Skunk Hour Redux:
Things go bump in the Night
By Todd R. Nelson
Robert Lowell’s seminal poem, “Skunk Hour,” is set in Castine, Maine. In the wee hours of the morning, as the Trinitarian church bells knell and a family of skunks scavenge in the gloaming on their way up Main Street, the insomniac poet ruminates about dotage and decay. On the Fourth of July, my wife and I listened to the poem resonating in the parish hall of that church, read, with authoritative critical preamble, by a member of the local literati who referred to Lowell’s tone as “Puritan oratory”—and outlined the liberties he had taken with village history for the sake of the poem’s shape and sense.
Later that same night, we were awaked by new liberties being taken.
After the parade, the tug-of-war, hot dogs and fireworks served up by the volunteer fire department, as we snoozed in the warm night air, we too heard something in the gloaming and awakened. It was, evidently, skunk hour redux.
We presumed the critter to be swilling hot dogs and watermelon rinds, remnants of the festivities below our windows on the town common. The sounds came from the direction of the granite monument to the Union dead a few dozen yards from our bedroom window. The vigilant soldier gazes into the distance over the harbor, his right hand gripping the rifle muzzle at his side.
We peered between the curtains into the moonless gloom, pricked up our ears, and took a whiff. No skunk—a human voice. Female. A woman. Not words—murmurs. We strained our ears.
The woman was evidently pleased with someone’s clever, roving hands. Her consort groaned. It was love making.
This “skunk” couple was taking their sweet time, unperturbed by headlights arcing over their love nest below the statue, as patrons of the wharf bars, latter day descendants of the bars in “Skunk Hour,” drove away from town. Our Independence Day lovers had shed their automotive shells and taken to the warm salt air.
In my imagination, the car radio of Lowell’s poem haunted the act in progress: “Love, O careless Love…” he wrote. Lowell had been positioned to observe these “love-cars,”
Lights turned down,
they lay together, hull to hull,
where the graveyard shelves on the town….
We were bewildered by our options. Poet-like, we imagined the action from a distance; unpoetlike, we felt that we were being inducted into the scene.
My wife whispered, “Let’s shout: ‘I’ll have what she’s having!’” Puritan oratory indeed! Having come this far, the skunk-lovers would not scare, oblivious to their exposure and undeterred by the granite sentinel and the inscription at his feet: “With a great sum obtained we this freedom.”
We resigned ourselves to being inadvertent eavesdroppers—mindful of intrusion, but not sure which couple was the intruder, which the intruded upon. The larger freedom so painfully achieved; the smaller, prurient liberties so blithely thrust upon us.