- Rainer Maria Rilke -
Malgré le ciel encore bas
et cet air qui chancelle,
quelque chose nouvelle
flotte vers l'odorat.
Quelque parfum tout vert
discrètement se dégage.
Un plaisir déménage:
le printemps est ouvert.
- Rainer Maria Rilke -
Despite the sky, still low,
and the hesitant air,
floats into scent.
Some perfume, entirely green,
frees itself discreetly.
A pleasure begins to move;
spring is open.
My relative ignorance of "green" perfumes has been both willful and convenient. Mostly willful because, until recently, I simply never liked any notes that I would have characterized as "green" and I actively hated the big, monstrous greens that are easily overapplied and never seem to smell good on anyone I know. Yes, I am thinking here of your favorite green perfumes, including, but not limited to: Chanel No 19, Estee Lauder Private Collection, Caron Muguet do Bonheur, Gres Cabotine, and Carven Ma Griffe. (The latter was supposed to have been created by famous perfumer Jean Carles after his sense of smell deteriorated,* which, to me, made perfect sense.) There was, in fact, a time before my more recent enlightenment to the depth and breadth of perfumery, in which I equated "green perfume" with "bad perfume" and I equated the people who wear them with poor taste and malfunctioning noses. Greens were hard, angular, and mean, usually sour and pinched-smelling, frequently encountered on quarrelsome, haughty, too-tanned women carrying enormous purses which reeked of the stuff. This was the early 90s, and I sold these hateful perfumes to these hateful women. I'm sure we all hated each other equally.
But my fate was to change. I recently received several "green" perfumes by chance, starting with botanical perfumer and artist Roxana Villa's California Oak-inspired perfume, simply called Q. I ordered it almost as an afterthought along with two other samples - I wasn't sure it would appeal to me but I picked it out of curiosity - just to find out what an oak perfume might smell like. The night I tried Q turned out to be a vivid and marvelous evening in which I picked up a fairy tale I've been crafting since I was a child, and took it straight into the woods for several hours. Q is both lush and restrained, majestic and simple. Not angry, not quarrelsome, not angular, but very green. I lay in bed for several hours with my wrists wresting on a pillow in front of my face, and explored the calming green of trees in sunlight.
I thought that sticking with natural, botanical greens might be the way to go, so my next test was Ayala Sender's Gaucho, a unique yerbamate tea perfume which smells so good on the skin, it's no wonder she has launched a perfumed tea of the same name. It's a testament to Ayala's blending ability that she includes recognizable doses of galbanum and angelica in this perfume without making it shrill or bitter.
Then, without even knowing it, I tried Roxana Villa's Sierra, an intensely magical dark-green blend which opens up like an evergreen forest under snow and warms to ambery orange, as though one had suddenly found the enchanted cottage in the deepest, darkest part of the forest. Sierra took me on a powerful imaginative journey, which I shared with Roxana in an email. [Edit 5/6/08: She paid the story a great compliment by publishing it today in her Illuminated Perfume blog, as "Secret in the Forest."] In the space of three days, Sierra turned my hesitancy about evergreen notes into pure admiration. The scent transforms several times during the space of eight or ten hours on my skin, unusually lively and tenacious for a botanical blend.
So this past Saturday, I met my friend Alyssa for lunch in Austin and she gave me a number of interesting surprises, among them a vial of Niki de Saint-Phalle parfum extrait. I knew nothing of the perfume except the packaging design, which I've always admired. She warned me about its greenness but encouraged me to try it, and this morning, I did.
Gorgeous. Entirely green. As though the earth just broke open and from all angles, green silk of every hue spreads out to cover the world. There was an hour or so this morning when I wondered what I have ever hated about green scents - surely this is as green as they get, and yet, it is not harsh, not hard. It could be distant and perhaps even austere, but just one drop on each wrist is just enough to make me believe that I could someday love all that is green, and that maybe green will love me back.
A pleasure has begun to move. Spring is open.
* Luca Turin & Tania Sanchez. Perfumes: The Guide. Viking, 2008. p. 234.
"The Green Tea Bride, Self Portrait" by Kimiko Yoshida. Via Artnet.com
"The Proscribed Royalist, 1651" by Sir John Everett Millais, 1852-53. Via Artmagick.com
"Quelque Parfum" by Rainer Maria Rilke, French text from The Complete French Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke, Graywolf Press, 1986. Electronic text via: http://www.rilke.de/gedichte/ebauches_51.htm. My translation.