Frustration’s Armored Aroma
Skunk Hour by Robert Lowell and The Armadillo by Elizabeth Bishop are two closely related poems. Both share the theme of an animal carrying with it natural defenses, and the image of an isolated spectator. However, there is one important contrast between these poems:The Armadillo portrays a creature who cannot comprehend the events destroying the life about it, whereas the speaker in Skunk Hour understands, possibly too well, the events affecting its life.
By using the skunk as a descriptive element for his character, Robert Lowell increases the distance between the character and the brief glimpse of society portrayed in the poem. Skunks, generally, are avoided by everyone because of their reputation for spraying unwelcome visitors with a noxious vapor. Here, the reason for Robert Lowell’s choice in animals becomes obvious. Utilizing such an isolated animal to parallel the thoughts of the speaker, Lowell considerably strengthens the distance between the speaker of the poem and the “love-cars” (Lowell 11) being watched. Even if the occupants of those cars knew they were being observed, chances are they would not associate themselves with the speaker.
In addition, Robert Lowell portrays his character as something akin to a stalker, illustrated in the following excerpt.
One dark night,
my Tudor Ford climbed the hill’s skull;
I watched for love-cars.
Why would anyone be out alone, searching for lovers who do not desire intrusion? The
speaker answers this question in the second half of the stanza.
Lights turned down,
they lay together, hull to hull,
where the graveyard shelves on the town…
My mind’s not right.
Here, the speaker admits his actions are wrong. Later in this paper, the fact that the speaker in Skunk Hour is lonely will become an important contrast to the character in The Armadillo.
At the end of the poem, Lowell contrasts as well as likens the character to the nocturnal skunk.
Nobody’s here –
only skunks, that search
in the moonlight for a bite to eat
Like the skunks of the poem, the speaker is a creature of the night. Although he does not search for food as the skunks do, the speaker may very well be searching for a bite of life.
In The Armadillo by Elizabeth Bishop, the speaker is once again a spectator of sorts, watching “the frail, illegal fire balloons appear” (Bishop 33).Again, like the speaker in Skunk Hour, this character is lonely. In the fifth stanza, the hot air balloons are fading into distance and the darkness of night. However, the spectator feels forsaken by their departure.
Receding, dwindling, solemnly
and steadily forsaking us,
or, in the downdraft from a peak,
suddenly turning dangerous.
The poem continues with a description of a crash involving one of the hot air balloons. However, the speaker notes the incident by stating, “Last night another big one fell” Bishop 34). At this point, the question should be asked: is the speaker, in his loneliness, enjoying the flight of the hot air balloons or their failure and the subsequent fire they create? If it is the latter than, like the speaker in Skunk Hour, this character is slightly maladjusted.
In the last two lines of stanza nine, the speaker of The Armadillo comments on a baby rabbit.
So soft! — a handful of intangible ash
with fixed, ignited eyes.
Here, the attitude of the speaker becomes clear. Not only is there the possibility for enjoyment in watching the crash of the balloons and the subsequent effects its’ fire had on the creatures about it, but that the speaker sees living things as momentary.
At this point, the speaker of The Armadillo becomes a contrast to the character in Skunk Hour. Instead of merely being a nighttime voyeur of unsuspecting people making-out in their cars, the speaker in The Armadillo becomes something great, gaining the ability to recognize the loss of life about it. However, at the same time, the character becomes insignificant as will be seen in the following excerpt.
Too pretty, dreamlike mimicry!
O falling fire and piercing cry
and panic, and a weak mailed fist
clenched ignorant against the sky!
Although the creature has the ability to see living things as ordinary, there is still a definitive lack of understanding. The last line of the poem carries with it feelings of frustration, anger and lack of comprehension.
Finally, the choice of an armadillo to describe the speaker becomes evident. As in Skunk Hour by Robert Lowell, the armadillo is a spectator. However, unlike the skunk, the armadillo is armored. While nature is affected and destroyed by the fire balloons falling from the sky in The Armadillo, the armadillo, itself, remains virtually unaffected. Although the speaker grows frustrated at its own lack of understanding concerning the destruction of life, it does not feel the loneliness and pain the speaker in Skunk Hour so thoroughly comprehends.