Aromatica Poetica is delighted to present the second in a 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 one is Ambre Narguilé—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.
Once I came to you as smoke and cognac,
which is to say something to take
into the mouth. I didn’t mind
being pure pleasure, a cloud of forgetting,
because I wasn’t mind but only crushed
cinnamon spread across your skin
and the slip of melted caramel.
Not everything a lover says endures.
Confess: what you liked about me
was my going, the way my touch dried
like a kiss on your neck.
I left you in a flush of sweating orchids.
To My Senses
There was a time my marriage nearly ended. We came close to shattering like a glass bottle dropped on a tile floor.
And in the months after—as I tried to find a way back to my husband, stepping slowly toward him through the breakage—I often felt like I stood at a great distance from my body. It was delicate and placed on a high shelf that I couldn’t (or didn’t want) to reach.
To distract myself from the problems of love, I began to read about scent. How difficult it was, I realized, to make something so ephemeral concrete. Our language has few effective words for smell. It’s not enough to say that a fragrance is strong or weak. Pretty or ugly. Memorable or forgettable. Instead, to convey the experience of encountering an odor, the writer must craft a figurative language, one that comes out of sight and sound, taste and texture. Scent doesn’t want to be captured in words. It wants to dissipate. It wants to fade faster than a writer can explain its volatility, the aldehydes and notes of citrus that vanish almost as soon as they’re sprayed on skin.
How difficult it was, I realized too, to write about this moment in a marriage. I couldn’t find the right words for speaking about our near dissolution. We did not divorce or even separate, but something had been divided. The feelings which had bound us together like molecules were being split apart into their separate, distant atoms.
There is the idiom: to come to one’s senses. It means to return to sensible thinking after a period of illogic, irrationality. I came to my senses by falling, unreasonably, excessively, expensively in love with perfumes and with olfaction itself. In the early days of my new passion for fragrance, I would pull my wrist to my nose, drag my nostrils across the blue-lined veins, the natural and the synthetic colliding deep within my brain.
I discovered the joy of sampling: the ability to smell ten perfumes, those tiny vials of surprise, each one asking a question. Could you love me? Will you love me? Some samples suggested enormous beauty—a burst of orange blossoms, perhaps, or a flood of roses. Untested, they seemed to offer just what I was looking for. But then, when I dabbed one my wrist, the perfume surprised with horror. I went searching for the ideal vanilla. But every vial offered me disgust. One scent reeked of mold and wet tobacco. Another was mostly dust in a library filled with decomposing books. Do you love me? they asked. No, I could never.
In trauma, we often become divorced from ourselves. It is easier to forget limbs and limbic system than to remain connected to so much pain. But, after a few weeks, and then a year, all these aromas brought me back to my own body. Testing the terrible alongside the exquisite allowed me to slowly reach toward myself. I no longer sat on a high, dusty shelf. And this was how I eventually decided I could love someone else again, my husband, who had handled that glass bottle so clumsily. I could forgive him for fumbling with the faceted stopper of our marriage.
—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.
*Read Sillage #1: Chanel No. 19 HERE*