On "Dust World"

Section I of Adrian Louis’s “Dust World” (1992) opens with the speaker standing in “a whirlwind of hot autumn dust” (line 1) and screaming “for the wind to abate” (4). The speaker is standing against the wind to save the poor surrounding him, presumably Indians of the Sioux reservation he seems to be on. The poor only surround him metaphorically, however, and he stands and speaks alone, exposed to the harsh weather. The solitude suggests his being ignored by or withdrawn from the community, as there is no indication of his being supported by some unseen group or any others’ awareness of his speech act. The power he speaks or acts against here, the wind, moves from an unseen and unknowable point, swarms around him, and moves on to some other point in the American West, linking together the lands ceded to whites by the Sioux and others. The overwhelming force of the wind proves itself in its triumph over the speaker at the end of the section: “I have no sylvan glades of dreams,/ just dust words/ for my people dying.” The words he shouts become lost in the “death wind” (7) and so he loses his only source of real power. The poem’s title indicates how the wind in its evacuative fury has become the ‘real’ of the entire world in the impoverished rural American West. The speaker has taken on an act of real bravery, one that evokes medicinal powers of certain pre-colonization Indian cultures in the West, and has done so without the support of those for whom he risks himself. But, his words are denied their power and are made into the same blowing dust that erodes the community from which he has separated himself.

In Section II the speaker moves into that community but fails to form any real connections to the people there and to uncover any meaningful, purposeful groups or acts to connect with. Those he does encounter depend on a markedly passive relationship with American culture for the behavior and subjectivity they express. The teenage mothers who lounge with their children on the hood of a very old car and the high school dropouts working at the video store both give the speaker quasi-sexual greetings. Neither group seems to hold much interest for him, however, and neither certainly has any of the usual indications of enticing sexuality in American culture. The girls’ waving “as if they know me” (15) mimics the behavior of high school students as they cruise and flirt, and the car itself has long been a sexually charged and sexualized object in America. The video store clerks mimic violence from an action movie, presumably one playing on a store monitor, and violence has been another medium for sexual arousal in America. The narrator believes, much as he does of the girls, that the boys are “are almost courting me … almost flirting” (26-27) because of his pronounced masculinity in the form of enormous biceps. He walks past both the girls and the boys, though, without speaking to them or making any sort of positive comments about them. He does note that the whiskey has taken over his voice at the end of the stanza, and he rewrites the ending of section I into another moment of powerless or impotent speech. The connotation of sexual impotence cannot be missed here, given the subject matter of the stanza and especially the line “ever so softly” (30), with its whiskey-fueled, whispered seductions and hint of the concomitant failure to act on those seductions. The girls and boys are the community that he has tried to save from the power of the post-colonization West but he cannot form any relationship to them, even of the most basic type. They lack the power of the adult world to identify on and act in their own best interests and to confront the power moving over the reservation as the speaker has in the poem’s opening. He wants to act as a father to the community, to become an authority figure, but cannot because of his own subjugation by an addiction to alcohol and his isolation. The isolation that ends this section deprives his speech of its power over those in the community he wants to help. His trip into town could change the grown children he meets into adults, but his words have been rendered “dust” by the effects of a colonizing American culture: Hollywood movies and Detroit cars that violently appropriate Indian cultures, alcohol that leaves him physically and socially impotent, and economic despair that makes teenage girls into solitary mothers and teenage boys into dropouts without prospects beyond being clerks.

The third section begins in much the same way. The eroticism of the Sioux girls has become blatant and even flaunted for all to see, as they “court friction” and rub their butts over the hood of the “hideous car” (34-35). They have begun marketing their sexuality as they use it to attract this father figure, and he responds by sucking in his stomach and peeling out the tires of his T-bird. In the sequence both sides act out stereotypical aspects of courtship in America, as prescribed by Hollywood-produced clichés and consumer culture. That culture enters their lives also in its appropriation of the Thunder Bird for the name of the speaker’s car. He and the girls signify their sexual identities by interacting with this dominant culture rather than with each other. The problem continues for the narrator at the end of the poem, in which he returns to the video store for the X-rated films he has forgotten in his alcoholic stupor. He rents the pornography from the exoticized, fighting clerks and ends the poem alone in a “wild-night redskin parade.” One meaning of “redskin” here is masturbation in the form of a literal self-abuse, something that damages him in its furor and, again, his solitude. His encounter with the town has left him isolated and replicating the exploitative system, in the form of watching pornography, that has objectified Indians for so long. Even the Sioux reservation in South Dakota, on which they live and which the speaker tries to defend against the plains dust storm, is a product of the same motivation. The desire for gold that opened up the Dakotas to whites produced violence similar to that of his desire for the women of the films—both involve a desire based on illusion and fetish rather than real, personal relationships, and both produce great wealth for people in distant cities too. After his failed attempt at resistance to the constant storm of white power there is no escape from its effects in his home, and he lacks the cultural agency, available to others in such things as attitudes of racial supremacy or the power of money, to form a life separate from the storm and its manifestations in his VCR. His isolation at the end only intensifies his vulnerability to intrusion by forces of the dominant culture.

Although the speaker is acted upon by the impersonal force of the storm, he lacks a sense of victimization. In section III he “cruise(s) through a small whirlwind/ of lascivious regrets” (43-44) after he has performed his masculinity by peeling out for the teenage girls. His whirlwind resembles the dust and wind of the opening but has come under his control here, and by extension it brings those regrets under control as well. Encased in this private, isolated dust storm he “happily” cruises the streets of this “welfare world” (45-46) without the purpose of the opening stanza; the ending of the poem clearly indicates a sense of loss. His solitude at the end only reaffirms that at the beginning, though, and so in this respect nothing has changed in his condition in the world. From his solitude he continues to act upon his social context, cruising through the town and evaluating its citizens’ status much as he went out to meet the windstorm. Throughout the poem he maintains a commitment to them and a simultaneous awareness of their problems and his own. The racist meaning of “redskin” from the last line signifies his self-awareness with regard to his being like the stereotypical Indian. He acknowledges his complicity in his occupying this stereotype and the masturbatory impulses sometimes involved in self-pity, and he moves beyond both of those with his shouting what he knows to be mere “dust words” into the wind. The self-control denied him by his racial and class identities he grants to himself with the act of speaking into the storm. Part of the poem’s poignancy comes from its awareness of the necessity of that stance, of shouting into the void, and its obstinate depiction of both the conditions of the people he would help and his inability to relate to them even in the act of protecting them.

Steven Gould Axelrod on "Skunk Hour"

The first four stanzas of "Skunk Hour" describe the Maine seacoast village of Castine (and nearby Nautilus Island and Blue Hill), where Lowell spent the summer of 1957. . . . The amiability of his tone is a ruse. He is describing more than scenery, he is describing the rotting of a whole social structure. The "hermit heiress" longs for "Queen Victoria's century" and is senile. Her social successor, the "summer millionaire," is also past his prime -- his yawl has been auctioned off. Even nature has grown old and sinister, covered with "stain" . . . . The once vibrant New England culture and economy have been degraded: their traditional implements -- nets and corks of fishermen, cobbler's bench and awl - are now only items displayed by an interior decorator to attract wealthy tourists.

In stanza five the "sterility" howling through the landscape is given its point. . . . The observation in stanza three that "the season's ill" might have referred innocently to seasonal change, but by stanza six its full implication is manifest: this season of human habitation on earth is ill -- decadent and debased. And Lowell, his spirit "ill," personifies that disease. Just as he embodies his ailing civilization, so the town inhabitants turn out to have prefigured Lowell himself, who is as isolated and demented as the heiress, as fallen as the ruined millionaire, and as loveless and artistically failed as the decorator.

Lowell has entered a monstrous world akin to the world of "For the Union Dead" in which automobiles and steamshovels appear as creatures out of the Mesozoic era. The monsters of both poems embody the inner truth of the observed scene and, equally frightening, make manifest his own disordered feelings. In "Skunk Hour" he sees the graveyard hill itself as a "skull," an expressionist figure of death. He projects his feelings of lovelessness and balked lust into a scene of automotive sexuality, in which not only the car's occupants but the "love-cars" themselves couple "hull to hull," while bleating like sheep of "careless Love." Disconnected from the observed scene and even from his own inner self, Lowell perceives himself to be a "skull" of death, an empty "hull" in which his spirit chokes.

The self-portrait Lowell has created calls to mind other sexually and emotionally withdrawn characters in our post-Puritan literature, preeminently those of Hawthorne and Henry James . . . . As in Hawthorne, Lowell's depiction of psychological separateness manifests a cosmic condition. Because he is now exiled from God as well as human society, he is constrained, in the manner of Ethan Brand, to judge and punish himself:

I myself am hell; nobody's here --

Lowell has written of his stanzas, "This is the dark night. I hoped my readers would remember St. John of the Cross's poem. . . ." Like Christ on Golgotha, the "place of a skull," Lowell confronts death on the "hill's skull" near the graveyard; not a death leading to resurrection, but an existential death, yielding nothingness.

From Robert Lowell: Life and Art (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1978), 124-126.