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

Phi by Andy Tauer

Until this perfume was in my nose I knew nothing of the roses grown especially in the eastern province of Nangarhar in Afghanistan. As an alternative to cultivating poppies, Nangarhar farmers have successfully grown roses to the delight of the perfume world, and most importantly to sustain “legal livelihoods” as part of Welt Hunger Hilfe‘s objective called “Roses for Nangarhar”.   Andy Tauer has created in Phi – une rose de Kandahar a complex composition of natural apricot, cinnamon, bitter almond, bergamot, Bulgarian rose, bourbon geranium, tobacco, patchouli, vetiver, vanilla, tonka, musk, and ambergris: all surrounding the Nangarhar rose oil.

 This poem, the last of the Andy Tauer perfumes series, for now, is inspired by Phi – une rose de Kandahar

Pulling at the strings

cotton catching light

 

Red, white and black

skim a cloudless sky

 

The wind carries a story

of man and his desire to fly

 

He cuts paper in to a diamond

turns sticks to a cross

calling it a kite

 

You can stand on the ground

and fly at the same time

 

He hands it to her and

tells his only child

 

“You are higher than me

take it and fly”

 

Vetiver Dance by Andy Tauer

In Andy Tauer’s Vetiver DanceI feel and smell the comforts of the skin, another’s or one’s own, and be consoled in the nook of one’s being. The perfume is composed of grapefruit, black pepper, clary sage – to me creating a salty skin scent – Bulgarian rose, lily of the valley, vetiver, ambergris, cedar wood, tonka, and cistus.

The fifth work inspired by Vetiver Dance –

I stood against the wall hiding my nerves. The Cure’s ‘Just Like Heaven’ out-beating my heart. I feel the sweat from my palms on my thighs, hidden in these brown pockets. The cream shirt I pressed is thinning, and I am wondering why I am even at this party. I see the drinks table and think about washing it all down. Then, I see her.

On the dance floor, her straight hips move side to side in her canary pleated silk dress, its spaghetti straps held firmly on her glowing shoulders as if it were made especially for her. Maybe it was. She catches my eyes. I look away, briefly. I stir. I want to hold her right there and then, and move away from this wall. I am the wallflower, and she’s plucking me from the dance floor. I want her to hold onto me.

I look back at her dancing. She catches my eyes. We stand there looking at each other. I see the light on her face and the way she is feeling the music. I take my hands out of my pockets.