A collection of passages 2

January sent me to isolation. In February anxiety boiled over, leading me to an aggressive and charged March. It helped me socialise again. The beginning of April was reflective, and I began to desire a change in my life: relationships, work, location, state of mind, and ways to play. As May nears, I feel these changes consolidate themselves in my ability to be patient, prepared, present, sure, but ready. How exciting to think that the middle of the year is yet to come.

In the first collection of passages, I mentioned collecting magazines to the point of obsession. It’s hard not to collect. If not something physical, something to keep in the mind. Philosopher, fragrance blogger and curator, Liam Sardea, and I had a conversation recently about conscious experiences as either physical or “something beyond” the physical. It made me wonder of our abilities as alchemists. Or, magical thinking. Survival aspects of our nature. This enquiry brings me to the first passage in this current collection where Ruby Wax, in A Mindfulness Guide for the FRAZZLED, (Penguin Life, 2016), goes into a 6-day mindfulness retreat. On day three she smells a rose “…making sure no one is looking and decide to do my walking up and down near it so that, when the wind is right, I can get smacked in the face by that smell. Every time I pass it, I get a hit. The next day the rose is dead and there’s no smell. I think there’s a lesson in there… I’m not sure what. No, I know: the lesson is that all things die, so don’t depend on them.” She returns to the spot just to “check and smell it.” It lives on in that place beyond.

Here are smell descriptions I’ve collected from some of the books I’ve read this year:

“Whenever you stroll through a eucalyptus grove you are engulfed in a unique smell, acrid and spicy and a little bit soapy too. What you are actually sensing is an airborne chemical that is created and released by the trees, a “volatile organic compound,” or “VOC” for short.” (An antiseptic that keeps the trees healthy if it is wounded to prevent infections).

And,

“I left Atlanta knowing more than I had when I arrived. To this day, I need only close my eyes to summon the smell of a crushed sweet gum leaf, as pungent as if I were holding it in my hand.”- Lab Girl by Hope Jahren (Fleet, 2016).

“His mother used to smell of shampoo and their old house. She used to smell like her bed and her sheets, she used to smell of different cigarettes. She used to smell of beans on toast and bath time. But all he can smell now is Maureen’s air freshener, stronger than the smell of his mum and where they used to live.” – My Name is Leon, Kit de Waal (Penguin Viking, 2016).

“It was foully hot: the rancid sewer air could prompt a smile between two strangers in the street as they passed each other: can you believe we live here? It was like bile, and it was the scent of Mulberry Street that afternoon.” A description by the personal assistant to an international singer after being fired in New York City on her way back to London. – Swing Time, Zadie Smith (Hamish Hamilton, 2016).

“Many people situate themselves by sight; they marvel at scenic vistas, take photos, draw pictures, recall images. In this job I find my brain recording time and place in scent. I remember places by smell.”

And,

Céline and Hervé Ellena, children of famed perfumer, Jean-Claude Ellena, questioned their father for scents of Madeleine cookies, clothing, snow, including what the smell of clouds were. He created them. Céline says, “When I was a child, he didn’t tell me about princesses; he told me about scents. We didn’t have Cinderella. We listen to his stories in perfume.” – The Perfect Scent, Chandlerr Burr (Picador, 2007).

“The grass, as she walked in, was just beginning to be wet from the moist night and the moon that earlier had shone so nicely on her elm and her cypress and her pines was curtained and faint in the mist – that mist that the Gulf breathed over Houston almost every night, as if to help the city sleep.”

And,

Flap cuts his hand on his wife, Emma’s (Aurora’s daughter) teeth as he aims for her face. Patsy, Emma’s best friend, knocks on the front door. “She held the door open and Patsy swept in, smelling nice and looking wonderful, cheerful and happy. Their bedroom was also their living room, and the minute Patsy stepped into it she said, “I can smell blood.”

And,

Turning down one of Aurora’s many suitors, Trevor – a veritable sea man, and ladies man, who blended the smells of salt, leather and spices – “…had always smelled better than any man she had known.” In the restaurant she got off her chair and sat on his lap, and “gave him a lavish hug and a nice kiss on the cheek and smelled around a little for good measure enough to last her for approximately six months.” – Terms of Endearment, Larry McMurtry (Simon & Schuster, 1975).

October 5th: While driving home May Sarton wanted to write a poem about silence being the language lover’s know. When she arrived home she shivered in isolation, “and must face again and try to tame the loneliness. The house is no friend when I walk in. A smell of stale tobacco, unopened windows, my life waiting for me somewhere else, asking to be created again.”

And on

October 6th: “Yesterday I weeded out violets from the iris bed. The iris was being choked by thick bunches of roots, so much like fruit under the earth. I found one single very fragrant violet and some small autumn crocuses. Now, after an hour’s work as the light failed and I drank in the damp smell of the earth, it looks orderly again.” – Journal of a Solitude, May Sarton (W.W. Norton & Co. 1973).

As Nicola gets her ozone sauna treatment for cancer, Helen, and her scepticism, remains quiet. “I held my peace. Morning sunshine fell into the room through the high window. The ozone smelled delicious, very subtle and refreshing, like watermelon, or an ocean breeze. I sat on a chair in the corner and pulled the lid off my coffee.” – The Spare Room, Helen Garner (Text, 2008).

Sarah Hall was a recommendation. This short story book packed a punch as her writing, and her characters’ sensuality gets under the skin. Her abundant smell descriptions for a small book excited me because of her generosity with them, without skipping on the other senses.

Butcher’s Perfume: As Kathleen’s holiday ends she discovers in her friend’s farm shed the slow butchering of a horse. “A dead horse was lying on the ground between the metal cattle chocks. The ground was slick yellow-brown, like concrete covered in piss and diarrhoea. I stepped closer, in under the gable, and a stink rose.”

The Beautiful Indifference: An ailing writer meets her lover in a hotel room. Hall offers many clues about her life in this story, stringing us to read the lines deeper. “The smell of his wet hair was one of her strongest memories now. Like the feeling of deep humiliation for injuring the junior-school pet rabbit. Like the unsealing gash on her mother’s cheek where the hospital orderlies had caught her with a metal instrument while wheeling her to the morgue. Bracken burning on the moors.”

Bees: A woman breaks up with her partner and moves from the “slow machinery in the black fields, livestock cropping the tufts, your once vernacular scenery” north to the “ornate, sooty, modern” London. In the city, she discovers a legion of dead and dying bees. Perhaps a metaphor for all that has ever existed in her. “You memorise noises, chimes, electrical thrums, the euphonic character of the place. And smells: the stale pavement, body odours, doorstep musk, green ponds.”

And,

Remembering their sex life through the “smell of silage and diesel in the farmyard, the feel of him butting behind you, increasingly minimal in his inquiry, complaining if you weren’t wet enough, pulling out and moving it into a tighter place. A bonny pair: that’s what they called you. Best match of the town.” It makes me think of the grieving process, and all that plays, buzzes, in your mind.

The Nightlong River: Magda, Dolly Carter’s best friend, is dying. Dolly and her friends hunt mink cats one night to sew Magda a cape, to keep her tiny body warm. “And the night welcomed me, gave me senses. I was struck by the ability of the river to ferry odours on its back. It seemed to enhance everything it touched: the mineral stones of its bed, the wet shag of the dogs when they went swimming, the bark of sour thorn trees whose roots sipped at the shallows. Sometimes I imagined I could, like the dogs, detect the waft of mink through the ferns. I knew that binary scent of blood’s soft iron and glands secretion.” How rich is that?! – The Beautiful Indifference, Sarah Hall (Faber & Faber, 2011).

Currently, I am reading Why We Love and Lust, Dr Theresa L. Crenshaw (HarperCollins, 1997). She writes of chemical contact communication, through smell, caused by pheromones, and how that affects us. Nothing new there, but it is one example of how our hormonal system (eg. endocrine) influence behaviour through the sexual stages, and relationships.

One more read –

“I confess that I still have a shirt that belonged to this man I have written about, hidden among sundry ragged shirts from my past. He mailed it to me when I first moved away to graduate school. It held his smell for years.” – An essay by Steven M. Phelps on aeon.co. about the brain and touch

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A collection of passages

I once collected stamps, magazines, cards, and photographs. The magazines became a problem because, in my late teens, I amassed 8 metres-worth of magazines into my small room. I was hoarding by whatever means I could get them. Without intervention something changed. I clipped favourite images from those magazines and stuck them in a new collection of … scrapbooks. Flipping through the books my teenage dreams return with every smell of aged glue, paper, and ink. Now I’m inclined towards the less and the uncluttered, but there is no avoiding collecting.

Since mid-year, I’ve been collecting passages in books that relate to smells. Writers, and their characters, set the scenes predominantly through visual imagery and language. Literary descriptions of smells in the books that I’ve read – fiction or not – is rare unless the book is about perfume itself. When I read a character describe their environment through their sense of smell that’s when I feel like I am invited to step into the character’s feet and not just be a reader.

Here are smell descriptions from some books I’ve read in the last six months that have allowed me to be both excited and present whilst entering into the lives of others and deepening my own:

“They called a rickety elevator, the wooden cab filled with a floral powder essence, as if it had recently released old ladies on their way to church,” Angelology, Danielle Trussoni.

I think of a combination of violets, tuberose, rose, gardenia, jasmine, elemi, iris. And imagine these ladies in their Sunday dress in a New York building.

“…the unripe banana stench of stale beer,” 

and

“As a child I believed that history was a kind of smell, the scent of baking clay – musty and biscuity. Or of the sunshine drying seawater on human skin,” A Guide to Berlin, Gail Jones.

Images of the morning after, nights before, the adventure in smelling something off, and different. And the sensual combination of earthy memories and salty skin come to mind.

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Scrapbook: Versace Medusa and Shiseido by Serge Lutens

“He would find out whether the Thames smelt of damp washing the way the Seine did,”

and

“Adamsberg opened the window and looked out at the lime trees. They had been in flower for a few days and their scent floated in on a breath of air,” An Uncertain Place, Fred Vargas.

Historian and writer Fred Vargas sets the scene showing Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg’s gentle humour. In the second passage, Adamsberg tells a son that his father has just been murdered. The smell description renders a visceral experience, and gets the adventure rolling on the whodunnit question.

“The other half arrived on the scent of girls in need of money who might be cajoled into dispensing with condoms,” In My Skin, Kate Holden.

A description on the kind of men that frequented the brothel the author worked at. For me, the line has a look-you-in-the-eyes honesty to it.

“The scent of Guido still condensing on her body under the sheet,”

and

“She showers, glad to sluice herself clean, sorry to lose the scent of her triumph,” The Romantic: Italian Nights and Days, Kate Holden.

Tingly scenes of sex (salty skin, sweat, hairs, saliva), and impermanence.

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Tearsheets: Left, Dick Page makeup. Right, Milla Jovovich by Mario Sorrenti

“No fragrance is more genuine than the flower of one’s being, so unconsciously sought after. Man cannot give off this fragrance by himself, so he puts on perfume derived from the essences of flowers.

“With a person born to his or her “becoming,” however, smell is the fragrance emanating from body that has been quintessenced in the accomplishment of the Great Work of alchemy,”

and

“The scent of flowers is by the symbolic reflection of the scent of man who has attained the highest expression of virility, of man deified and partaking of the bright resonate, and fragrant vibrations of God,” The Body and Its Symbolism, A Kabbalistic Approach, Annick de Souzenelle.

Throughout de Souzenelle’s chapter on the spiritual and physical functions of the nose I imagined perfumer Francis Kurkdjian’s work with orange blossoms.

“And so they turned, battling in the narrow room, and the odour of Elisha’s sweat was heavy in John’s nostrils.

“…and John, watching these manifestations of his power, was filled with a wild delight,” Go Tell It on the Mountain, James Baldwin.

John, and young priest, Elisha, have a friendly fight while cleaning the church before a life-changing mass. Baldwin brings us up close, as if we are the one in the fight.

“Yet the distance between them was abruptly charged with her, and her smell was in his nostrils. Almost, he felt those moving breasts beneath his hand. And he drank again, allowing, unconsciously, or nearly, his face to fall into the lines of innocence and power which his experience with women had told him made their love come down,” Go Tell It on the Mountain, James Baldwin.

Gabriel’s, John’s Pentecostal minister stepfather, account of the night he succumbs to his temptation. James Baldwin writes several smell descriptions of Gabriel’s experiences with women throughout the book, often involving whisky, along with guilt and fear.

“Trees, it turns out, have a completely different way of communicating: they use scent,” The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben.

Trees, such as beech and oaks, will release scent compounds that travel in the air to warn other trees that is in being eaten in order to protect themselves. By making their leaves bitter, for example.

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Scrapbook and Peter Wohlleben’s book

The next books in line as the year ends and the new begins are Swing Time by Zadie Smith, My Name is Leon by Kit de Waal, Glasshouses by Stuart Barnes, The Perfect Scent by Chandler Burr, and The Wolf at the Table by Augusten Burroughs. A new collection of books, passages, pages, worlds, and scents are coming.

Memories to the future

“I smelled it endlessly until there was nothing left to understand,” Luca Turin, September 2009 ‘Serpent’, Folio Columns 2003 – 2014.

 I think a lot. This poetic quote makes me think of smells that confound and transport my curiosity in the everyday beauteous nature of life. Yesterday, I was reminded of Aphrodite’s birth from spume as I crossed the harbour. As the ferry cuts against her I hear her fizz in the emerald water. Beauty enters our lives from the mundane.

Preceding weeks have singed thoughts on what I smell endlessly just to understand. What exactly? The world, my immediate environment, and how I relate to it. Smelling the violet-scented, green-coloured Palmolive Original dishwashing liquid, for example, satisfies my domesticity. Something about this brings to mind the practicalities of the everyday, and the kind of maintainer I am in the grand scheme of things. On another occasion I endlessly and deeply smell a Belgian friend’s armpits as we talked before dinner. He said he wears no perfume or deodorant. On the opposite side of the table sat our Spanish friend wearing Givenchy’s Very Irresistible. As the night wore on it was his musk that turned my mind with an image of me retreating in his lithe body and personal scent as my shell. One morning, upon waking, my eyes to the ceiling, I smelled the air in a room after lovemaking. Morning breaths absorbed my elastic mind. These thoughts bring to mind past and present desires that linger in both reality and dreams.

What circles the top of my mind though is Andy Tauer’s refreshing Lonestar Memories. It has taken me some time to enjoy this scent because it challenged me: I couldn’t place it to a time and place in my life. It made me wonder about smells that don’t come from a memory, or the past, but sparks the imagination to create one’s future. Perhaps. This sense of wonder, this smelling to understand carried me into the future – the death of my mother.

“I smelled it endlessly until there was nothing else to understand,” Luca Turin says.

Life and death are intertwined, if not one and the same. Turin’s words made me think about the depth of a life, of one’s love for another, and the mystery of what brings us closer and farther away at odd times in our lives. When someone you love dies you think it’s unfair. You ask “why them and not me?” You trace worm tunnels of deeds and words exchanged when they were alive. You question how you could’ve done things differently. And, it’s too late. Your loss has unplugged a cork out of your being that spills out. There I imagined smelling her clothes, her house, everything she touched and sat on. I could smell her character, the attributes she loaded on to me – one of her children – unawares. In the rare instances of being physically close to her, I got the chance to smell her hair again and again. There was something in its blackness that brought everything together and undoes it all in one go, like an ellipsis. I questioned the nature of parent-child relationships as I breathed her hair in, fraught with its endless aching beauty that leaves me with nothing more to understand but tears.

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from the nose; abundance

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I rarely wear perfume. My genes allow me to use no deodorant because my body produces little to no odour, though a friend tells me I smell of the oils I blend. Knowing that we live in world that scientist and artist Sissel Tolaas says that has become deodorised, sanitised, and sterilised, I find it more interesting to discover what others are wearing and smell of. Tolaas asks in Mono.Kultur’s #23 issue ‘Sissel Tolaas: Life Is Everywhere’ “what happens when you are stripped bare, devoid of the camouflage that deodorises your system?” (p.9). It demands of us a personal truth, of finding out what we mask and how we desire to be seen or perceived personally, professionally, etc. All by following your nose. In this case, wearing nothing is a reward.

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In the men’s grooming shop that I work in I am faced with smells coming from the barbers chairs, shelves of creams, oils, perfumes, and people. I am known to open jars and bottles smelling, acquainting myself with ingredients, formulations, instructions. When someone comes in the usual questions are asked about what they like, what they use, and for what occasion. Observation, and a little intuition plays a part in finding out who they are. A gratifying experience is always listening to their stories and interpretations of smells because then the conversation deepens. As individuals we have a fair idea of what we want, but part of that desire is the need to connect to something, even as invisible as perfume, or as tactile as a blade on the skin, because it is going to be, if not already, a part of our lives. Tolaas enquires further, “how can you maximise the process of living by integrating these facts?” She states the facts: smelling is a tool for gathering information to navigate and communicate our way through life (p.6). An approach is to challenge yourself by training your nose to smell in diverse environments, otherwise its function will deteriorate. Tolaas was in Sydney recently, she said that we learned to classify smells in two easy words: good and bad. But the more we challenge and develop our skills in smelling we evolve from black and white judgments to building tolerance in order to attend to different situations in life, when it comes to changing our environment, meeting new people, maintaining relationships, or not. “Smell without prejudices,” she said.

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Like cattle, my mother and I walk into the ferry. Spending the day together, I smell her Terre d’Hermès Eau Très Fraîche. I smell a man whose personal musk is strong and has won the battle between deodorant and body odour. I am reminded, in an instant, of a lover playfully recoil whenever I placed my hand on his sweaty shorts after gym. It pleased me to push this kind of boundary whilst driving. My mother pulls out her newspaper, and I begin to wonder about the perfumes she used to wear, and loved – Coco, Aromatics Elixir, Youth Dew. I open my book – Belle: The Slave Daughter and the Lord Chief Justice by Paula Byrne – and look around at the other passengers: an elderly man’s smooth hands to the right, a woman on the phone with her hand covering her mouth. I wonder how a young man in his early 20s will grow up to be. Another sleeps on one hand – his face becomes a 21st century Man Ray. A child cries on his mother’s lap. I smile at her. I hear a man bleat as his hands shake against his head. I smell the harbour, its cliffs and eucalypts, the boat, the mix of passengers. I smell a young woman’s perfume  sitting behind me. In this panoramic arc I sit in wonder.

Bois d’Ascèse by Naomi Goodsir

Walking inside Sydney’s Botanical Gardens, the sun bright on all those greens surrounded by ocean and sky, I felt grateful for my friend who asked to meet me at the cafe above the pool on the other side of the gardens. The park immediately inspired and energised me as I cut across it. In my earphones, I listened to On Being’s Krista Tippett interview Benedectine monk, David Steindal-Rast on the subject of gratitude. Steindal-Rast said in the interview, “Spirituality is aliveness on all levels. It must start with our bodily aliveness. For many people, say the sense of smell is practically non-existent. If you really are grateful, come alive with your smell. Start smelling, not sight seeing, but smelling smelling.”

As of late, I have been “smelling smelling” like there’s no tomorrow. I’ll smell anything. I’m alive. I have a handkerchief that I spray Naomi Goodsir’s Bois d’Ascèse in. I open it like a book, or my palms, or a chest, and I bury my face in it. Its perfume loads me with images of times crossing the past, present and future.

Bois d’Ascèse, as stated in Naomi Goodsir Parfums‘ website, encompass notes of tobacco, whiskey, cinnamon, amber, cistus labdanum, oak moss, smoked cade wood, and Somali incense.

Here is the poem inspired by Bois d’Ascèse –

 

The wind, muted by stones, whistles under the door

Cobwebs tremble

 

On the cool, dusty floor a chair creaks

The sepia years turns smoke to filigree

Kisses stick to these lips

 

Remember when our breaths staved off the blues?

Against the horizon’s weight we turned the sky upside down so its beauty could spill on our faces

 

Long ago those tears sustained us

 

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Naomi Goodsir’s handwriting in blue