- by Philip Levine -
The first purple wisteria
I recall from boyhood hung
on a wire outside the windows
of the breakfast room next door
at the home of Steve Pisaris.
I loved his tall, skinny daughter,
or so I thought, and I would wait
beside the back door, prostrate,
begging to be taken in. Perhaps
it was only the flowers of spring
with their sickening perfumes
that had infected me. When Steve
and Sophie and the three children
packed up and made the move west,
I went on spring after spring,
leaden with desire, half-asleep,
praying to die. Now I know
those prayers were answered.
That boy died, the brick houses
deepened and darkened with rain,
age, use, and finally closed
their eyes and dreamed the sleep
of California. I learned this
only today. Wakened early
in an empty house not lately
battered by storms, I looked
for nothing. On the surface
of the rain barrel, the paled,
shredded blossoms floated.
We Southerners just love to go on and on about wisteria. It is beautiful, it is fragrant, it is sometimes overwhelmingly sickening. I have heard that the wisteria fragrance only sinks, never rises. If you are standing on a balcony above the flowering vine, you won't smell it unless the wind brings the fragrance to you. However, if you're sitting beneath wisteria you will certainly smell it. You may even have to move in order to breathe properly.
Perhaps all purple flowers contain an element of reflective melancholy. I'm reminded that "The Waste Land" opens with lilacs mixing memory and desire. And it's often been noted that irises can lend a very somber, serious note to perfumes that might otherwise blind us with brightness. Whatever the case, you will find that in a great many poems, wisteria signifies as much a sense of loss as a sense of wonder. It's a great flower for posing a childhood memory against an adult realization. Time can heal wounds but sometimes a tendril breaks through and shocks us with the presence of our previous selves.
Probably the best wisteria-scented fragrance I've ever come across was Fresh Index Wisteria. It has been discontinued and is very difficult to find. I haven't found a wisteria that's true to the flower. Many of them are sickening, though, so that part must be relatively easy to get right.
Like many beautiful things, wisteria's usefulness is a matter of perspective. Growing over a trellis, it's a common ornamental vine and can almost single-handedly transform a boring overhang into a picturesque garden. It's not always this well-behaved, though, and can strangle a tree or bush within a few seasons. In winter, wisteria will look ugly and ragged, but wait until the "bright fluttering" of spring. Petals cascading like grapes will explode into bloom. Bring your glass of sweet tea out and spread a blanket near (but not too near) the perfume. It will find you.
Perhaps it is possible
to be gentle no matter what, to seek not restraint
but surrender entirely, to turn
from the snarling reproach not into the keening
dismissal of hope but to whatever bright
fluttering is next, the bright fluttering
of wisteria petals, a felicitous
phrase, fingers touching
a face. ...
- From "Fuschia" by Charlie Smith -
Fragrances containing wisteria:
Chantecaille - Wisteria
Acca Kappa - Wisteria/Glicine
Crabtree & Evelyn - Wisteria
Dragonfly Blue - Wisteria oil
Keiko Mecheri - Ume
Dolce & Gabbana - Feminine
Bulgari - BLV
Diptyque - Olene
L'Artisan - La Haie Fleurie du Hameau
L'Artisan - Sous la Glicine candle
Lanvin - Eclat d'Arpege
Elizabeth Arden - Mediterranean
Kiehl's - Wisteria Body Cleanser
Fragonard - Soleil
Archipelego Botanicals - Wisteria soy candle
Poem: "Wisteria" by Philip Levine via Famouspoemsandpoets.com
Poem: "Fuschia" by Charlie Smith via PoetryFoundation.org From Indistinguishable from the Darkness. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1990.
Also read: Wisteria: Poems from the Swamp Country. Kwame Dawes. Red Hen Press, 2006.
Image: "Wisteria Panel" by Louis Comfort Tiffany, ca. 1910-20. The Charles Homer Morse Museum of American Art, Winter Park, Florida. Image from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.