Monday, 2 September 2013

A piece about ‘The Skunk’ written by Seamus Heaney
By Grace O’Reilly

This is one of my top five favourite poems.  I studied it in secondary school, for my Leaving Certificate Examinations.  It is such a cleverly written poem and makes me laugh each time I read it.  The way in which Heaney can compare his wife, whom he loves, to a Skunk, which can be a smelly and wild animal is brilliant.  Not only is it clever and humorous, it’s also extremely sensual, and in some places very unusual.
It is important to note that he is writing from a memory point of view.  He was obviously away from his wife Marie in California, and was missing her emotionally and physically.  His feelings were running wild like the skunk (and a horse) which he refers to later.  The poem was written in 1939. 
If somebody in general compares you to a skunk you would be insulted.  However, the way in which Heaney does this is not only clever and funny, it is complementing and sweet.  He missed his wife that much and so he put so much thought into what he was writing.  It came from the heart and was open and honest.
You could just say that he was being mean and insulting to his wife and was clever in how he wrote it so that it wouldn’t be portrayed in bad light, but I believe that it was what I first said complementing, funny and unusual.  If I was Heaney’s wife, I would be flattered to have a poem written about me and not your typical romantic poem but one with a very different and unique way of thinking.
There are two animal references, the skunk of course and a horse with the word ‘winnied’.  There are two images of trees and three images of clothes.  It is a highly descriptive and visual poem as well as highly descriptive in the other senses of taste, touch, sound and smell.
The visual use of scenery is well written throughout the poem.  For examples;
‘...beyond the verandah.’ and ‘ the orange tree.’
Below are examples of taste.
‘Tang of eucalyptus.....’, ‘the aftermath of a mouthful of wine’
The emotional feeling of how lonely he was for his wife is seen in the lines below
‘Was like inhaling you off a cold pillow.’
The sound of the fridge is amusing like the fridge is alive and going to gallop away like a horse.  This line is also unusual.
‘The refrigerator whinnied into silence.’

Some of the descriptions are unusual and metaphoric.  The way he can think of religion and sex together is one example.  The opening two lines.
‘Up, black, striped and damasked like a chasuble... the skunk’s tail’
The other example.
‘And there she was, the intent and glamorous,
Ordinary, mysterious skunk,
Mythologized, demythologized’
The last two lines are the best for comparison of Heaney’s wife and the skunk. 
‘Your head-down, tail up hunt in a bottom drawer
For the black plunge-line nightdress.’
At this final point in the poem, he is writing from the ‘now’ point and not a memory.
The rhythm of the poem has a natural flow.  Also the lack of rhyming helps keep the poem natural and the conversational words that pop up maintain a causal air.
The tone varies from wonderment to sensual, to humorous to delicate to playful and so on.  There is an element of assortments.
I have read this poem countless times and it still makes me smile and giggle to myself how a person can compare his wife to a skunk in such a funny, flattering and erotic way.  That is the beauty of the poem and in Heaney’s eyes the beauty of his wife and the skunk.