Aromatica Poetica is delighted to present the first in a new series called Sillage by Jehanne Dubrow. She is the author of several books of poetry and prose that dance with our heart’s senses, including Taste: A Book of Small Bites, which we highly recommend! Each of the 12 poems are written in the voice of a specific perfume—this first one is Chanel No. 19—and were begun during the height of the pandemic. For this Sillage series, the poems are paired with a brief, lyric meditation on the challenges of turning scent into language.
I am green as leaves
that have been sealed in ice,
an unexpected storm
and all the trees
the world has turned to crystal.
The branches snap at any touch.
Look at the iris, how its petals
are blown glass, the breakable rose,
the oakmoss ground
with air is brittle now.
At some point in the first year of our global illness, I stopped wearing perfume. Many of us were shut in our houses then. My own life was three bedrooms and two baths, some windows looking out onto a row of beige houses, a little fenced-in lawn. In the summer, the north Texas grass scorched yellow. Later, in the cold months, the pavement sometimes darkened as though wet, last night’s glaze of dew frozen over, although the weather never stayed too cold for very long.
For more than a decade, scent had been a passion. I called it one of my great loves. I had written books about it, given lectures, taught classes on how to soak one’s poems in the thick aromas of memory, the dark smoke of a campfire, a grandmother’s lilac and peppermint, the tangy sweat of gym class.
But in that first year, I couldn’t imagine my skin smelling of anything but skin.
It wasn’t that I lost my sense of smell, the way so many people did during that time. One of the side effects of the virus could be anosmia. And suddenly, there were dozens of articles written by people—often those formerly indifferent to misty powers of smell—who had discovered that the world becomes uncanny when bleached of fragrance. People complained about their food. Without scent, a bite of spaghetti Bolognese turned to mealy cardboard in the mouth. Oranges, lemons became nothing more than sharp liquids that stung the tongue.
I hadn’t lost my sense of smell. But I feared my own body during that first year of our global illness. One of the pleasures of wearing perfume is how it changes over a day. A great fragrance moves through unexpected stages, one moment a a sprig of neroli, the next, a purple field of irises and, finally, oakmoss and leather, a smoothed piece of sandalwood. To wear perfume is to be reminded of time, that it passes, that we fade, that, yes, we even disappear.
In that first year, I was afraid of all the things I couldn’t see: infection floating like a vapor, its hidden residue on polished surfaces. I had always loved that perfume too was potent in its invisibility. It was like a fog that settled on the skin, wafting outwards to fill the corners of a room, following the wearer like a twisting shadow.
In the vocabulary of perfumes, we speak about the trail that a fragrance leaves behind. Sillage. It’s French for the wake of a ship, the way a vessel creates a path of movement as it cuts through water. A perfume with magnificent sillage trails after a body, almost palpable in its presence, thick and velvety.
Sillage is not so much perceived by the wearer as it is by others in a room. Perhaps, this is because we so often struggle to turn back and consider the liquid path we’ve just taken.
And what is the sillage of trauma? How does it follow us?
A long time before, what first brought me to perfumery was the language of scent. And so that would be how I returned to fragrance—by finding my own words for perfumes that I couldn’t bear to dab on my wrists or spritz in the air. I could no longer imagine walking through a cloud of narcissus. So, instead I tried to find a way to render language hazy, lines atomizing on the pale skin of my computer screen.
—About the Author—
Jehanne Dubrow is the author of nine poetry collections and three books of creative nonfiction, including most recently, Exhibitions: Essays on Art & Atrocity (University of New Mexico Press, 2023). Her work has appeared in New England Review, Southern Review, and The Colorado Review, among others. She is a Professor of Creative Writing at the University of North Texas.