Patricia on perfume and poetry.
For me poetry first meant the limericks and nursery rhymes in The Golden Treasury of Poetry, edited by Louis Untermeyer and containing lovely illustrations by Joan Walsh Anglund. The pages of this book became dog-eared and torn over the years, and the cover finally fell off. Once I could read, I graduated to the longer poems within, such as “The Highwayman” and “Paul Revere’s Ride.” But it wasn’t until high school, when I was introduced to a wider range of poetry, especially modern verse, that I felt the power of poetry to take one on an incredible journey within the space of only a few verses. As a teenager, the poems of e e cummings were early favorites, and I still have a copy of Poems 1923-1954, my name written on the flyleaf in loopy handwriting I hardly recognize.
The Book of Scented Things: 100 Contemporary Poems About Perfume, edited by Jehanne Dubrow and Lindsay Lusby, is a collection of one hundred original poems about fragrance written by American poets. These poets were sent perfume vials, all different and carefully chosen by the editors, and asked to “…write a poem that engages with or responds to the fragrance that we have sent you.” The editors go into detailed explanation of the book’s inception in the Introduction, and Alyssa Harad, author of Coming to My Senses, provides her thoughts on scent and literature in a well-written Preface. A very useful Contributors’ and Matchmaking Notes section appears at the end of the book and gives biographical information on each poet as well as the name of the assigned perfume.
Within the basic assignment, the poems cover a wide variety of themes, structure, and length. Themes vary from frustration with the task at hand, to mortality, place association, humor, grief, memory, sexual desire, and feminism. Following are excerpts from a few of my favorites:
The first poem in the book is by Amit Majmudar and reflects his reluctance to attempt capturing the ephemeral nature of fragrance through poetry: “A word is far too heavy for / The strongest scent to bear.” Other problems with the assignment occur. In No. 8, the poet’s cat knocks over the perfume sample, and in No. 9, the poet despairs over her lost sample.
Perhaps my favorite poem in the book is on mortality, No. 21 “Dry Wood,” written by Dore Kiesselbach. “We aren’t born needing to replace ourselves. / It takes a flood. It takes a death. / It takes desire, sprung, / like catastrophe, from clay.” On the same theme is No. 24 by Michael Dumas: “Because I was afraid of death / I hid my body in a cloud / of vetiver and citron notes / and thought I could persist forever”.
Humor is captured in No. 37 “Memories of Rahway State” by Gabriel Spera. In this clever poem, the author describes a perfume prank he plays after a summer spent working in the office of a correctional institution.
Memories associated with scent and place are well handled in No. 38 by Matthew Thorburn, “This Is What Manhattan Smells Like?” “No give me the steam of pork dumplings, / ten thousand made by hand each day on Mott Street.”
In a poignant poem on grief, No. 51 “Little Elegy for a Childhood Friend,” Carrie Jerrell speaks of the perfume notes of amber, ginger, rose, and bitter orange: “so much like your / body’s departure / through heat, / through smoke, / to pass from one form / into another.”
Calling on her memories of her grandfather, Sarah Arvio in No. 55 “Eau de Cologne” makes the reader instantly know the man through only a few well-chosen details:
“a flower in his buttonhole / a handkerchief in his hand / he was all buttoned down / and all buttoned up.”
Perfume is often associated with sexual desire, and the topic is well covered in this anthology. Jeannine Hall Gailey in No. 60 “Safran Troublant” writes: “It’s troubling: the stain from the stamen / of crocus flowers, the way vanilla scraped from the pod, / sticky and damp, clings to fingers.” In No. 62 Juliana Gray takes the sassy approach: “ I’ve never been sweet, but two dabs / behind the ear, and I’m a sugar cookie, / a walking confection, light as vanilla meringue.” And in No. 77 “My Mediterranean,” David Mason speaks of his lover: “ all earth is breath / and she is the sea / between word and word.”
Last, but certainly not least, our own Elisa Gabbert of Bois de Jasmin examines different aspects of femininity in No. 61 “Consider the Rose.”
“Consider the mean rose, the frigid rose / dipped in liquid nitrogen and shattered / on the tabletop. Pink inside red. / Or the lush rose dying, slumped / with the weight of its beauty.”
The Book of Scented Things will be available October 2014 from the Rose O’Neill Literary House at Washington College. Available at Small Press Distribution at spdbooks.org