- by Robert Frost -
Love at the lips was touch
As sweet as I could bear;
And once that seemed too much;
I lived on air
That crossed me from sweet things,
The flow of—was it musk
From hidden grapevine springs
Down hill at dusk?
I had the swirl and ache
From sprays of honeysuckle
That when they’re gathered shake
Dew on the knuckle.
I craved strong sweets, but those
Seemed strong when I was young;
The petal of the rose
It was that stung.
Now no joy but lacks salt
That is not dashed with pain
And weariness and fault;
I crave the stain
Of tears, the aftermark
Of almost too much love,
The sweet of bitter bark
And burning clove.
When stiff and sore and scarred
I take away my hand
From leaning on it hard
In grass and sand,
The hurt is not enough:
I long for weight and strength
To feel the earth as rough
To all my length.
"To Earthward" by Robert Frost. From New Hampshire, Henry Holt & Company, 1923. Via PoetryX.com
In understanding both poetry and perfume, one part of me wants to remain forever innocent while another part is irreversibly experienced and mourns that I can never fully be either child or adult in either of these worlds. And that is the pair of scissors with which I craft my own likeness out of blog postings, books scattered throughout the apartment, over the seats of my vehicle, and lodged in every purse and backpack that I own. Oh, and the hoard of perfume samples.
A much wiser person than me once asked me, in a roundabout way, if I agreed with the statement "My Blog is Me." I'm sure my answer was somewhat vague. I was far too interested in what the gentleman had to say to dismiss the thought outright but I was thinking, Of course I'm not my blog. No one is. A human being is inescapably vast, the scope of one human is more than that human ever knows! I am nothing that I do and the sum of everything but also more. Where do you begin with such a question, why are you bothering me with it, and could you pass me the fig newtons please?
But I've had an opportunity to think about that, now that I actually have a proper blog, and I think it's a deceptively simple question with a deceptively simple answer. Yes, my blog is me. I'm also, of course, much more, and so is the artifice. But the question I had to pose to myself when I set out on this project was "How authentic can this be?" Would I like an imaginary reader to thing this thing of me or another? Can I even know if I am being inauthentic? Who will it turn out that I am, in sum, that I haven't been prior to writing this thing? (Because yes, we change. Writing changes me in particularly strange and wonderful ways.)
One of the first questions that caused difficulty is the level of experience I should claim/admit to/feign. In order to live up to my own goal of being authentic, I would have to explain that I'm voracious. Nowadays I read a lot but I used to read to stay alive - literally. And poetry - clear, beautiful, stunning poetry - was the only voice that consistently made sense. I wrote, I read, I wrote, and I thought if there is one thing you can know completely, one thing that you can be very, very good at understanding, this is the thing. I went down into poetry, I "crave[d] the stain of tears" and when that was not enough I craved more, I craved the dirt of it in my veins, "the weight and strength / To feel the earth as rough / To all my length." I wanted to eat it whole and have lightning bolts of poetry explode from my head in an arc of brilliant destruction. I literally wanted to be buried in poetry.
And then, somehow, I surfaced. In time I had a new appreciation for poetry but also a more remote one. I found my tastes had changed. Suddenly I wanted something simple, something beautiful and clear. I was suddenly able to understand things that I previously thought I understood beyond all measure. I could enjoy a poem completely without turning it into a roadmap to my own soul. I think, for the first time in my life, I understood that poetry could mean something to someone other than me. I began to read poetry with a different perspective and found that I loved clarity and beauty. I love dark humor and striking harmonies as much as the perfect dischord of two opposing images that, when overlaid, create a third, more wonderful thing.
And there I found the reason I loved poetry all over again. So I say with some self-consciousness that I want very much to be innocent about poetry and I'd like to stay innocent about perfumes without stopping the annexation of my brain to the fifth sense. I want to understand another form of beauty and I want to know, intuitively, why it is sometimes beautiful exactly because it is strange, even bizarre. When I walk past mulched bushes in the rain, I now experience a beauty that was unavailable to me as a poet. I smell the perfume of dirt, and I know now that it can be beautiful.
In perfumes, I've gone through my truly innocent phase already but I'm not really an adult yet either. I can smell the difference between Rose de Mai and rosa damascena but I fear the damascan will always smell like bathroom freshener to me. I know I would be frowned upon to voice such a thing in public, but some really great perfumes, especially the ones with the fantastically expensive iris (orris root) ingredient smell a lot like "old lady" to me and that's just all there is to it. Call it what you will, I will call it Eau de Old Lady until my sniffer says otherwise. I'm still adolescent enough to scratch my head at the great Guerlain Mitsouko, which has been named by several experts as "the greatest perfume ever created" and "infinitely chic." Me? I get a big hit of "old lady" with some undertones of pile-of-leaves and dirty windows. Mitsouko is dirty windows! I love it! I don't love it on me, but I love that I don't quite "get it" yet. I know that if I were another kind of person I would feel shame for that, but you see...
The moment of educated innocence that I would so like to recapture in my love of poetry is where I am in perfume. I'm consuming everything I can possibly lodge somewhere in my brain and I am still on the "downhill path" in the world of fragrance though I don't think I'll reach quite the same hollow bottom as I did with poetry; for my sake I hope it's a less desperate bottom. As in Frost's magnificent poem (just disregard that weird honeysuckle/knuckle rhyme, ok?) I have surpassed my youthful craving for sweets. They frequently bore me now. Like the poet, I am seeking musk from hidden grapevines. I now crave earthy, grassy, strange fragrances that I never before found interesting. I have amassed an astonishing number of samples, which I adore like some hedonistic dragon atop a pile of gold coins. I sniff this and I sniff another thing and I think "The experts like this? These people are crazy!" And then a couple of weeks later I find myself sniffing the same sample and I think "Mmmm...is that boronia? Is that champaca blossom? What IS that?" And of course you know how it goes. With experience, tastes change, and I can never smell the thing again like I smelled it that first time.
For a second time, I'm searching for the joy dashed with pain, for the thing that encapsulates all my longing into one beautiful, amber-hued vial. And when I find it, if it has any magic left at all, it will vanish completely.
Image: "Oh, what's that in the Hollow?" by Edward Robert Hughes. Print available at Illusions gallery, more at Artmagick, and elsewhere. The painting is based on lines from the Christina Rosetti poem "Amor Mundi" available at PoetryX.com
Poem: "To Earthward" by Robert Frost. From New Hampshire, Henry Holt & Company, 1923. Via PoetryX.com