plunged in shadow.
Drops of violet water
and raw sunlight
floated up with your scent.
climbed up from your buds
thrilling my eyes and my life.
One at a time, flowers
that stretched forward
creeping closer to an obscure light
shoot by shoot in the shadows,
till they crowned
the mysterious mass
with an intense weight of perfume
formed a single star
with a far-off scent and a purple center.
a wave, or a head of hair,
or the gaze
of a ruined water nymph
sunk in the depths.
But up close,
in your fragrance’s
you exhale the earth,
an earthly flower, an earthen
smell and your ultraviolet
in volcanoes’ faraway fires.
Into your loveliness I sink
a weathered face,
a face that dust has often abused.
something out of the soil.
It isn’t simply perfume,
nor simply the perfect cry
of your entire color, no: it’s
a word sprinkled with dew,
a flowering wetness with roots.
Fragile cluster of starry
of marine phosphorescence,
nocturnal bouquet nestled in green leaves:
the truth is
there is no blue word to express you.
Better than any word
is the pulse of your scent.
from Odes to Common Things, translated by Ken Krabbenhoft, Bullfinch Press, 1994
I've heard there's a thin line between love and hate, but for as long as I can remember, I have hated violets. I hate them so much it's hard to locate exactly what I hate about them anymore. Even more than the flower itself, I hate the scent of violets with their powerful burnt sweetness. To me, fragrances in which violets are the center are the powdery ash of martyrs who have died at the stake, shrieking. They are the whimpers of every man and woman who has lived a subservient life in the shade of some greater power. They are the "nice" people staring absently into a space inhabited by dust mites on plastic. Violet perfumes are outdated confections being dropped into misshapen, odorous mouths. Yes, I smell all that in a violet. Plus, I smell my occasionally mean-spirited and not always freshly-washed grandmother wearing way too much cheap perfume in her advanced age. And I smell my father's anger at her, and my mother's love and frustration, and my own adolescent hatred of everything inside that house and beyond it.
Violets can't really win with me. The dice have been loaded against them.
So it was with an almost unspeakable fear that I read, for the first time, Pablo Neruda's superb "Ode to a Cluster of Violets," which was sent to me by fellow writer and friend Michelle Krell Kydd, of Glass Petal Smoke. Michelle and I met this January during my vacation in and around New York City, and as we enjoyed one extraordinary dish after another at the sensational Vietnamese restaurant Boi, she mentioned that she was considering using several lines from Neruda's lovely ode in a forthcoming article. She asked if I'd be interested in exploring the poem as well, and I immediately agreed. I've loved Neruda's poetry for years, but was not familiar with this particular work and I was delighted to have the opportunity to explore a theme in tandem with Michelle. For Michelle's beautiful article on Violet Pleasures in Food and Drink, please visit Glass Petal Smoke.
I knew, though, that I would be challenged in certain insurmountable ways. I don't think I mentioned my hatred of violets to her exactly, but I'm glad that I didn't because if I had passed on this poem, I would have missed all the adventures in violetness of the last week, and--this is no exaggeration--I have come to understand some things about myself through Neruda's poem and through it, I've found the courage to re-explore the violet perfumes in my collection: from the legendary 1906 Guerlain classic Apres L'Ondee, to the "miraculous" 1992 Serge Lutens/Christopher Sheldrake masterpiece Bois de Violette and Caron's sugary disaster, Aimez-Moi.
In Ovid's telling of the kidnapping of Persephone/Proserpine, violets were among the sweet flowers Hades used to draw his victim away from her companions (translation by A. S. Kline, 2000):
"While Proserpine was playing in this glade, and gathering violets or radiant lilies, while with girlish fondness she filled the folds of her gown, and her basket, trying to outdo her companions in her picking, Dis [Hades], almost in a moment, saw her, prized her, took her: so swift as this, is love. The frightened goddess cries out to her mother, to her friends, most of all to her mother, with piteous mouth. Since she had torn her dress at the opening, the flowers she had collected fell from her loosened tunic, and even their scattering caused her virgin tears."
In the very first stanza, Neruda dazzles us with mythology as Persephone, the archetypal subterranean beauty, climbs up through the roots and stalk of this tiny plant, bringing sunlight back from the soil in drops of violet water. Proserpine/Persephone is not the only subterranean beauty associated with the violet, however. In Greek, the word for violet is "Io." Fragrance enthusiasts will recognize this as the root of the word ionone, which is the chemical name for synthetic violet fragrance. Io was a nymph upon whom Zeus focused his amorous advances. To protect Io from his wife Hera's wrath, Zeus transformed Io into a heifer and caused sweet violets to spring up where she grazed. (Hera, unassuaged, eventually caused the heifer Io to be driven into foreign lands, lending her name to the Ionian sea as well as to the volcanic moon of Jupiter.)
I don't know about other fragrance enthusiasts, but there's nothing about being turned into a wandering heifer by a lover with a jealous wife that really makes me want to smother myself in violets, but there is certainly that smothering quality in Caron's Aimez-Moi (Love Me), one of the first violet fragrances I ever owned, and one that I almost immediately resold. It was a heartbreaker, because I'd bought it unsniffed based on the enthusiastic reviews of others. I didn't know at that time that violet was what I associated with all those unpleasant things I mentioned at the beginning, but on my first spray of Aimez-Moi I was almost sick with disappointment. There is a burnt plastic note in Aimez-Moi that, no matter how lightly I apply, sticks in the back of my throat for far too long. It was the first and last full bottle of a violet-themed perfume I have ever bought.
Despite their easy cultivation in shady, moist environments, violets are heliotropic: their flowers turn toward the light. Ovid tells the tale of the first violet in Metamorphoses, Book Four (translation via The Human Flower Project): The sea nymph Clytie was so besotted with Apollo (Helios) that she could not tear her eyes away from him as he rode his daily chariot across the sky. Somehow, in all this ceaseless watching, she managed to catch him in an affair with the daughter of a Babylonian king. Enraged with jealousy, Clytie told the king of his daughter's impropriety, which caused the king to murder his daughter and bury her underground, far from the eyes of sunny Apollo. Clytie continued to burn with passion and eventually spread out into the ground, her face turning purple, constantly facing the sun.
"Her limbs caused her to cleave to the ground,
A wan pallor transposing her into bloodless petals.
In part, she was flushed red and a violet concealed her face.
Thus she, whom roots held, turns always to the Sun.
Now she watches over him, having been transformed for the sake of love."
(Ovid, Metamorphoses, translated by Ariel Singer)
The sadness of unrequited love is a concept I can easily connect to the fragrance of violets. Luca Turin finds in the violet's smell "a peculiarly poetic combination of warm, sweet, floral, and woody notes...a mixture of delicacy and brutality which, to my mind at least, is an allegory of childhood love." (The Secret of Scent, HarperCollins, 2006, p. 62).
It is through Luca's description of the "poetic combination" within violets that I can finally appreciate the legendary Apres L'Ondee, created by Jacques Guerlain in 1906. Apres L'Ondee (After the Rain Shower) is singularly beautiful in its simplicity. It evokes the "word sprinkled with dew, a flowering wetness" of Neruda's Ode and at the same time seems ghostly and slightly sad. Violets in perfume have been out of fashion for some time, but Apres L'Ondee was created when they were well-beloved, and it is one of the few remaining fragrances that I know of which displays the violet with both confidence and restraint. In her review of the fragrance, Victoria of Bois de Jasmin describes it eloquently:
"Après l'Ondée ... seems like a radiant and exquisitely graceful composition, and yet there is the suggestion of a brooding darkness hiding in its opulent layers....Its bittersweet beauty captures the nostalgia that I felt and could not express. Like the memory of a first kiss, it was innocent and tender. It was born in 1906 during the joie de vivre of the Belle Époque with its vibrant art and social movements. It was a year when the famous actress Sarah Bernhardt still reigned supreme on stage; when Pablo Picasso was paid the enormous sum of 2,000 francs for thirty canvasses; when the Dreyfus Affair exposing French anti-Semitism came to an end and when Paul Cézanne, the father of modern art, passed away after being caught in a rainstorm…" (November 21, 2006)
Something Out of the Soil
In The Secret of Scent (p. 62) Luca Turin notes that even though the structure of ionone (violet fragrance) and irone (iris root fragrance) are very similar, the difference between their fragrances is "huge but subtle." To me, there is a very clear resemblance: both smell earthy but with a slightly different soil compositon. While iris tends toward "frosty luxury," violets exude something that is rich and humid, a kind of turned-earth smell within a floral smell that, to some, is uniquely appealing. For me, this dense richness is part of the problem, for the sweetness of violets is unrepentant and threatens constantly to break out into full-blown decay. One of the few perfumes I have ever worn that seems to halt this side of violet is the much-beloved Bois de Violette, created by Serge Lutens and Christopher Sheldrake in 1992.
Bois de Violette is a dark fragrance, as dark as violet, but the violet in this case is foiled by a masterful dose of cedar. And therein lies the magic. Again quoting Luca Turin (this time from the website for the forthcoming Perfumes: The Guide) "I remember stepping out of Lutens’s purple shop into the perpetually quiet walled gardens, armed with this purple smell with a purple name, thinking I was carrying the most precious object in the world." In the hands of Sheldrake and Lutens, violet "exhales the earth / an earthly flower, an earthen /smell" as in Neruda's poem, and it does even more than that. It conjures not just the forest floor but the forest itself. It seems to me almost that the perfumers could have been inspired by Neruda's lines:
Into your loveliness I sink
a weathered face,
a face that dust has often abused.
Into the loveliness of violet flowers and soft, green violet leaves, they plunged cedar, and back into the warmth of cedar they poured dusty, nostalgic violet.
It isn't simply perfume,
nor simply the perfect cry
of your entire color ...
Neruda also tells us something about the structure of the violet earlier in the poem. A ground-covering, creeping plant, it can be considered difficult to control once its root system is well-established. Unchecked, it will create a "mysterious mass" that will grow best in shady areas. Parma violets are grown in shade of Mediterranean olive trees, constantly creeping toward an "obscure light." And Neruda hasn't forgotten: Io, the fiery volcanic moon orbiting Jupiter, continues to churn its mass of rock and "faraway fires," unable to escape the pull of its gravity.
The Pulse of Your Scent
Neruda's final lines allude to one of the most mysterious qualities of the violet: it's ghostly "pulse." Like the periodicity of a volcano, of a heartbeat, of breath being drawn and exhaled, violets cannot be smelled constantly, only in intervals. Jeanne Rose explains it beautifully in 375 Essential Oils and Hydrosols (Frog, Ltd: 1999):
"The scent of Violet flowers is very evanescent, and as soon as you are able to detect the fragrance, it disappears. What happens is the scent paralyzes the nasal cilia so that they are unable to detect scent. One has to walk away from the Violet and come back to it to be able to experience once again this very particular fragrance." (p. 156)
I wanted very much to experience this mystical effect and went on a field trip to several local
floral shops looking for violets. One after the
other, violets were presented to me
and much as I
inhaled, I could smell nothing resembling the sweet, warm fragrance
that they personify in perfumes. Not just a come hither/go away flash
of fragrance; nothing. Well, not nothing: I could smell the dirt, the
slightly bitter/metallic leaves (which smell like freezer burn to me)
and nothing else. No powdery candy, no oozing purple toothache, not
even an old lady digging in a garden. Suddenly, realization struck: I
anosmic to violets! I can't smell them at all!
And then, just a few days later, I read this on page 176 in Edwin T. Morris' Fragrance: The Story of Perfume from Cleopatra to Chanel (Scribner, 1984):
"North Americans are often mystified by the "violet" odor because their common violet (Viola canadensis) is odorless; the scented Parma violet can only grow in a Mediterranean climate."
So...not anosmic, just North American. I thought it was poetic to have been hating all these years something I couldn't actually smell at all. It would have been so much easier to just go on hating it. But Neruda has now come between me and my hate and I'm not sure I can understand my experience of violets in the same way as before. I doubt I will ever come to love the note itself but I am able to experience it now with a depth of curiosity that I did not have when I was operating with only my preconceived biases. This is the magic of learning for me, of learning to love -- to go beyond my own vivid imagination and be connected with the universe beyond. As Neruda said, "the truth is / there is no blue word to express you."
It is ultimately task of the artist to enable the voyeur to experience life more deeply, to understand one's inner workings and surroundings in a way that adds meaning and value to one's existence. Art embeds itself in the onlooker and becomes a real, functioning part of the subject's psyche. Today, I wore a dab of Apres L'Ondee on one arm and a little Bois de Violette on the other. I did not fall in love with them, I have loved them only for their stature in the history of perfumery. But perhaps Neruda has given me the means to learn to cultivate a relationship with these strange violets. I understand for the first time the greater meaning of a poignant quote attributed to Mark Twain:
"Forgiveness is the scent the violet releases upon the heel that has crushed it."
And now that I think of it, my grandmother probably bathed in cheap perfume because she had scores of grandchildren who gave her cheap perfume every birthday Christmas. I remember picking out the Chantilly myself.
"Ode to a Cluster of Violets" appears in Odes to Common Things, bilingual edition translated by Ken Krabbenhoft and beautifully illustrated by Ferris Cook. (Bulfinch Press, 1994) This hardcover volume of poems is simply superb and shows the great depth and love with which Neruda viewed the "stuff" of the world around him. No detail in this great poet's life went unnoticed. Pablo Neruda was awarded the 1971 Nobel Prize for literature.
Photo of glass sculpture Violet Volcano by Epiphany Glass
Photo of Pablo Neruda via Today in Literature
Painting Proserpine by Dante Gabriel Rosetti via Liverpool Museums
Photo of Caron Aimez-Moi via Fashion-Era.com
Detail of painting La Metamorphose de Clytie by Jean Francois de Troy via The Human Flower Project
Photo of vintage Apres L'Ondee bottle via Le Figaro
Photo of Bois de Violette via Salons-Shiseido
Collage of nine violets via Travis Violets