Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Book of Scented Things

When the curators of The Book of Scented Things initially contacted me about their upcoming book, I immediately said yes, expecting a reference book of sorts, with poems by Rumi and Baudlaire. Wouldn't it be nice to have all these poetic quotes under one's fingertips?

A couple of weeks later, a book arrived in my mailbox. A mat-black paperback, with a texture reminiscent of faux nubok. As I was leafing through the pages, I realized right away that I could have not been any more wrong about this anthology. It has exceeded my expectations, and not only because the element of surprise. This book is an unusual collaborative project of 100 poems written by 100 American poets, and inspired by 98 different perfumes selected carefully for each (except for one). Jehanne Dubrow and Lindsay Lusby are the editors - but I feel that the title "editors" does not describe what they've done as well as the word "curators". They have selected a fragrance for each one of the poets, based on their life experience and poetic obsessions (often interrelated), and sent it to them in the mail, to spark a response in the form of a poem. The result is a most unusual collection of poems - some thoughtful, some full of emotion, others very personal and enigmatic, while others read like a perfume review.
 There are many ways to approach the book and read these poems. But inevitably, I feel that many of the poems can't stand alone without knowing what perfume inspired them, and preferably having smelled it before. This is both an advantage and a disadvantage. It definitely makes it more intriguing for perfumistas to read such a book, and cross-reference it to their own experience. Some might even make the reading into a bit of a game - guess which scent inspired the poem (and find the answers at the end of the book). Some might find that knowledge to spoil the mystique of the poems themselves. One thing is for certain - it gets you thinking about the relationship between the muse (in this case - the perfume) and the poet.

As to be expected from an anthology of such breadth, it is quite diverse. The book begins with poems that are rather cerebral, exploring the meaning of scent, and relating to the peculiar experience of anticipating the arrival of a scent in the mail. With titles such as "On His Reluctance to Contribute to This Book" or "Receiving a Perfume Vial in the Mail" - the book stroked me as being too cerebral and specific to perfumistas at first glance. I hope that I will be proven wrong, as nothing would make me happier than knowing that a book like this encouraged readers to explore perfumes beyond the fragrance counter.

Which brings me to another topic - the selection of fragrances themselves. There seems to be a common thread among the perfumes chosen, and that common thread is very many scents coming from the same handful of brands. My guess is that because many of these scents have a rather simple, unassuming name, they would create a more neutral canvass upon which pure emotions can be extracted (rather than preconceived notions about the tone, intention, feelings, etc. that some names are more likely to invoke). You'll find plenty of fragrances that simply have a name of an ingredient or two (or three) in there - with a predominance of fragrances from Jo Malone. I highly doubt it had anything to do with sponsorship or with affiliation; but more so with the seeming neutrality that such plain names such as "Nectarine Blossom & Honey", "Blackberry & Bay" or even "Oud Wood". The few exceptions to this rule were "Narcisse Noir", "Ophelia" and "Oranges and Lemons Say the Bells of St. Clement's" - which almost reads like a poem without any additional help... A pleasant surprise was seeing several poems inspired by the wonderful work of my colleague Charna Ethier of Providence Perfumes.

I've been savouring these poems throughout the summer, and can't say I have read more than 25% of the poems. I'm enjoying the process of putting together the little pieces - which poem belongs to which perfume. And I'm reading them in no particular order that would make sense to anyone. Some have intriguing titles; while others I've picked because they were inspired by a perfume that I really like.

I could not help but notice that it was itself scented. A subtle scent of violets mingled with leather and an abstract representation of ink. That alone is enough to win my heart.

Read other reviews of this anthology on Bois de Jasmin and Sabotage Reviews. It is due to come out in October, and will be available via and

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At October 20, 2014 9:23 AM, Blogger Charna said...

Thank you Ayala! My copy of the book is sadly unscented :( As always I appreciate your sisterhood and generosity.
xoxo Charna


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