the smell of soap
measured out in coffee spoons

black and white


The Weakness
- by Toi Derricotte -

That time my grandmother dragged me
through the perfume aisles at Saks, she held me up
by my arm, hissing, “Stand up,”
through clenched teeth, her eyes
bright as a dog’s
cornered in the light.
She said it over and over,
as if she were Jesus,
and I were dead. She had been
solid as a tree,
a fur around her neck, a
light-skinned matron whose car was parked, who walked on swirling
marble and passed through
brass openings—in 1945.
There was not even a black
elevator operator at Saks.
The saleswoman had brought velvet
leggings to lace me in, and cooed,
as if in the service of all grandmothers.
My grandmother had smiled, but not
hungrily, not like my mother
who hated them, but wanted to please,
and they had smiled back, as if
they were wearing wooden collars.
When my legs gave out, my grandmother
dragged me up and held me like God
holds saints by the
roots of the hair. I begged her
to believe I couldn’t help it. Stumbling,
her face white
with sweat, she pushed me through the crowd, rushing
away from those eyes
that saw through
her clothes, under
her skin, all the way down
to the transparent
genes confessing.


I adore Toi Derricotte's poem, which begins years ago in a perfume aisle at New York's Saks Fifth Avenue and goes all the way to God and back.  There is no fragrance I know of that adequately evokes the tone of this poem - the memory of fear, of defiance, of poise and of humiliation.  In an interview with Contemporary Authors (quoted at The Poetry Foundation), Derricotte says: "In new manuscripts I write about our family's experiences as one of the first black families in upper Montclair, of my problems at being unrecognized because of my light complexion, and my love and rage toward my neighbors."

I believe one of the qualities that makes this poem a great one is its intimate, sharp understanding of our secret weaknesses.  I go to perfume stores (including Saks) and even though I feel I know myself, my tastes and more than a little about the craft of perfumery, I'm silently concerned that I will be judged an amateur.  Maybe the saleslady will look at me and think: Look at the poor, worried girl with the bad haircut and the cheap shoes; she's come to spend her birthday money. She'll smile a friendly smile at me and after a few minutes, will pursue some other, more promising lead.  I'm not ashamed of this little exchange any more, though for years it was a source of social anxiety for me.   Growing up without money is nothing to be ashamed of, but it does add complexity to casual transactions involving expensive luxuries, even years after the poverty is over.

For the record, Bond No. 9 has recently released two fragrances named Saks Fifth Avenue DNA, one for men and one for women.  The sculptural bottles are designed in black and white, and carry the line's distinctive crest of a sylized New York subway token.  Saks' own description of the feminine release: 

EXCLUSIVELY OURS. Created for Saks Fifth Avenue in our signature DNA patterned bottle. The classic gardenia eau de parfum is given a chic, contemporary twist with the addition of sparkling jasmine, vetiver and smooth vanilla. This all-white bouquet capture [sic] the fashion-forward essence of 21st century Saks, while at the same time expressing the eclectic downtown spirit of NoHo-based Bond No. 9. $185 for 100 ml

Late post addition: My husband, after reading this, correctly pointed out that several years ago, I worked behind one of those department store perfume counters I've so long dreaded.  Perhaps I'm simply afraid of the kind of perfume salesperson I was?  Perhaps...


Poem: "The Weakness" from Captivity. Copyright © 1989 by Toi Derricotte. University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA 15260, Online Text via
Image Source: Bond No. 9

Posts prior to 2015 first appeared on my previous website, memory & desire (


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