‘One carries an exacting memory of certain reading
experiences, like a scent, forever.’
C.D. Wright, from her preface to Frank Stanford’s
The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You
My husband was telling me about a cologne that his sister used to give him, back in the ’70s and ’80s. He was pretty sure it had been discontinued. He couldn’t remember the name. ‘H. It started with H,’ he ventured.
‘Halston?’ I asked, my fashionista knowledge from that period for the first time in our marriage rearing its snazzy little head.
‘Yes! And then a number or a letter … or both?’ at which point he had the good idea to explore the Cabinet of Curiosities that lurks under the bathroom sink. And there it was, in its topless, well-worn, coffee-brown cardboard box: Halston Z-14.
Gently I took it out. I held it in my hand like something precious, the smoothly voluptuous bottle, curved as if squeezed at the waist by a lover’s hand. If Henry Moore had designed perfume bottles, they would have looked like this. In fact, the bottle was created by Elsa Peretti, a fine sculptor who happens to work in other media.
There was still some cologne in the bottom of the bottle. I asked him if I could open it. ‘Of course,’ he said, but I barely heard him. Bypassing conscious thought, I was instantly transported back to lower 6th Avenue, New York City circa 1978, waiting behind the velvet ropes to see if I’d be admitted into the club, underage. Would they check ID? Would my elaborate make-up job do the trick? The sexy musk scent of the men around me, the flowers from the hedge, the spiky notes of adrenaline and excitement. No questions asked of me, I sailed in. As my eyes adjusted to the dark, I saw Andy Warhol standing in a corner, gray wig, skinny sweater, flanked by sycophants. He nodded, a tiny sly smile at me.
Damiano asked, ‘Where did you go just then?’ ‘Back to my misspent youth.’ And it was all just glorious—the thoughts of my misspent youth as well as my newfound ability to time-travel, just by opening a dust-covered bottle of voluptuous cologne. Visceral. Wistful.
Then my Muse, ever fragrant and interested in such experiences, inserted herself into the picture. It became clear that I would write a poem about this moment.
That moment, that olfactory flashback, was the inception of a series of poems I’ve spent the past few years working on. Some of the poems are based on actual olfactory flashbacks, like the one described, evoked by the Halston Z-14. Others are narratives that were suggested by the language of the perfume’s notes: labdanum, davana, osmanthus, rose. These past couple of years have seen many deaths of poets who’ve been important to me: teachers, mentors, poets whose work my husband and I have translated; there’s a sequence of elegies for these poets. Since I feel that I can joke with my dearly departed, these masters of and players with language, I call this sequence my ‘smelegies’. Whenever I wear one of these ‘smelegiac’ fragrances, I have fond mnemonic thoughts of its particular poet all day.
Though this is a subject for an entirely different essay, as a poet, I am most drawn to writing in form. These fragrant poems started out as sonnets, the form that is the great love of my poetic life. But soon, just as complicated fragrances do, the poems began to take up more time and space, morphing into 16-liners like the sonnets in George Meredith’s Modern Love. That seemed fitting, as some of these poems turned out to be melancholy flashbacks to failed attempts at love. When I started to take on the complicated stories of family members and friends, living and dead, the poems really exploded out, sometimes expanding to 35 lines, which is a very long poem indeed for a sonneteer such as myself.
And as they so often do, the poems took on lives of their own. Here, that phenomenon was further amplified by the olfactory journey that the perfumes took me on. It was sometimes enjoyable, sometimes poignant, as I sat at my flea-market escritoire, its little drawers and compartments filled with vials and decants, squirting my wrist with that day’s subject. I’d sit and sniff and scribble, then sniff again, until the fragrance perfused a story onto my skin.
Then I had to get that story down, in lines and stanzas. Of course I used my familiar tools: rhyme, meter, repetition. But with this series, I was working (and playing) with yet another set of constraints: the components of the perfumes themselves. Based on its composition, each poem created its own imagistic requirements, ranging from innocence to badassery, from exuberance to elegy. From the blinding alchemy of a one-night stand to the binding promises of long-term love.
In this sense, then (pun intended), I also consider these poems to be works of ekphrasis. The teachers of ancient rhetoric considered ekphrasis, the vivid description of a work of art, to be among the most sophisticated exercises used to teach basic rhetorical skills. And, like poems in general, ekphrastic poems are intended to be so clear and skillful as to bring the subject before the mind’s eye of the listener or reader. In the case of these poems, it was my intent to bring the subject—each particular fragrance—into the mind’s nose.
Ekphrastic writing comes to us from antiquity, having been important also among Byzantine and Renaissance authors. Like many literary genres in the 20th and 21st centuries (the novel and poetry itself spring to mind), ekphrasis has more than once been declared dead. I would counter that reports of the death of ekphrasis have been greatly exaggerated, that it is still a useful and beautiful mode of expression. Do we not have visceral and emotional encounters with objects of art, whether paintings, sculptures, symphonies? And for those of us who negotiate the world through words, should we not write about a cultural experience or artifact that has moved us, touched us deeply? A play, a perfume?
There are, however, major challenges for contemporary poets who wish to engage in ekphrasis. One of the driving forces behind the ‘been there, done that’ school of ekphrastic criticism is that the object already exists in the world: why bother to write about it? But to me, this challenge presents the most interesting aspects of the project. Why write about it indeed? This thing—painting, sculpture, perfume—has touched me so deeply that I feel compelled to write about it. In the poem, I would like to convey how my response is, if perhaps not unique to me, then at least an indicator of poetic sensibility or emotional coloration. My relation to and reflections upon that object. Even, if I may say it, my aesthetic.
Perfumers—the good ones—take great care with their creations. Like poets—the good ones—they go through numerous ‘drafts’ of a perfume, revising the formula until it lives up to the Platonic idea of what the perfumer had in mind. (In fact, Plato did not much value the sense of smell, but that’s another story.) The components must work together in interesting, harmonious ways to create a desired effect on the wearer.
Surely, one of those desired effects—for both creator and wearer—is to be remembered. Writing these poems flashed me back, helped me to remember people whom I’ve loved, places where I’ve traveled, experiences that had lain forgotten. If it’s true, as Jonathan Reinarz says, that ‘[m]emory, imagination, old sentiments and associations, are more readily reached through the sense of smell than by almost any other channel’ (and I believe that it is), then what more fitting combination is there than poems and perfumes? The paradox of an ephemeral fragrance that yet leaves an indelible memory. The poem, ‘a moment’s monument’ that lives on in the reader’s mind.
There is such beauty to be found in darkness,
he told us, so we scribbled in the woods
and underwoods of psyche where he’d led us
to secrets rich and deep, the body’s truths,
the body’s lies as well, its tattered rags.
Somehow he made us view our selves as sacred,
a kind of incense offered up—nutmeg
and pepper, iris, spiky cedarwood.
One day he came upon me in the glade.
I knew he’d read my little cries of pain
(a pane of brittle glass; I was transparent).
He touched my shoulder. How they must compare
you to the poet J___, such glorious hair.
He said, That kind of beauty will not fade;
spoke kindly of my father, dead for years.
Cœur de Vétiver Sacré
I’ve never even found it on a map,
that place he took me to, mystic and strange
in the West of Ireland. Did it start with A?
A mythic name? Arcadia, perhaps?
The very air was green, or so it seemed,
light viridescing through the leaves, from jade
to celadon, from moss to chrysoprase.
We walked and talked beneath the canopy.
He told me that he’d never understood
why my young boyfriend, R___, disliked him so.
Incredulous: ‘You don’t remember?’ ‘No—’
The drunken phone calls, insults: it wasn’t good.
He bowed his head. ‘I lost entire years,
inflicted damage I can’t even name.’
‘It’s all right, Dad, I know, we’re much the same
and this place is too beautiful for tears.’
We drove in silence, on to Brigid’s well,
where pilgrims had left offerings to please:
bright ribbons, incense, careful bricks of peat.
He walked three circles sunwards, prayed for health.
Her elements are water, fire, air.
If he were ashes, I’d scatter him there.
Mûre et Musc
Once married, she became an artisan
of ironing. Smoothing, straightening at the seams,
she’d start out with the pillowcases, sheets,
and towels, and even ironed the diapers, bleached
so white they glowed light blue. My mother ironed
for everyone: Grandfather’s uniforms;
and Grandma’s dresses, for both house and church;
my father’s navy trousers, Oxford shirts,
the silky ties he wore only to work;
and school-nights, Catholic-school blouses and skirts.
There’s nothing like the smell of laundry, fresh
That summer, when he left,
she kept on ironing, holding it together.
It was the summer when the radio
kept her in tears, and him on that jet-plane,
for ever leaving, off into the blue.
The summer of distractions, lemonade
and sky-blue snowballs that left my sister’s lips
a terrifying shade of cyanosis.
My mother’s favorite color, always: blue.
She loves each shade, cerulean, cornflower,
forget-me-not and denim; cobalt; true-.
In some parts of the world, one wouldn’t dare
to leave the house without a talisman
of blue: blue eye; or lapis lazuli,
that metamorphic rock that’s undergone
great transformation, heat- or pressure-borne.
My sister asks me if I know the name
of that Indian spice-box-thing that’s handed down
mother to daughter, a sacred legacy.
‘In fact, I don’t,’ I say, and sip my tea,
its bergamotty steam transporting me
to Rajasthan, the teeming streets and shouts
and rickshaws zagging through the traffic, cows
and skinny dogs. The markets, where I tried
crisp dumplings filled with broth, the chili’s bite,
pink pepper, golden saffron in the rice,
the scent of temples, elemi and fir,
the cinnamon that lingers on the skin.
‘Hey, where’d you go just then?’ she asks, amused.
‘To India …’ ‘Of course. So, was he cute?’
‘Uh huh. And always rolled his own, so smelled
of spice and sweet tobacco. How’d you know
about that spice box thing? You’ve never been.’
She laughs. ‘You learn a lot from cooking shows.’
Inside the box he’s made are precious things:
some sprigs of saffron, oil of davana,
a slotted silver spoon for serving absinthe;
a few dried roses, buds of clove and jasmine.
My memories, he says. When times were good.
The box’s second shelf holds incense: musk
and labdanum and amber, sandalwood.
And these are offerings, because I trust
times will be good again. He’s burning oud,
explains it is the potent resin made
when rot and fungus seize the agarwood.
I trace the box’s patterns, fine inlay
of figures moving in procession, dark
and light in silhouette. My family,
or how I would remember them. I carve
these boxes to preserve our legacy.
It’s far too costly for the likes of me.
The box itself is fragrant: cedar, gaiac.
I think of Yeats, his classic saying that
a poem comes right with a pleasing click,
the lid that’s fitted perfect to the well-made box.
I say, Please wrap it for me, carefully.