The Skunk

Heaney follows ‘The Otter’ with a second zoomorphic poem.

Alone and cooped up in North Berkeley close to the University there were moments when Heaney felt five thousand miles from home. He uses the nightly presence of a creature not generally regarded as emblematic of love or desire to conjure up the beauty, intensity and sexual appeal of his wife Marie. Think creature think wife from the outset.

A bobbing first impression (tail) triggered Heaney’s imagination – something proud and erect (up) with alternating black and white rings (striped), richly textured (damasked) like (a touch of irreverence perhaps from a man who has lost the faith) the Catholic clerical vestment at dire moment (chasuble at a funeral mass). The tail’s slink and shimmer deployed to show the creature at its best (paraded the skunk). The skunk’s recurrent presence in a Californian garden (night after night) became an anticipation (expected her like a visitor).

Literal and metaphorical steps taken not to cause a stink: appliances turned down (refrigerator whinnied into silence), minimal illumination (desk light softened). Expectation skewed reality (small oranges loomed), raised questions as to whether his interest was healthy or not (tense as a voyeur).

His thoughts are plugged into Marie; he has surprised himself (after eleven years) with current expressions of passion (composing love-letters again), comparing Marie’s lexical identity (broaching the word ‘wife’) with fine wine that improves as it matures (stored cask), re-tuning the word itself (its slender vowel) to his current elemental Californian moment (mutated into the night earth and air).

Pleasing but vain (beautiful, useless) external fragrance (tang of eucalyptus) has revealed (spelt) what is missing (your absence) … the lingering savour of something fine (aftermath of a mouthful of wine) that remains in the nostrils (like inhaling) beyond the reach of marital expectation (off a cold pillow).

Behold the night visitor (there she was) so much like the person currently on his mind: purposeful (intent) and alluring (glamorous), straightforward (ordinary) yet enigmatic (mysterious), her reputation set on a pedestal (mythologized) yet not like that at all (demythologized) … just doing what came natural to a she-skunk (snuffing the boards) and, unlike Marie, almost within touching distance (five feet beyond me).

The way to touch her came to him through his subconscious (all last night): a stimulating (stirred) monochromatic dream of himself and Marie preparing for bed – her clothing dropping item by item to the floor (sootfall of your things) followed by her naked all-revealing rummage (head-down, tail-up hunt) for nightwear designed to turn him on (black plunge-line nightdress). But note well that the poem is about male sexual tension and not decorum!

Discussing the role of the erotic in his poetry with DOD (around p.204). Heaney confirmed that ‘to this day I associate that visitation (a skunk in the rear garden) with the erotic’. He outlined eros as a driving force visible in one form or another in the whole of living creation. Furthermore, to counter any prissiness amongst his readership, he was quite blunt: ‘in poetry a recollection is as potent as an erection’. He further commented on a ‘playful element’ in the poem but its ‘definite serious engagement’ … and with a barely concealed chuckle Heaney added In my own case, eros eventually got curled into the crook of a poem called ‘Fiddleheads(reference to a variety of edible fern!)  in District and Circle.

  • damask: de luxe patterned fabric:
  • chasuble: Catholic cleric’s ornate sleeveless outer garment;
  • parade: show something off;
  • whinny; gentle, high-pitch horse’s neighing sound;
  • verandah: roofed platform outside and attached to a house;
  • loom: appear, take shape;
  • voyeur: someone deriving pleasure from observing naked forms;
  • broach: bring up, raise; the same verb also means to pierce a barrel to draw out liquid typically alcoholic;
  • cask: container, barrel typically of wood;  Frank Bredin from Wesley College in Dublin reminded me that the reference to ‘cask’ might in fact be linked with  the colour of mourning at each end of Heaney’s poem and the ‘funeral mass’ comparison to refer to the casket in which dead bodies were displayed prior to funeral; 
  • slender: slim, negligible;
  • vowel: the [ai] of ‘wife’
  • mutate: undergo change;
  • tang: sharp aroma;
  • eucalyptus: evergreen tree originally from Australasia with medical properties;
  • spell: utter/ write letter by letter;
  • aftermath: consequences, after effects; after-taste;
  • intent: determined, single-minded
  • mythologize: convert into myth,
  • snuff: sniff at
  • stir: stir, provoke, stimulate – the moment of poetic charge;
  • sootfall: black elements falling through the air;
  • tail: nether parts (rear view):
  • plunge-line: with a very low neckline that reveals the cleavage;


  • DOD 205 I was in California when I saw the creature out on a verandah; there was no stink – all that bad been obliterated by the eucalyptus on those fragrant hillsides in North Berkeley. I had a whole house to myself for the term, house-sitting for Mark and Ruth Schorer. They’d told me to look out for this skunk and her family and, if they appeared, to keep very still and all would be well: no fright would equal no spray;
  • (MP 172) In the poems immediately succeeding ‘Glanmore Sonnets’, Heaney again dwells on the critical role played by his wife in his personal and artistic maturation. Whether plunging into a pool in Tuscany (‘The Otter’), or rooting around ‘in a bottom-drawer / For the plunge-line nightdress’ (‘The Skunk’), her vigour and glamour awe and enthral him, leaving him ‘tense as a voyeur’.
  • NC 100 Yet this is to overstate what these poems delicately understate, nowhere more than in ‘The Skunk’. Its title, and the glimpse of the poet as voyeur, recall Robert Lowell’s ‘Skunk Hour‘ in Life Studies; but the mood of that disconsolate, desolating poem is contrastively remote from Heaney’s. Lowell’s ‘skunk hour’ is a time of intense, infernal isolation (‘I myself am hell. / nobody’s here’), whereas Heaney’s skunk acts as an emblem for the way the poet’s aloneness is a mere physical accident, suffused with his wife’s presence when, away from her in California, he writes her a love letter. The skunk – ‘intent and glamorous’, ‘ordinary, mysterious’, ‘mythologized, demytholo­gized’ – takes on the ‘oxymoronic’ qualities of the woman much known and much missed: so that the risky comparison, made while he is with her again in their bedroom, is charged with affection and intimacy, turning a faintly ridiculous human posture into an unconscious erotic invitation:


  • Six quatrains (Q) in eleven sentences (S); thinly veiled impersonal pronouns reveal Seamus and Marie Heaney;
  • Q1 the proud deportment of the night visitor’s tail; colours important and comparison with Catholic clergy are a second aspect of Heaney’s aspect so probably not aimed at irreverence; rich description using different parts of speech and a slightly shocking simile; the notion of visitation adds a spiritual element; Q2 sets out the careful steps that retain the creature’s calm and add elements of not-quite-reality and the potential pitfalls of observation; comparison of fridge sound and horse ‘whinny’; touch of psychedelic extension of consciousness via ‘loom’; ’voyeur’ prepared the poet for his final quatrain;; Q3 depicts poet’s surprise at dealing with poetic charge that turns the clock back, reflecting on the linguistic dimension- synesthetic shape of sound; comparison of word sound and wine to demonstrate what improves by being kept; Q4 strong aromatic sense both real and imagined to bridge the distance between man and absent spouse;Q5 outlines characteristics shared by creature and woman; groups of contrasting descriptors not least the play on ‘myth’; Q6 eschews decorum in an intimate dream sequence in stark monochrome that brings some respite to his need for; sexual fulfilment;
  • the relative balance between sentence length, punctuation marks (some mid-line) and enjambed lines determines the flow and rhythm within the oral delivery potential; ringing the changes: Q2 uses four short sentences of steps taken and psychological response; this contrasts with S7 which is heavily enjambed ;
  • variable line length between 8-11 syllables; Heaney suggested his Field Work lines were iambically tight;
  • unrhymed; few if any tenuous assonant or alliterative effects in final syllable or word;


  • Heaney is a meticulous craftsman using combinations of vowel and consonant to form a poem that is something to be listened to.
  • the music of the poem: fourteen assonant strands are woven into the text; Heaney places them grouped within specific areas to create internal rhymes , or reprises them at intervals or threads them through the text;
  • syllables without highlight are largely the unstressed sound as in common, little [ə]

  • alliterative effects allow pulses or beats, soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies; this is sonic engineering of the first order;
  • a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section;
  • the first quatrain is dominated by alveolar plosives [t] [d], velar plosive [k]] and front-of-mouth sounds – bi-labial plosives [p] [b], labio-dental fricatives [f] [v] and [l]; alongside these sibilants [s] [z] and nasals [n] [m];

One thought on “The Skunk

  1. The presence of a casket or caskets at the funeral is implied retrospectively in the cask in verse 3.

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