Up, black, striped and demasked like the chasuble
At a funeral mass, the skunk’s tail
Paraded the skunk. Night after night
I expected her like a visitor.
The refrigerator whinnied into silence.
My desk light softened beyond the verandah.
Small oranges loomed in the orange tree.
I began to be tense as a voyeur.
These, the first two stanzas of Heaney’s “The Skunk,” were the first stanzas of poetry I read as an adolescent. A copy of his Selected Poems sat atop a waist-high bookcase in my sister’s dormitory, and I opened to this poem—its strange rumblings, its erotic associations. Sensual longings notwithstanding, “The Skunk” made me think in ways I hadn’t up to that point.
I didn’t know what a chasuble or verandah was, but I imagined what they could be. I thought what a refrigerator would sound like if it ‘whinnied into silence.’ And while the rest of that day is lost, I do, however, know that this poem stayed. I know that it led me into the library where I borrowed The Haw Lantern and read more poems concerning things I knew little about. But I loved Heaney’s diction—I could feel its palpable presence in my mouth as I read—and I loved the lofty allusions to myth, history, and literature, all things ‘beyond’ me that were enticing to an adolescent for that very reason.
Although I haven’t read Heaney’s work in years, I have him to thank for all the joy poetry has brought me since then. Perhaps it was bound to happen—that I read something to make me feel so strange, so open—but I like to think I was lucky that it was Heaney, as I am lucky today to go back to his work, to “Oysters” and “Alphabets” and “A Dog Was Crying Tonight in Wicklow Also.” I’m going to miss him.