Sillage 4: Fille en Aiguilles * Poem + Essay * Jehanne Dubrow

Aromatica Poetica is delighted to present the fourth in the Sillage series 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 Fille en Aiguilles[i]—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.

 

Fille en Aiguilles

Serge Lutens, 2009

In late winter, I pierce you
with pine sap, pour the juice
of plums into your wounds.
You can’t imagine the weight
of being always sweet.
Incense, you ask of me,
the green balsam of a forest—
I would rather be insensitive
to your needs, leave
a small incision on your wrist.
I like myself best as bay leaf,
an edge that will not soften
no matter how cold the wind.
When you turn your face to me,
my breath is sharp with needling.

 

Trauma as Enfleurage

Again, what is the sillage of trauma? How does it follow me?

Right now, I am writing a craft book. It’s called The Wounded Line: A Guide to Writing Poems of Trauma. Each chapter provides a different technique for representing trauma on the page: lists and catalogs, repetitions, fugue states. In the book, I perform close readings. I offer writing prompts and a list of resources. My approach is practical. How do we write good poems that engage with trauma? What can we do to avoid the bad and unethical ones?

While I type on my laptop, the news scrolls by. The chyron on the television screen moves like a scent trail drifting behind a body. Occasionally I look up from my document to watch the sliding words in all-caps:

WAR…BOMBING…OCCUPATION…THE DEAD…

In my craft book—which I call a “guide,” as if I were Virgil leading the reader through concentric circles of woundedness—there is a chapter on the mode known as ekphrasis. An ekphrastic poem begins by describing a work of art (a painting, a photograph, a drawing). And through description, the speaker inevitably arrives at some kind of discovery or realization about the self. In a poem that explores trauma, ekphrasis provides distance and neutrality. The speaker observes a sculpture, for instance, regarding the piece from all angles, making keen observations about its shape, its manipulation of negative space. And when there is no more to say about the carved marble, then the poet turns that same scholarly gaze toward herself. Sometimes poetry of trauma needs this detachment. It needs to curate pain the way an expert in a museum might organize an exhibit of still life paintings.

And what of my little ekphrastic poems about perfumery? When I step inside a scent, there is little distance. Instead, I become the bottled fragrance. I am both perfume and sillage, both the trauma and the trail left behind. “[M]y breath is sharp with needling,” I write.

I’ve spent twenty years in the fields of genocide Studies, trauma Studies, and war Studies. In perfume-making, there is a costly process known as enfleurage. Flowers are placed in a thick layer of fat. For approximately 24 hours, the petals sit there, and the fat absorbs the fragrance of tuberose or jasmine. Later, the fat is strained and filtered, washed with alcohol until it’s reduced to an extract, the pure scent of a fragile blossom. You might say my studies of trauma have been a form of enfleurage. The literature and film, the scholarly theories—these things have left their dark aromas trapped inside me. I am thick with the scent of grief.

 

—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 3: Carnal Flower” HERE!

[i] From Osmoz.com: “‘Fille en Aiguilles’ means both “Girl in High Heels” and “Girl in Needles” (as in pine needles, one of the ingredients), and it sounds a lot like “Needle & Thread” too.”