Kouros Crush

I

At five-, or six-, years-old I had my first crush on a teen called Bax. I sat on the middle of the staircase one night – our single-mother family lived with his single-mother family – when he and his girlfriend ran up to his mother’s room. They rushed back down, as fast as memory would serve me, and I smelled something minty in the air surrounding these joyful teens. I wanted that: whatever it is they had. I walked into his mother’s room – the door was open – and searched for that scent. On the vanity, its mirror as wide as the room, I saw a white, opaque, squarish bottle edged with shiny metal. The words on the bottle read ‘KOUROS‘. I felt the matt, curved skin of the bottle and lifted the nozzle to my nose. I don’t remember spraying it in the air, but the next thing I know is I spray it in my mouth, the nozzle directed at the back of my throat like some primordial act. My face contracts – squishes, even – to an uncomfortable axis. Was it bitter? Was it poison? It was alcohol. It’s not mint I smell – that was from the little green-coloured can of breath freshener spray she carried around, I later observed. What I smell is the burning, pink flesh of my throat. My open mouth, stunned.

Did his mother wear KOUROS? I don’t remember. I do know she wore YSL’s Opium. She was a Gemini, so it wouldn’t surprise me if that bottle was hers. I watched her get ready for work sometimes. She was a singer, like my mother, and I watched her apply makeup – like I watched my mother – in bold colours. I first saw in her the comedy and the tragedy masks of theatre discovering her transformation from a tough single mother holding down the fort to a physically-demanding stage performer. I often caught her sleeping with one leg bent and an arm above her head, just like I had caught him, her son. Only I never looked at her the way I looked at him. I couldn’t comprehend the symbol of this back then but it was the first lesson in creating experiences from the invisibility I felt. Mistaking a bottle of perfume as breath freshener I understood, as a forlorn crushee, pulled me further from ‘them’.

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Kouros. Photo from ancientrome.ru

II

‘Youth’ is the ancient Greek translation of kouros. Its modern translation is of a freestanding sculpture, of a young man standing naked. Inspired by a trip to Greece, Yves Saint Laurent named Pierre Bourdon’s 1981 perfume after the strapping and broad figure.

I rarely smell it on the streets. Only on a few occasions have I smelled it on the commute to and from work, a busy ground floor waiting for an elevator, or a party, but on men over 55-years of age. Or, perhaps something like it – Eucris, Aramis (which I love), Paco Rabanne, Drakkar Noir, Tuscany per Uomo.

For me, nothing has changed in KOUROS. It smells the same as when I first smelled, and tasted it. I savour its layers of camphor/pine, metallised skin (think of licking someone’s chest or armpits that use aerosol deodorants), and fresh piss on sweat pants (no judgment). Its impact, and tenacity, is still special. Breath fresheners are fleeting. KOUROS stands the test of time. There is no substitute.

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Advertisement, 1996.

Featured image of study by Mart Basa.

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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.

Irreverent memories: from Musgo Real to Paco Rabanne

It might be odd to suddenly think of your uncle in the shower but, then again, maybe it isn’t. I stopped, smelled the soap, and laughed. Laughed because the new Musgo Real soap I recently bought reminded me of his signature perfume Paco Rabanne Pour Homme.

In the 1980s when he visited my mother from one of his work trips he would give me a hug, and on his brown neck and inside his black leather jacket I could smell Paco. My uncle tells stories with a smile, and laughs at his jokes. He is a veritable dad-joke teller. He makes you smile.

It’s not the first time I’ve laughed at irreverent memories. For a friend’s birthday – the friend who gave me a bottle of Santal Massoïa – we ordered a chocolat fondant each for dessert. The moment that copper-rich manna reached my little foliates glee hit my ribs like a tickle. All I could think of was the spoonfuls of condensed milk I’d had as a child. She wondered why it had made me laugh so much. In a Melbourne café another friend and I ate ricotta hotcakes over breakfast. This time I was struck with both laughter and tears.

If I remember correctly I read in Rachel Herz’s ‘The Scent of Desire: Discovering Our Enigmatic Sense of Smell’ (2007) that breast milk and baby formula are sweetened by vanilla which comforts and nourishes a child. Most adults are sure to be drawn to sweet food and perfumes. Perhaps, the joy I felt in these moments were the memory of sweetness that touched my life as a child. I, personally, prefer a touch of sweetness in perfume rather than lashings of it. In food I find wonderment in dishes, like perfume, created from a list of ingredients that can remind us of something: a most pleasurable thing as condensed milk.

The triggers of these emotional responses often come in the simplest acts, in the moments that brush along in the breeze, in the rush of lunch break, and if it were pleasing memories, such as these mentioned, I would say it is akin to a happiness that belongs to no time.

The Musgo Real Glycerine Classic Oil Soap is meant for the face as a pre-shave beard softener and cleanser but I prefer it as a gentle body soap. Producer of Musgo Real Claus Porto notes that this woody soap contains vetiver, eucalyptus and patchouli. Paco Rabanne Pour Homme’s aromatic fougére consists of, according to Fragrantica, rosemary, clary sage, rosewood, lavender, geranium, coumarin, honey, amber, musk and oakmoss.

 

Sandalwood

Walking to a friend’s place towards the end of Macleay Street, Potts Point the fragrance of sandalwood stops me at my tracks. I know that perfume. I am familiar with it because it is, possibly, my favourite scent. In front of Potts Point Bookshop, I stop to follow my nose. The source is not too far down the street – the furniture shop next to my friend’s apartment. I see ashes on the shop floor, the smoke of incense licking me on the sidewalk.

I visited this shop regularly not just because it is the only place in Sydney that stocks Mysore sandalwood incense, and, once, Balaji Chandan oil, but I was attracted to the man wearing round glasses and a faded Russian blue linen shirt behind the counter. He studied psychology and ended up becoming a furniture designer, and eventual director of his furniture business, which is the second, and smaller, of its Sydney boutiques. We had  dinner once, it didn’t evolve but that wouldn’t stop me from stocking up on his excellent choice in incense.

In the 1990s I bought Aveda’s sandalwood incense, discontinued before the Y2K. When I’m in Newtown I walk at the end of King Street and head to Fiji Market to buy Chandan Supreme Sandalwood Masala incense. A friend gave me a bottle of Hermes Santal Massoïa knowing my passion for this oil, and because she’s just generous. A partner once gave me Le Labo Santal 26 candle on my birthday. The label said he loved me. In Serge Lutens’ Palais Royal boutique I opened the bell-jar bottle of Santal de Mysore and found it. Something.

When sandalwood floats in the streets, my nose lifts and the tips of my nasolabial folds twitches much like a bloodhound. “What sandalwood is that? Which perfume? Where is it going?” I search for sandalwood in perfumes, especially when they are deep, resinous, dark, and warm. I like to blend sandalwood pure oil with rose, but I love blending rose with anything I have on hand in the spirit of experiment – that’s another story. A few of my memorable sandalwood scents are 10 Corso Como, Serge Lutens Santal de Mysore, Diptyque Tam Dao.

Other than sandalwood, some of my favourite notes are: rose, chamomile, honey, almond, eucalyptus, oakmoss, musk, wood smoke, frankincense, and so much more.

 

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