Monday, December 2, 2013

I hope she smells my perfume

I just discovered this Britney song and I LOVE IT:

So good.

I've been reading Paris novels with lots of smells. I just recently finished Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys. According to Wikipedia, font of all accuracy, "the book initially sold poorly" because "critics thought it well-written, but too depressing." It is very sad indeed, but also very funny. Here's a striking passage that I dog-eared:

The curtains are thin, and when they are drawn the light comes through softly. There are flowers on the windowsill and I can see their shadows on the curtains. The child downstairs is screaming. 
There is a wind, and the flowers on the windowsill, and their shadows on the curtains, are waving. Like swans dipping their beaks in water. Like the incalculable raising its head, uselessly and wildly, for one moment before it sinks down, beaten, into the darkness. Like skulls on long, thin necks. Plunging wildly when the wind blows, to the end of the curtain, which is their nothingness. Distorting themselves as they plunge.  
The musty smell, the bugs, the loneliness, this room, which is part of the street outside — this is all I want from life.

This bit of prose is all I want from poetry!

Thinking it would make good travel reading, I just started "international bestseller" Perfume by Patrick Suskind ("originally published in German as Das Parfum"). It opens with a delightful passage about the overwhelming stink of civilization in the mid-1700's:

In the period of which we speak, there reigned in the cities a stench barely conceivable to us modern men and women. The streets stank of manure, the courtyards of urine, the stairwells stank of moldering wood and rat droppings, the kitchens of spoiled cabbage and mutton fat; the unaired parlors stank of stale dust, the bedrooms of greasy sheets, damp featherbeds, and the pungently sweet aroma of chamber pots. The stench of sulfur rose from the chimneys, the stench of caustic lyes from the tanneries, and from the slaughterhouses came the stench of congealed blood. People stank of sweat and unwashed clothes; from their mouths came the stench of rotting teeth, from their bellies that of onions, and from their bodies, if they were no longer very young, came the stench of rancid cheese and sour milk and tumorous disease. The rivers stank, the marketplaces stank, the churches stank, it stank beneath the bridges and in the palaces. The peasant stank as did the priest, the apprentice as did his master's wife, the whole of the aristocracy stank, even the king himself stank, stank like a rank lion, and the queen like an old goat, summer and winter. For in the eighteenth century there was nothing to hinder bacteria busy at decomposition, and so there was no human activity, either constructive or destructive, no manifestation of germinating or decaying life that was not accompanied by stench.

Have you read or smelled anything interesting lately?


  1. The Nirvana song "Scentless Apprentice" is about Perfume. (Maybe that is already widely known, I only learned it recently.)

    1. I guess it's on the Wikipedia page for Perfume so not exactly an obscure fact. Depression Bot is going to have a field day with this.

    2. Oh, I didn't know that! I'll probably refrain from reading the Wikipedia page until I finish the novel ...

    3. Does Grenouille steal Teen Spirit from anyone?

      Les grenouilles smell with something on the roof of their mouth called a Jacobson's organ. Looking for food, they open and close their mouths.

      I hear with my eyes. When I listen intently, I squint.

      “Most people enjoy the sight of their own handwriting as they enjoy the smell of their own farts.” Auden.

      That nasal passage from Perfume reminds me of C.K. Williams's "Hog Heaven."

    4. Ah! It means frog! Do the Germans call the French frogs, too?

      One of my writing profs in grad school quoted that Auden line to our workshop.

  2. I've heard that the Germans do, but I've yet to do much about my ignorance of things Teutonic, so I wouldn't know. Maybe it's mainly an English thing, mistaking fleurs-de-lis for frogs or calling the Fench frog-leg-eaters. Found this on line:

    "Brewer, in his Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, claims that the term originated for Parisians (later extended to the French, in general) because an early heraldic device for Paris contained three frogs or toads (possibly in allusion to their drained swamp?). I cannot find direct corroboration for Brewer, but I have been able to find several references to frogs appearing on late medieval French arms, either those of the king or those of the nation or those of the city of Paris. However, Evan Morris, author of The Word Detective does not even consider Brewer's tale worthy of direct acknowledgement. He holds in No Respect that 'frog' was a general-purpose insult that arose in the 1300s (he notes Dutch and Jesuits--mentioned in earlier posts--being so slandered) and was only settled upon the French during the Napoleanic era (with the frog-legs idea and the Paris coat-of-arms both tacked on as rationalizations)."

    I first saw that Auden line in my mom's copy of Fear of Flying when I was a teenager. Later, in college, I found it in context in The Dyer's Hand. If I remember right, the old crease-faced limey meant that you can't evaluate your own writing objectively when it's in longhand, because most people enjoy etc. Maybe so, but I continued to compose in longhand and type up the "finished" product. That's what I do even now.

    1. I only write in longhand when they're not a computer nearby. Invariably it looks horrible because I'm scrawling in a tiny notebook in an awkward position. The opposite might be the case for me -- I like my writing better when it's all prettified by the right font.

  3. The smell issue is what torpedoes my time-travel daydreams. I'd love to travel back to 18th century Paris, but the moment I stepped out of the time machine I'd likely pass out from the stench.

    1. Yes, we're not equipped, we're maladapted.

  4. There's a line in the Pavement song "Type Slowly" where Malkmus says, "Sherri, you smell different." I always loved that line. How true and how sad. When see someone you used to know and love and they smell different. So since hearing that song (maybe back in 1997) I've always associated smell with change. My wife and older son are allergic to cats and dogs so we have a hermit crab. We used to have three, but two of them died. There's this strange smell that crabs have: fishy but not scaly; more like the smell of a beach at low tide or something. And when you are in the boys' room, you can't smell it at all, but when you leave for a while and then come back, wham! that crab smell hits you. And I keep sniffing for a sign that the third and final one had died (despite our efforts to keep it alive). I wonder if the raw smell of two boys is what killed the other two.

    1. You just triggered a memory of going over to a friend's house when I was a kid, and snooping around her older brother's room, which was SO rank. such an intense teenage boy smell. he had stuff like Jolt Cola bottles lying around and other stuff I'd never seen, probably a porn stash and soft drugs....

  5. The last distinctive smell for me came Friday, when I spent the morning in two different doctor's appointments. That hospital smell reminded me of when my dad was in the hospital at Duke, fighting leukemia - not a great memory!

    The passage you cited really painted a vivid picture.

    1. I loathe the smell of hospitals.

    2. Although I've noticed how smells can bring back memories (flavors can too, probably because they're related to smells), there are only a couple of smells that evoke clear specific memories for me. One is the smell of gingerbread -- my grandma and grandpa's house, which always smelled of it when we first entered the house, whether or not Grandma had made any gingerbread recently.

      The other is patchouli, which reminds me especially (and pleasantly) of a particular person. I'll leave it at that...

      A couple of flavors that immediately time-travel me include strawberry ice cream (memories of eating ice cream outside in the winter -- there was a small cafe across from my grade school where they made their own ice cream); and sliced dill pickles that they serve with hamburgers in those small diners that have dwindled in number in recent decades (I immediately remember endless car trips to visit relatives in Iowa when I was a kid).

      I find the flip side happens a lot -- when I remember a time or place or a specific event, especially something from years ago, I quickly remember smells and flavors connected with it.

      The passage you've quoted here from Patrick Suskind made me think of the opening pages of Dickens' Bleak House -- I haven't read the book but I've sought out the book and reread the first few pages several times, because of its grim dark description of London.

      Among the things I'm reading and liking right now:

      Secret Traffic: Selected Poems by Roy McBride (just out this past month from Nodin Press). Roy McBride was a poet friend of many years here in Minneapolis. He published relatively little during his lifetime, though he was hugely popular here from his poetry readings and the community projects he got involved with.

      Elegies by Muriel Rukeyser, published this year by New Directions. It's a sequence of ten poems Rukeyser wrote during the 1930's and 1940's. The poems were published a few at a time in several of her books during those years, and the full sequence was published in a single volume by New Directions in 1949. The edition published this year is more or less a reprint of the 1949 book, with a present-day Introduction.

      And, reading A Degree of Mastery: A Journey Through Book Arts Apprenticeship by Annie Tremmel Wilcox (Penguin Books, 1999). This is more or less what it says, an account by the author of learning the art and skill of making and restoring/remaking books. It's written in a relaxed low-key style, with occasional passages of technical detail that I don't always follow exactly (descriptions of tools, details of the materials used in a book spine, etc.), and a pleasant good humor. I'm enjoying it, and finding it fascinating sometimes, for instance her description of making "lifting knives" out of a hacksaw blade, or the exacting process of washing paper to remove discoloration and deacidify it. That kind of thing.

      I've always written my poems longhand in a paper notebook. For many years I typed the finished poems (or as finished as they were going to get) on a portable manual typewriter. In recent years I've typed the finished poems on my computer with MS Word. But I still write by hand, longhand, on paper.

      It seems inconceivable to me to write poems on a computer. For me, it would affect my thought and perceptions so much that I likely would have trouble connecting with whatever that somewhat mysterious place is that poems seem to come from much of the time. Not to by mystical about it, only that after writing for 45 years I still don't feel I fully understand where poems actually "come from."

      Also, I find a paper notebook much more portable than a computer. It won't break if I drop it. It won't crash. I started keeping notebooks in early 1970, after I'd been writing poems for a little over a year. I still have all the original notebooks.

    3. A good friend of mine was recently devastated after losing her notebook while traveling, because she writes down everything in a notebook. In my estimation words need backups whether they're on paper or electronic. (I almost never take my laptop out of my apartment, but I also back up my files.)

      There are certain tastes I remember very clearly from my childhood. Some of them are in my post on the most memorable meals of my life.

    4. Notebooks--for poetry or diaristic woolgathering or introspection or doodling--are, like books and LPs, possessions which arouse affection. I've never loved a computer, laptop, iPod, flashdrive, or anything like that. I'd as lief love a fax machine.

    5. A couple of times over the years I've absent-mindedly left my poem notebooks somewhere, realized it later the same night, and got back to the place where I'd left them by the next evening. Although in each case the place where I left them was a public business (one was a used book store, the other was a coffee house), in both instances I was able to retrieve the notebooks. At the book store they were sitting on a shelf where I'd left them, and at the coffee house the owner (a friendly acquaintance) had found them and kept them up at the front counter for me when I came back later the next day.

      One other time, I left my notebook and a bunch of typed poems sitting somewhere for a few minutes (a crowded busy building), and when I came back they were gone. Maybe taken randomly by someone, or possibly tossed in a trash can, I have no idea, but gone gone. I still had the original handwritten copies of all the typed poems in the original notebooks at home, so over the next few days I retyped all of them. (Maybe 30 or 40 poems or something.)

      The notebook that vanished was one I had just recently started, and there were just two poems in it so far (of which the typed copies were also in the bundle that was gone), so just two poems I didn't have copies of. I was able to decipher one of them from the embossed impressions in the backing sheet I had used when I typed it on the manual typewriter. So in the end only one poem truly lost. This was many years ago, mid-1970's. Not devastated, though I might have been more so if I hadn't had copies of most of the poems.

      I backup all of the writing that I've got on my computer hard drive -- I print a paper copy, and I also keep a copy of my flash drive.

  6. That's a good idea. I don't do that.
    You remind me of when I was in William Matthews' workshop. One night I brought a notebook I'd filled with inarticulate jeremiads, fantasies and speculation about a raven-haired Jewish girl I lived with, sophomoric and derivative philosophizing, etc. (I was twenty-two.) Next morning I was horror-stricken to realize that I'd left the notebook on the couch where I'd been sitting. I rushed back to the U of Mich.'s "fishbowl" and found the notebook in my English-Dept. mailbox. Months later I was dating a girl in the workshop. She told me another workshopmate had scooped up my notebook and read practically the whole thing. "What did she think?" I asked, trying to sound breezy but feeling as though someone had raped my soul as it lay naked. "She said it was REALLY WEIRD--lots of weird stuff about Bill [Matthews]." I was, as C.K. Williams says, "taken with a terrible humiliation."