? Well, I'm a child again; maybe I'm getting used to it. 

So I was working for an alternate meaning in “fairy decorator.” Not only did I fail to find one, but also several sources, including Lowell himself, were casual and confident about the derogatory interpretation of “fairy.”  So the reference to the decorator’s desire for a wife means he wants to marry for money rather than working for it. Or maybe he wants that desperately to appear more conventional—that is, heterosexual.

Autumn Decay
In either case, his desire to suppress his identity is another sign of decay and emptiness on the mostly abandoned Nautilus Island.  Further, his orange nets suggest he’s more concerned with flashy designs than functional fishing equipment, which the store sold in the island's good old days. 

My second problem with the poem was my inability to feel involved in its first half or two-thirds. I couldn't figure out why I didn't care about the speaker or the island. So I was glad to read Marjorie Perloff's point that those opening stanzas reflect an elitist East Coast mentality, including a preoccupation with lost status—an heiress, a bishop, a spiffy millionaire. As for the poem's homophobia, she quotes gay poet Frank O'Hara in a 1965 interview: "'Lowell has . . a confessional manner which [lets him] get away with things that are really just plain bad but you're supposed to be interested because he's supposed to be so upset.'" (http://marjorieperloff.com/reviews/lowell-return/)

The speaker of the last three or four stanzas comes across as a more mainstream human with a more universal vulnerability, which has little or nothing to do with social status. Whether you cheer for some peculiar animal charm in the skunks or relate to the alienated speaker, his unease about the approach of skunks is something most people might identify with.

(Except for humans who keep skunks as pets, which is more common than I knew. See Wikipedia on skunk pets).

Okay, that’s still too long, but who’s still reading anyway?  Please make a big red Burpee mark on your computer screen at the place where you lost interest and quit.  

And yet I wish all a happy Monday.  May your banjo stay tuned.  May it thrill to every pluck.

http://marjorieperloff.com/reviews/lowell-return/


**

Jul 7, 2011

"Leda and the Swan": Closure, Cymbals and Dragonflies

The other day, I stumbled onto one of Yeats’ most famous poems, “Leda and the Swan," in which Zeus, disguised as a swan, swoops down and rapes the entirely human woman, Leda. From that union, Helen of Troy is born. 

Leda and the Swan- Poets.org - Poetry, Poems, Bios & More

Yeats’ ominous conclusion, masquerading as a question, made me think about endings in poems, including Robert Lowell's "Skunk Hour," discussed here July 1:

  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.

We’ve heard, at least from Princeton’s James Richardson, that a poem should end standing on one foot.  I think he means that poems’ endings should avoid a bass drum message and clang of truth-cymbals implying that the rest of the poem hasn’t been worth much, has mostly been a charade that was only meant to prep for the fat lady's song of Truth as the curtain falls.

Here again is Keats at the end of “Ode on a Grecian Urn”:
'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all   
    Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.'
I tend to agree with James Richardson; poets should not moralize bombastically or condescendingly to their readers. But I excuse Keats here because:  he was Keats; he was young (25); he was writing under a different aesthetic (English Romanticism, around 1819); and I probably agree with his aphorism—Beauty (capitalized) probably is as close as we can come to Truth.

But as I tell myself I want poems to end with a touch of humility, obliqueness, standing on one foot, I think too other endings of poems.

Would I want these or “Leda and the Swan” muted, turned sideways, forced to wobble on one foot, pretending to be tentative about any Truth they offer?  
     Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
         Time held me green and dying
       Though I sang in my chains like the sea. 
(Dylan Thomas, “Fern Hill”)



In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman
Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.   
(Sylvia Plath, “Mirror”)

Or how about this chunk of magnificence from Richard Ford’s “Rock Springs,” a short story about a ne’er-do-well trying to set his ship aright, but for now, he's stranded in Wyoming:

What would you think a man was doing if you saw him in the middle of the night looking in the windows of cars in the parking lot of the Ramada Inn?  Would you think he was trying to get his head cleared?  Would you think he was trying to get ready for a day when trouble would come down on him? Would you think his girlfriend was leaving him?  Would you think he had a daughter?  Would you think he was anybody like you?
                                                                                                                (Rock Springs, 27)

These might not be great examples of ending on two feet; but if they are, maybe we shouldn’t be in such a hurry to ask for one-foot landings. The closures above present big music and state, or strongly imply, big Truths; if that renders the rest of the works insignificant by comparison, maybe we should ask for more from the beginnings and middles, rather than less from the endings.

My own jury on this, is, as usual, still out, enjoying fried chicken under a giant tulip tree. Besides, it's almost certainly a case by case matter. Does anyone out there feel strongly about this, one way or the other?

**

Jul 3, 2011

Happy Fourth of July 2011

 Another kind of poetry . . .  click on it.

The Bulldog Duet - The Animal Rescue Site
 
Chesterville, Ohio




Batesville, Ohio

Roscommon, Michigan



Rt. 22, Center, Ohio








Jul 1, 2011

Robert Lowell, "Skunk Hour"

As I try to make these posts shorter, they get ridiculously, offensively longer. I apologize. But I’ve never really wrestled with a Robert Lowell poem, and what I’ve come up with interests me too much to stuff it in the sea chest at the foot of the bed.  So please feel especially free to quit early, at the end of Part One, or even earlier, or come back more than once  (you might want to look at my last two or three paragraphs in Part Two, as I try to wrap it all up). Now you have the apology that writers are never supposed to offer.

Part One

Robert Lowell (1917-77) is often considered the first confessional poet. He was a literary soul mate of Elizabeth Bishop, as well as a teacher of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton.  It’s high time I gave him some attention, so here is “Skunk Hour,” which, Wikipedia tells us, he wrote as a response to Bishop’s poem, “Armadillo.”  (Wikipedia is good again for a biographical intro to Lowell).

 First a minor point of fact:  Nautilus Island (which is currently for sale, by the way) consists of 37 acres close to the Maine shoreline, south of Bangor and west of Bar Harbor. It sounds like a fitting getaway spot for a descendant of prominent New England Puritans, which Robert Lowell was.  He also struggled with manic-depression.

Skunk Hour- Poets.org - Poetry, Poems, Bios & More

Although I'll argue that the skunks save the poem in the end, I have some concerns about “Skunk Hour,” chief of which is the absence of causes for the speaker’s neurasthenic soul, the emptiness and depression at the heart of the poem. We see only the effects, the morose mood itself, not its origins. Psychiatry has known for awhile now that depression is a largely biochemical matter, so I’m probably wrong to ask what’s bothering the speaker. But I think the poem wants me to feel with him, on his side,  about his island and the state of things, and for that I simply need more information, whether or not it’s a reasonable request.



We are asked to feel the haunt of the matriarchal spirit of the “hermit heiress,” queen of the island. But If I’m to accept her cloud over him, I need to know more about both characters.



If I’m to see lovers resembling the hulls of boats or if I’m to care about the disappearance of some spry millionaire in L.L. Bean attire—if I’m to feel emptiness, decay and death in everything on Nautilus Island, I need to know and feel the reasons for such psychic fatigue. Unmotivated ennui may be a psychiatric fact, but it is not a literary birthright, a condition we should feel because some poem’s speaker feels it.  The writer has to make us empathize, and that’s my major reservation about "Skunk Hour," in spite of some compelling imagery and phrasing.

Stanza 6 seems self-indulgent in that we don’t know why the speaker has an “ill-spirit” that sobs, even as his own hand tries to strangle that spirit. 
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--
There is a spare vigor and interest in this language, but we don’t know why “I myself am hell,/nobody’s here.”   Can we share his mood merely he's declaring it for us, or are we justified in insisting that the speaker explain what’s got him down? Citing chemical imbalance is not much help to witnesses standing by, wondering what went wrong—maybe even wondering how they might have helped.



Casual readers may now prefer to skip to the end of Part Two  (or just go outside and play).

**************

Part Two             Skunk Hour- Poets.org - Poetry, Poems, Bios & More

Now I want to look at Lowell’s poem as a piece of writing.

First is a basic mechanical issue. Lowell surely understood the differences between commas as opposed to semicolons and dashes, so I don’t see why we need comma splices breeding like bunnies. Poetic license needs a rationale, and it's hard to find one one for the punctuation in “Skunk Hour.”

Nor do I see a rationale for the spaghetti-long lines here and there, which seem arbitrarily different from the poem’s overall line length and structure. Is there some hidden significance to these markedly longer lines? 

Are they solely for the purpose of rhyme? In the first stanza, Lowell could have a natural end rhyme in winter and farmer,  but he chooses cottage-village-dotage. That trio is more interesting and compelling, but should he artificially, intrusively stretch Line 2 to achieve that interest?  Lowell probably won’t go to Hell for his choice, but the guys at the coffee shop might call him erratic.

Similarly, in Stanza 7, “spar spire” strikes me as artificial and self-indulgent. I suppose a spar and a spire might loosely resemble each other, but to me it feels like an excess in word play that jumps up and down, out of control, screaming, “Look at me!  Look at me!  I’m  Bob and I’m a Word Play! I’m playing with sound!  I’m double-alliteration and internal half-rhyme, all in one pair of words! Look at me! I’m practically running with scissors!”

I'm inclined to say, “Sit down and shut up, kid.  You look like you’re just some hyperactive poetic device strutting around to give high school kids something to write about.”  Once again, it’s the artifice, intrusion, and self-indulgence that bother me. Every poet does it, but they don’t get away with it every time.

On the speaker’s back steps, there is suddenly a reference to “our,” and I wonder to whom this refers. The speaker and his wife? Shouldn’t we know? Is this an iconic New England family porch that’s being encroached upon by the striped bearers of stink?  Or are the humans just some teachers or social workers who have rented here for a week? 

I also wonder if “rich” air is a bit blatant as the set-up for a second introduction of the skunks.

But it’s also here that I start to like the poem and care about its situation, if not its speaker. I don’t dislike him; I just don’t know him well enough to care a lot about his mood. Most importantly, I don't know if I trust his dour take on things. 

“Rich air” joins other images of the genteel, or at least mainstream notes of tradition and conventionality that are being menaced by that “wedge-head” of a mother skunk and her “column”  of illegitimate offspring.  "Column."  Of skunk pups. What a great word! Does it imply a Roman column?  That stink-bearing curiosity of a beast approaches with her bastard children, their tails both casual and triumphantly high. They know they’ll get what they want; they don’t need to hurry.  Tromp, tromp. March, march. Like cockroaches, maybe skunks are the soul of inevitability.


I wonder about describing one animal’s tail by comparing it to another animal’s tail. Is the ostrich contributing any pictorial element that’s really necessary, or even helpful? Is the need for any comparison urgent enough to clarify an American skunk by calling forth a big Australian bird? 

But on the whole, the final two, or even three, stanzas are so strong that I’ll concede to Lowell his skunk-ostrich as the nocturnal monster of choice.  Also, I like the poet’s earlier, unusual use of “shelves” and the direct, understated complexity of “My mind’s not right”:

    where the graveyard shelves on the town. . . .
    My mind's not right.

The “hill’s skull” might be a little precious, yet I like the death-resonance and the pictorial clarity more than I resist any self-consciousness in it.

So I have my reservations about “Skunk Hour,” but the final two stanzas pretty much win me over. Strolling skunks make a terrific nightmare metaphor for various menaces that march toward us and “will not scare.”  Their approach is a mini-apocalypse. Skunks might be only a fraction of our body mass, yet we’ll not oppose them if we’re unarmed; we’ll let them eat our sour cream. Maybe such a creature deserves our respect, or at least our anxiety.

Lowell’s odd, almost humorous little skunk mama and column of baby skunks on Main Street give us pause and make us more likely to surrender with the speaker to a vague but encompassing world-weariness. The heiress is invisible, houses are falling, her sons, the tourists, and the millionaire are gone, the "fairy decoratior" is dissatisfied with his orange work, lovers have become tipped boats, and it's fall, the season of old age on a deserted island. Maybe we can, after all, feel some of the speaker's emptiness, defeat, chaos, decay. And now, here come the skunks; the nights are alive with casually fearsome, small invaders--who want our trash.  Or else.

Skunk Hour- Poets.org - Poetry, Poems, Bios & More
**

Lovers' Lane