Perfume and Poetry: The Book of Scented Things Review

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.

book

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

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34 Comments

  • Tourmaline: Hi Patricia,

    Thank you for this wonderful, comprehensive review. What a brilliant idea for a book of poetry! I look forward to poring over it, later in the year, and I can’t wait to find out which other perfumes were chosen for the project. August 26, 2014 at 9:24am Reply

    • Patricia: Hi Tourmaline, I think you would really enjoy this book. Sometimes the perfume was obvious, sometimes not. In many cases, the perfume was just the jumping-off point. I felt a bit frustrated until I found the Contributors section that provided great bio information in addition to the name of the perfume. August 26, 2014 at 5:29pm Reply

  • DDJ: Oh no… I kept waiting for the line in your post where you’d ask readers to send their own poem to go with their SOTD.

    Fortunely I’m not wearing any yet. : )

    …Maybe a thought for a contest rather than a give-away next time you’re in the mood.

    Thank you, as always, for your continued wonderful work. August 26, 2014 at 9:24am Reply

    • Victoria: Robin of Nowsmellthis does a fun perfume haiku challenge every year, and I love reading the entries. August 26, 2014 at 10:09am Reply

    • Patricia: Thank you, DDJ! No, the poem about your scent of the day is purely optional 😉 August 26, 2014 at 5:34pm Reply

  • Ramona: Fantastic idea! As a fan of both poetry and perfume, I will definitely pick this up when it is available. Thanks for bringing this gem to our attention.
    Ramona 🙂 August 26, 2014 at 9:57am Reply

    • Patricia: So glad you enjoyed the review. There are many more good poems that I didn’t have time to quote from. I tried to stick with the shorter ones so that I could more easily give the flavor (or “scent”) of the poem as a whole. August 26, 2014 at 5:38pm Reply

  • Jaime: What a wonderful project — poetry and perfume! I’ll keep an eye out for it. :o) August 26, 2014 at 10:52am Reply

    • Patricia: Please do, Jaime. I know that I will go back to this book to reread certain poems and concentrate more on the longer ones to which I gave somewhat short shrift the first time through. August 26, 2014 at 5:41pm Reply

  • ChristineB: Hi Patricia,

    I do so hope that it will be possible to get this book in the UK – it sounds wonderful.

    You may be interested to know that last year something similar was done in the UK under the name ‘Penning Perfumes’. It was a project devised by Odette Toilette (she is an organiser of fragrance events and activities based mainly in London) and poet and poetry editor Claire Trevien. 12 Poets were given an anonymous bottle of perfume and asked to write a poem in response to it. In addition some perfumers were given a poem and asked to compose a fragrance. A printed anthology of the poems was published and a series of Penning Perfume events was held (I went to one in Oxford) where the poets read their poems and the audience was able to sniff the perfume that went with it. The names of the perfumes were revealed after each reading and sniffing session. It was a fascinating experience and some lovely poetry.

    By the way I still have my battered copy of the Golden Treasury of Poetry – it was my first introduction to poetry too (I’m 58 now!) August 26, 2014 at 12:55pm Reply

    • Patricia: Hi ChristineB, Yes, I hope you will be able to get this book in the UK!

      The “Penning Perfumes” project sounds wonderful. I love that some perfumers were given poems and asked to compose fragrances to go with them. Did you get to smell the original compositions?

      Sadly, my mother was a very orderly sort of woman, and all of my childhood books and toys disappeared while I was at college. Other than my copies of Jane Eyre, Little Women, and Prince Tom Champion Dog, all are now gone. Probably explains my perfume hoarding tendencies now 🙂 August 26, 2014 at 5:55pm Reply

      • ChristineB: Yes, we did get to smell a few of the original compositions in the second half of the evening. From my memory of the event, these were interesting and quite polarising. They prompted quite a bit of audience discussion. I don’t think any of them were designed to subsequently be commercially available, but I may be wrong on that point. August 27, 2014 at 2:15am Reply

        • Patricia: What fun! I’m glad the perfumes were interesting enough to provoke a spirited audience discussion. It sounds like quite a worthwhile event, and I wonder if we have anything like that around here (USA). Does anyone know? August 27, 2014 at 9:02am Reply

  • jillie: I love the fact that perfume is seen as art, Patricia. And I wish I had known about the Penning Perfumes project that ChristineB writes about – it would have been fun to join in.

    For a moment I thought you were going to mention poetry books that were quite literally perfumed. I recall that Penhaligons produced some lovely tomes which were scented and I bought an appropriate wedding-themed compilation for friends who were getting married; the fragrance may have faded by now, but the poems survive! August 26, 2014 at 1:26pm Reply

    • Patricia: Jillie, what a lovely present for your friends! I did not know that Penhaligons produced scented books.

      Your friends must treasure such a thoughtful gift, even if the fragrance has faded. August 26, 2014 at 6:01pm Reply

  • Austenfan: It seems like a wonderful book. My first conscious memory of poetry was actually when I was learning to play the recorder. We had to play this very old Dutch song to a wonderful old Dutch text.
    I collect beautifully illustrated books and had to look up the ones by Anglund. One of my favourite possessions is a lovely edition of the old testament illustrated by Chagall. August 26, 2014 at 2:14pm Reply

    • Patricia: Marc Chagall has always been one of my favorite artists. I would love to see a version of the Old Testament illustrated by him. August 26, 2014 at 6:04pm Reply

  • Domestic Goblin: One of my favourite combos: Poetry and Perfume! This book is going on my Christmas wishlist! 🙂 August 26, 2014 at 3:45pm Reply

    • Patricia: Never too soon to start one’s holiday wishlist! August 26, 2014 at 6:06pm Reply

  • Ann: Gosh, this doesn’t have much to do with perfume, but your essay walked me down memory lane…

    Louis Untermeyer was such a huge presence in my childhood and teens years. Countless of his collections crossed my path. I wonder how many are still tucked here and there in my bookshelves? From a 1923 publication of Modern American Poetry–signed lovingly and with what is clearly a good bye by a former beau to my grandmother with a Dorothy Parker quote: So long as I have yesterday, Go take your damned tomorrow! To the funny 1960s copy of The World’s Great Stories that is sitting, even now, on my youngest son’s bedside table.

    It is funny to think that e e cummings was not yet 30 when his poems were published in that Modern American Poetry volume. August 26, 2014 at 3:52pm Reply

    • Patricia: Dear Ann, How wonderful to have that inscribed copy of Modern American Poetry that belonged to your grandmother. I have my grandmother’s botany textbook, which I occasionally look through for its lovely illustrations.

      I think that part of my early fascination with e e cummings was his breaking the rules and spelling his name all in lowercase! August 26, 2014 at 6:38pm Reply

  • Ann: I still have my copy (First Communion present) of The Golden Treasury of Poetry; its front cover is hanging on by a few threads!

    I am looking forward to enjoying The Book of Scented Things… August 26, 2014 at 4:12pm Reply

    • Patricia: Hi Ann, Hang onto that treasure 😉 August 26, 2014 at 6:39pm Reply

  • Kandice: What a wonderful idea! And what a beautiful marriage – poetry and perfume. I can’t wait to read this. Thanks for the wonderful review! August 26, 2014 at 9:27pm Reply

    • Patricia: Thank you, Kandice. I think you would enjoy this book 🙂 August 27, 2014 at 8:51am Reply

  • Andy: This book sounds right up my alley. Though I’m sure they have little literary merit, I’ve sometimes written a sort-of poem to go with a particular perfume. I’ll create a block of text, a small paragraph filled with descriptors and words that come to mind, separated with phrases, given punctuation. It’s my favorite way to write down my impressions, and the end result sometimes reads surprisingly poetically. August 26, 2014 at 10:03pm Reply

    • jillie: Andy, it would be really good to read some of your poems! August 27, 2014 at 2:59am Reply

    • Patricia: What a great method for collecting perfume first impressions, Andy. I think I will borrow it, imitation being the sincerest form of flattery. 😉 August 27, 2014 at 8:54am Reply

      • Michaela: You read my mind 🙂 August 28, 2014 at 4:07am Reply

  • Jehanne: Patricia, thank you so much for reviewing The Book of Scented Things. Bois de Jasmin has always been one of my favorite fragrance blogs, so it’s really a thrill for me to see our anthology covered here! The book goes on sale at Small Press Distribution starting October 7. But it can be ordered ahead of the release date at the Literary House Press website: http://www.washcoll.edu/centers/lithouse/programs/our-paperback-books.php August 27, 2014 at 8:56am Reply

  • hajusuuri: This book of poems sound wonderful, Patricia! It’s another Christmas present possibility. My poem confession is that my favorite poet wrote really dark poems – Edgar Allan Poe. The Morgan Library had an Edgar Allan Poe exhibit in the fall of 2013 and soaked it all in. August 27, 2014 at 10:21pm Reply

    • Patricia: Hmm, what perfume would you say goes with Edgar Allan Poe? Something deep and brooding I would guess. 😉 August 28, 2014 at 7:29am Reply

  • Michaela: Wonderful review! I find the project itself very interesting, and I equally appreciate the ‘Penning Perfumes’ 2-ways project ChristineB writes about.
    Above all, I am really impressed how you make very, very simple words talk kindness, appreciation and warmth: ‘last, but certainly not least, our own Elisa[…]’. I think you put it so touching…
    As I follow your early journey to poems land, I remember very well my dear children books, torn, with no cover at all. Your story is beautiful. August 28, 2014 at 4:06am Reply

  • Patricia: Dear Michaela, Thank you so much for your kind and flattering comment. I’m glad you enjoyed the article and appreciate your telling me so. 🙂 August 28, 2014 at 7:34am Reply

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