In both ‘The Skunk’ and ‘The Otter’, Heaney is influenced by the separation from his wife in the time he was lecturing for a year at the University of California. He uses animals which aren’t usually seen as symbols of love or desire, as a metaphor for his wife and his favourite things about her.
The form of ‘The Otter’ comprises seven quatrains, with no regular metre or rhyme scheme. The first three stanzas are written in past tense, where Heaney remembers watching a woman – presumably his wife – swimming and compares her to an otter. The following four stanzas then shift to the present, in which Heaney describes how their relationship has progressed.
Heaney describes ‘the light of Tuscany’ as it ‘wavered’ when the person/animal ‘plunged’ into the pool. The use of the word ‘wavered’ suggests the light became unsteady, and signifies the importance of the person if they can make light unsteady.
Heaney compares the otter’s and the woman’s physical features, portraying his love for both. ‘Wet head’ and ‘smashing crawl’ are used to depict the otter’s movements in the water, whilst ‘swimmer’s back and shoulders’ foe the woman. Heaney’s use of the word ‘smashing’ is ambiguous – either meaning wonderful, or the action of violently breaking something. Therefore, the image of a ‘smashing crawl’ suggests a powerful swimming technique, making the otter seem almost omnipotent in the water. Heaney is glorifying the otter in order to justify comparing the woman to it.
The contrast of ‘wet head’ and dry-throated’ creates a barrier between Heaney and the woman. The idea of the barrier continues when Heaney writes about the woman in the water being ‘beyond’ him, as he is sitting on ‘the warm stones’. He is ‘disappointed’ at the physical gap between him and the woman in the water, reflecting his feeling about the separation from his wife whilst in California.
The tone then shifts to the present with ‘when I hold you now’. Heaney’s use of ‘we’ in ‘we are close and deep’ suggests the couple is once again united, physically and emotionally. This is reinforced when he uses the simile ‘as the atmosphere on water’, to describe their closeness.
Heaney’s uses contrast in ‘you are my palpable lithe, otter of memory’. ‘Palpable’ suggests physical contact and being able to touch something, whilst a ‘memory’ is something untouchable and of the mind. This could therefore imply that because Heaney is finally touching his wife, everything, including the graceful otter is now unimportant and only a memory.
The form of ‘The Skunk’ consists of six quatrains with no regular rhyme or metre. In the first stanza, Heaney describes the skunk, followed by a portrayal of the room he is in. He then writes about the separation from his wife inspiring him to write love letters again, and how separation isn’t always a negative thing for couples.
Heaney’s use of ‘funeral mass’ in the first stanza sets a sombre mood for the poem, most likely reflecting his feelings about the separation from his wife. Although Heaney talk about ‘the skunk’ in the previous line, there is a sense of ambiguity that ‘I expected her like a visitor’ is perhaps refereeing to his wife rather than the skunk. The use of the word ‘expected’, inevitably conjures up the idea of disappointment that often comes with expectations, linking back to ‘The Otter’ when Heaney was ‘disappointed’.
Heaney suggest that the time apart from his wife has made him ‘compose’ love-letter for his wife again after eleven years, augmenting the idea of distance makes the heart grow fonder. The enjambment at the end of stanza three, followed by the fourth stanza beginning with ‘California’, creates a physical space on the page as well as in our speech, between the distances from Heaney to his wife. This reflects ‘The Otter’ where Heaney was displeased with the range between him and the woman (his wife) in the water.
The simile ‘the aftermath of a mouthful of wine was like inhaling you off a cold pillow’ suggests Heaney being intoxicated with her even though she’s no longer there – symbolised by ‘the cold pillow’. This emphasises the idea that distance does make the heart grow fonder, and Heaney has not lost the feeling for his wife despite their time apart.
Heaney explains that the skunk, although not the ideal symbol of perfection to some people, has many characteristics that make Heaney enthralled by it, just like his wife: ‘there she was, the intent and glamorous, ordinary, mysterious skunk’.
In the final comparison of his wife to the skunk, Heaney uses it to reinforce his most prominent idea of separation sometime being a good thing, as it can revitalise a relationship and reignite the passion: ‘your head-down, tail-up hunt in the bottom drawer for the black plunge-line nightdress’.