Sometimes gimmicks work. In The Book of Scented Things: 100 Contemporary Poems About Perfume, the gimmick works with ebullient, sensuous, well-crafted delight. In writing this piece to run as Valentine’s Day approaches, and to pair The Book of Scented Things with Bertolt Brecht’s newly released Love Poems, which has a red heart on its cover, I risk getting gimmicky and hope my choice does these books justice.
Perfume is an interesting subject to me. For Jehanne Dubrow and Lindsay Lusby, editors of The Book of Scented Things, it is an obsession supported by the Internet, and scent-makers large and small. Each poet in this collection was sent a vial of scent selected Dubrow and Lusby, and asked for an aroma-inspired poem. The meeting of concept and writer here is so full and lush that one leaves almost every piece conjuring perfume-memory or getting giddy with what the body and mind can do when exposed to –dare I say it?- stimulation.
Perfume is heat. Perfume below
the ice of sleep. As from one
shore to another, dreams, rivulet,
molecules of citrus and musk
floating above our sheets, when you toss
not quite awake, your pillow burns
lily spice, clove and river grass
This is the perfect beginning to Ilyse Kusnetz’s “Blue Amber.” Perfume’s task is to declare itself, to make the person inhaling it want more, either of the wearer or of the scent itself. That is why I will not quote any of the poems in The Book of Scented Things in their entirety.
“Perfume IS heat,” and is useless without body heat. Even if one smells perfume from a bottle without putting it on, the fluid and its vapors can do nothing without the heat of nostrils and nerve-endings.
As Robin Ekiss notes in “Through Smoke,” “perfume” means those two words in Latin, and is where the noun comes from. “Elegy of ash to ash,” she says with graceful longing later on in this lovely poem, her less obvious associations reaching toward her young son, and the understanding that he will remember her scent. She could be any instinct-endowed animal here, and if you have wondered why perfume ads display fauna, or why they don’t need to be as vulgar as so many are, look no further than “Through Smoke.”
You could also read “bank of lilacs,” in a poem by Dawn Lonsinger called “Antoinette.” It reminds us that “rubber cement and vinyl” and many other artificially sweet, chemical smells can sometimes be part of a compelling mix. Think of a love object, male or female, wearing a common cologne. Think of that person at a gas station, a sheen of sweat on exposed arms, summer sun doing its eternal task as you breathe in what it has done to car seat cover and body of the beloved.
There is something terrifically dive-in about all these poems, and that contributes to their individual successes and to the success of the volume. In “Dream in Which We Eat the World,” Brian Barker starts with Eastern European food that is unsettling to American palates. “Creamed calf’s brain and vodka/in a farmhouse outside Krakow” and before he ends we are looking at “a plate as big as a hubcap,” and a waiter saying “Tonight for you lovers, any desire you want.” Follow me for a few more paragraphs as I happily try to convince you that Bertolt Brecht would love every whiff and bite in this collection.
We know, or should know, Brecht for his Threepenny Opera, Mother Courage, his other plays, his essays and the fact that Hitler forced him and his wife to flee Germany in 1933. He had a long marriage, some lasting affairs, and when he died in 1956 he left behind more than 2,000 poems. Love Poems, at just over a hundred pages, is the first volume in a translation project undertaken by David Constantine and Tom Kuhn.
Margarete Steffin was a long-time lover with whom he also shared deep emotional and artistic friendship. She died of tuberculosis in Moscow in 1941. “After the Death of My Collaborator M. S.” is a devastating tribute, taut and aching :
Since you died, little teacher
I go around not seeing, restless
In a gray world, amazed
Without employment like a man dismissed.
I am denied
Admission to the workplace
Like any other stranger.
Ii see the streets and the public gardens
Now at unaccustomed times of the day and so
Scarcely recognize them.
I cannot go: I am ashamed
That I am dismissed and in
He is writing, rightly, as a man who has been robbed, and his gift here is to do it with such precision that we share his violation. In doing that, we know he will recover, if not fully, at least enough to see more than gray, and to participate in life during accustomed “times of the day.”
Some of the poems here are unabashedly randy, with a cruel edge, as in this from the third verse of “Ballad of the Faithless Women”:
Stick a knife in the bedpost when you go to rest
And don’t go out unless you really must
And if you do, then take her, too, that’s best
Or else some other bloke will grab her breast.
“When I left you Afterwards” is a gentle reminder that generous love can make the world feel finer :
When I left you, afterwards
On that great today
I saw nothing when I began
To see, but gaiety.
Since that evening, that hour
You know the one I mean
Livelier is my stride and more
Beautiful this month of mine.
Greener are, now that I feel,
Meadow, bush and tree,
The water is more lovely cool
That I pour over me.
This makes no pretense of being in any other era than the one it is in. It was written in an earlier century, but is just as valid now, as are all the poems in this fine, affecting book.