In a Station of the Metro
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
My first thought upon reading the poem that Heather sent me is that I got very lucky. Not only is it a fun, jaunty little poem, but also the “Metro” in the title tells me it probably takes place in Paris, a place I know well having lived there for eight years in the 1990’s. Paris is where I studied perfumery and worked for a fragrance supplier, so many of my impressions and recollections of the city are of an olfactive nature.
Although I vaguely know of Ezra Pound, I’ve never read his work and can’t remember studying it in English literature classes (in Canada). A quick Google search reveals that he wrote this poem in 1911 while living in Paris as an American expatriate. Right up my alley. I identify strongly with the romantic notion of moving to Paris to experience a more bohemian, culturally rich environment. I did it myself, first as an exchange student in the late 1980’s, and then eventually moving there permanently for work. Of course, in Ezra Pound’s day, the American dollar went very far against the post-WWI French franc, making it possible for an American poet from Idaho and other writers of the so-called “lost generation” to live reasonably well as expats in Paris. Times have changed.
My first thought in creating a perfume around the poem is to draw on its origins in 1911. Ezra Pound would have been exposed to the Japonism and Orientalism that had infiltrated French art and culture by that time, and I can see it clearly in his poem. The French often mention Paris’ Exposition Universelle (world fair) of 1878 as being the event that introduced Japanese and Oriental aesthetics to the broader public in France and the rest of Europe. Pound’s poem is like a Japanese haiku, as interpreted through a modern, western sensibility. Although extremely concise, the words are powerful and beautiful. I think the perfume should be like an olfactive haiku, with a short formula of distinctive materials. No redundancy. I would want it to have the clarity and power of “In a Station of the Metro”.
Although the title and first line of the poem, “The apparition of these faces in the crowd”, places the writer in a metro station, I wouldn’t want to interpret the smells of the metro too directly. I imagine that the metro station to which Pound is referring has one of the beautiful entrances designed by Hector Guimard in an Art Nouveau style (a design movement that was heavily influenced by Japonism, incidentally).
I will assume the “apparition” of faces Pound sees in the metro to be beautiful faces, and not the sleepy, office-bound commuters that one often sees in today’s metro. While the idea of an apparition can seem somewhat mystical, I think in perfumery a nice interpretation would be the weaving in and out of different components in a scent. I personally love evolution in a fragrance rather than monolithic structures, so I see this as permission to have a complete transition in the evaporation of top, middle and base notes, as long as all the notes are beautiful and interesting.
The second sentence of the poem, “Petals on a wet, black bough”, takes us to an entirely different scene. There is a pivotal semi-colon (a most under-rated punctuation mark!), which seems to give both lines equal importance. The faces on the train platform are transformed into a garden setting. This second line particularly brought to mind Japonism when I read it. I can almost picture an archetypal Japanese wood block print from the late 19th century, perhaps of cherry blossoms in the rain. For me the petals represent a delicate, feminine beauty, whereas the wet, black bough is more melancholy. I think this second part of the poem could be interpreted into perfumery notes much more directly than the first part.
In creating fragrances, I often like to start with an overall structure. What springs to mind here is the chypre structure, which came about just after this period with the launch of Chypre de Coty in 1917. Perhaps I am being subconsciously influenced by the Art Nouveau typography of the Chypre de Coty logo, which looks strikingly similar to the typography used on the metro entrances at the time. I briefly considered that our perfume could have an “oriental” structure, but that came a bit later with Coty’s Emeraude in 1921 and more famously Guerlain’s Shalimar in 1925, and an oriental structure seems too florid for the modernist, spare aesthetic of the poem. A chypre underpinning would fit really well with the first part of the poem, an elegant and alluring Parisian scene.
The chypre accord is often referred to as “mossy-woody”, and generally contains bergamot, oakmoss, patchouli and labdanum. I would personally prefer to do a modern interpretation of the chypre, using materials that weren’t necessarily available in the early 20th century. Some perfumery details of a technical nature for those who are interested … I would stick with the bergamot as a top note, but be very judicious in my use of labdanum, which I think can quickly make a fragrance smell old-fashioned and church-like. I would tend to use more modern amber/woody specialties to replace the labdanum and lighten the composition, such as Ambroxan and Cedramber. The oakmoss is essential to the earthy, mossy character of the chypre, but I would use Oakmoss #1 by Takasago, which is my favourite replacement for oakmoss absolute, a restricted allergen. I love patchouli, but would make sure to avoid combining it with any kind of sweet note in the rest of the fragrance since this has been so overdone in perfumery in the last decade (the Angel effect) that it has become very tiresome. Patchouli can also make a perfume too heavy and dark for my taste, so I would supplement it with lighter wood notes like Iso E Super (large amounts) and Vertofix Coeur.
Having created a solid foundation representing the first half of the poem, I think we can use the second part of the poem, “petals on a wet black bough” to add the beauty and distinctiveness that our chypre needs. I would add both olfactive elements that appear in the line: the blossoms and the rain/wet wood note.
Since the petals are on a tree branch, they would likely be blossoms of some sort. While I could easily visualize cherry or plum blossoms, I don’t particularly associate these with Paris and they also aren’t scented. I briefly considered orange blossom (bitter orange) because it fits well with the époque, although it strikes me as more Mediterranean than Parisian, and it would not be a very original direction for our perfume. Since orange blossom is available as a natural absolute as well as the related neroli and petitgrain oils, it has been used extensively in perfumery, perhaps overused. Rose makes for a delicious combination with patchouli but its branches could not be described as boughs and it’s also not exactly original. In fact, I can’t think of any natural oil or absolute that would be particularly compelling here, so I would prefer to do a reconstitution of an interesting flower or blossom. One that we grow in our garden in San Francisco and that I think could be perfect is … wisteria.
I love the gnarled, climbing branches of wisteria, and the copious purple flowers with their gorgeous, heady scent. It will be in bloom again within a month (around April in the Bay Area). A native to Asia, Wisteria is a common ornamental plant in North America and Europe but doesn’t have much of a history in perfumery because it can’t be distilled. In a way that makes it more interesting. I love the idea of taking an uncommon scented plant that I grow and replicating the odour. I did this with angels’ trumpet for my last fragrance, Evening Edged in Gold, and would like to continue with the idea going forward. I like having a strong, singular floral note that is relatively original in perfumery, rather than the more common “bouquet” compositions. A wisteria note as the sole floral ingredient will make a dramatic and original statement in our olfactive haiku.
[Note: If any perfumer reading this has a good modern wisteria accord, I would love to exchange it for an accurate angels’ trumpet accord.]
Finally for the rain note, I would create an accord that is watery without being oceanic, and has elements of the peppery, earthy, woody smell you get when you walk under trees after the rain. Technically speaking I would use Helional (lots), Ozofleur, guaiacwood oil, black pepper oil and cardamom oil. The rain note adds an element of melancholy to the perfume, but not in a sad or bleak way. For me it is attractive in a darkly romantic way.
So that is my perfume haiku. I thought at first that Heather’s idea of creating a perfume around a poem might be difficult and forced, but it ended up being a really interesting exercise because the poem practically wrote the fragrance formula without my involvement at all. I wonder what Ezra Pound would have made of that.
Ineke * Perfumer * San Francisco
Two things drew me to Ineke Rühland's perfumes before I had any idea what they smelled like. First, I was enthralled by the immaculate design of her Web space and product packaging. I'm a bit of a packaging nut, and the level of Ineke's graphic concept completely delighted me from the first glance. Not a detail has been missed. I was even further impressed when I received her sample collection of all four of the fragrances that were then available (she automatically sent the fifth when it was released) and found each sample wrapped in colored rice paper, packaged in individually designed cartons within a larger, reusable box, all nestled inside a gray sueded bag with embroidered logo and accompanied by a booklet that I continue to marvel at. She calls her fragrances "scent stories," and from the very outset, she has provided a book design that is both alluring and original.
The second thing that drew me to her "Alphabetical Collection of Perfumes" is the abecedarian naming scheme, making use of an ancient poetic literary device. Ineke's first five perfumes begin with the first five letters of the alphabet, and this letter theme is further carried out in her packaging design and literature. The first fragrance is After My Own Heart, one of the greatest names of a perfume I have heard and my personal favorite from the line. I have long been a fan of the relatively little-known Alfred Sung fragance Sha, a watery, wispy lilac fragrance that was one of the inspirations for this blog's creation. In one single day of testing, After My Own Heart replaced Sha as my favorite lilac perfume.
But they are not the same lilac. Sha is the kind of lilac that T. S. Eliot spoke of in the opening lines to The Waste Land, a quiet, slightly rueful fragrance that touches the darker emotional side while still reminding the wearer of the promise of spring blossoms. After My Own Heart is a luminous, rose-tinted lilac with a touch of raspberry and a subtly sweet base of heliotrope and sandalwood. The green notes in the opening serve to further underscore the vibrance and subtle complexity of this unusual floral scent. It is far and away the most lovely and hopeful lilac I have smelled, and it calls to mind the euphoria that these flowers can induce when they are inhaled deeply and constantly. In Austria, this lilac-induced euphoria is called Fliederrausch, and I can confirm that too much lilac for too long can indeed bring on a sort of narcotic stupor. In my home there, lilac bushes grew straight up the side of the building and crowded the windows so that on breezy spring days, the branches actually hung inside the house, filling each room with its incredible perfume and scattering clusters of lilac blossoms across the wooden floor. This is the lilac that After My Own Heart brings back to me, a lilac of clear April afternoons spent at home in simple, unexplainable joy.
Though I needed no additional evidence to convince me that this was "my" fragrance from among those in the collection, I found this poem in the graphic for After My Own Heart in Ineke's booklet:
After and before
Today and tomorrow
Sand becoming a wave
What was it I saw at the top of the world
as I fell asleep last night?
I tried putting lilacs in your dreams
You smiled in your sleep
I hear your words like the wind
whispering in my ear
the most enchanting words
after my own heart
As a classically trained perfumer from the exclusive ISIPCA school in Versailles, France, Ineke has set her mark on the world of niche perfumery with a unique literary approach, distinctive brand image, and five inspired fragrances which have been lauded in international publications such as Elle, InStyle, Womens Wear Daily, and Marie Claire. Following her education and apprenticeship in France, "she moved to San Francisco to blend her perfumery skills with her love of design, literature, and the arts in the creation of her perfume 'stories,'" such as the aforementioned After My Own Heart, as well as Balmy Days & Sundays, Chemical Bonding, Derring Do, and Evening Edged in Gold.
Our March 31 grand prize winner will receive the deluxe boxed sample of Evening Edged in Gold, along with samples from all perfumers represented in the Perfume in a Poem series. All of Ineke's scents can be purchased in select stores or through her beautiful website, Ineke * Perfumer * San Francisco. The brilliantly designed deluxe sample collection includes vials of all five fragrances and is very highly recommended as a starting point.
- "Calligrapher" by Toshikata Mizuno, 1891.
- "Kameido Shrine" with wisteria by Noel Nouet, 1936.
- Photo of the Paris Metro by Bill O'Such.
- Quotations from Ineke's promotional booklet.
- "Lilac Blooms" by Alex at Wishkoski.com.
Comments are encouraged! Please read the initial post in this series for the details on our extraordinary giveaway which will take place on March 31.