Published online by Cambridge University Press: 26 June 2019
Steven Gould Axelrod
LOWELL'S TEXTUAL SELF-MANIFESTATIONS are remarkable for their gender and sexual fluidity and their entanglement in the complexities of ethnic, racial, and class identity. The “I” repeatedly desires to be someone else, to identify as, or be associated with, a member of a less pre-ordained, less privileged collective. We can see these social projects microcosmically represented in the skunk that takes over the ending of Lowell's bestknown poem, “Skunk Hour”:
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.
The mother skunk concludes the anxiety-ridden Life Studies volume of 1959 as an image of aggressive, if also comic, defiance. She is the speaker's ego ideal, a hopeful image of the speaker himself in the act of surviving and prevailing.
Significantly, the skunk is a female—one whose maternity is paired with a “female masculinity” (she marches, jabs, and will not scare). The image culminates not only Lowell's recurrent trans-species identifications in this volume (associating his textual immanence with a whale, a seal, a cock, a polar bear, a worm, a bird, an elephant, a fox, and a sheep), but also his persistent suggestions of transgender powers and desires. The boy who “wished I were an older girl,” who functioned as “Agrippina / in the Golden House of Nero,” and who “cuddled like a paramour” in his grandfather's bed has evolved into an adult who can change his daughter “to a boy” by the way he dresses her and who finds his own specular image in a “mother skunk.”
Lowell's poetic texts demonstrate an eagerness to complicate sexual identity as well as gender. The speaker's subject position drifts away from normativity without warning. Despite his apparently respectable social position, he is “part criminal,” as he admits.5 Beyond cuddling with his grandfather “like a paramour,” his younger self gossips with his mother about his father “with unadulterated joy,” the adjective barely suppressing its hint of adultery through Freudian negation. Even his elegy for his father, ironically titled “Commander Lowell,” begins with an extended representation of his strong-willed mother, herself an example of female masculinity, before moving reluctantly to his weak-willed father who is notable mainly for singing “Anchors Aweigh” in the bathtub and squandering his inheritance through disastrous investments.