Poetry In Motion

amaterasu_cave

 

Spring air –
Woven moon
And plum scent.¤

 

Who should pop up on R4 the other morning but the great Juliet Stevenson, brought before the microphones to celebrate the Equinox She read Keats’s Ode to Autumn – beautifully, of course – said a few words, and was off. A casual, almost throw-away recital: It reminded me of Myra Hess’s lunch-time concerts during the War; Sarah Bernhardt or Lillie Langtry making brief appearances in barns and tents on the American frontier. It was just how a performance should be. A sudden splurge of splendour going up like a firework in the gloom; a few transient seconds of glamour and beauty in the darkness.

The Ode was a brief moment of uplift in a busy day. Poetry should illuminate the path, jolly us along, stimulate the ear and the brain. It presents emotions and situations in a certain way – a new way. Poetry offers revelations and, sometimes, solutions. Its pleasure should be taken for granted, easily and frankly like a music hall song. We needn’t wait for a poetry class or a formal recital  –  tags and lines and refrains can inspire and buck us up at any time, whether formally declaimed or just chuntered under your breath.

Now, doesn’t this sound remarkably like the role of perfume in life? A scent which may be startling, delicious, sprightly or hypnotic by turns but which seizes our attention and beguiles our senses. Price, value, composition and provenance really need not come into the matter. What’s vital is the sum of the thing: how the scent speaks to you, and how it affects your mind. Smell it, grab it, wear it. Stop analysing and start smelling. It’s like the sense of taste: quit taking those selfies of your dinner – eat it up!

When I was at school, aged ten or so, we had to learn a set poem weekly – “Home Thoughts From Abroad”, “Upon Westminster Bridge” and the like. No piece thrilled me much. All one’s energies and attention went into getting the thing into one’s noddle and then regurgitating the verses correctly, so as to avoid being snubbed by teacher in front of the precariously smug class. However, then as now, individual words, sounds and ideas of colour & smell caught the ear and excited the mind. The first line of Shakespeare that ever caught my fancy was Lady Macbeth’s wailing of the smell of blood and the perfumes of Arabia.

Presently one went up the school and a more enlightened schoolmistress got us writing haiku in lieu of learning other people’s masterpieces. That was kind of liberating – firstly because the haiku form is so short;  and because observing the 5-7-5 syllable structure made us far less self-conscious about what we were composing. We were too busy trying to make the thing ‘fit’.

I see now that the essence of the haiku is in its moment of generation; those ideas it evokes in the exhalation of a breath. There is no analysis, no set or intended meaning: all is sensation and emotion, a moment of observation and insight as clear but transient as a dew-drop. Sometimes you see something akin to this in the PR blurb written by French perfume houses: translated into English the evocations are meaningless and bathetic. In the original they have a certain haphazard poetry to them. Same like the haiku.

Here are two observations of an orchid, by Basho¤ and Buson¤¤ respectively:

Evening orchid-
The white of its flower
Hidden in its scent

Orchid –
Breathing incense
Into butterfly’s wings

Haiku can be not only surreally lovely but as droll, rude and scatalogical as a good limerick.

Issa¤¤¤, who lived a rather dreadful life of poverty and loss, wrote much about love and death but was also fascinated by the yowling of mating cats, bodily smells, soiled clothes & bedding, effluvia and excrement – “flies on the porridge…..piddle pattering down…the wild iris…”

Here’s another Basho haiku which smells both aspects of our fleeting existence:

In the garden
A sweaty shoe
Scent of chrysanthemum

You may take these two observations separately or link them as you will: but it’s true, chrysanthemums do have the sharp tang of perspiration to them. As Issa noted, they are redolent of tea, sake and urine. And here’s the typically ironic haiku paradox: they are also the Japanese national flower, quasi-sacred as they symbolise the Sun goddess Amaterasu-o-mi-kami, the divine ancestress of every Emperor. There have never been many chrysanthemum-based perfumes on the market. Maybe that’s because of this sour ambiguity and (in the West) the association of the flower with the dying of the year and hard-wearing funeral tributes.  The Crown Perfumery once did a little gem – I forget it’s name; it’s long time ago. Serge Lutens De Profundis – a ‘Paris Only’ Exclusive – is probably the one to seek out.

How often will a neophyte come to try a much-touted new scent and exclaim –

“But it smells of my father’s bike! – like a cement mixer – like cleaning the baby’s bath..”

And there you are: to her, the perfume is defined for ever, caught in a flash of perception like a spider in amber. You can explain about the ingredients till you are blue in the face but it is the customer’s instantaneous and unique characterisation which is so striking: much more interesting than praising the quality of the jasmine oils. An integral part of haiku language is the use of an exclamation to punctuate a line  – “ah!” – “o!” – “but!” – “pop!”. How rewarding and fascinating to hear these gasps and squeals at the shop as one reveals the latest treasure.

Ise’s shrine –
What tree can give
Such perfume?¤

¤ Matsuo Basho 1644-1694; translations by Lucien Stryk

¤¤ Yosa Buson 1716 – 1784; translation by Stephen Addiss

¤¤¤  Kobayashi Issa 1763-1827; translations by Lewis Mackenzie.

Out + About

Let me recommend a really good comical read; no longer in the shops but undoubtedly out there on Amazon: the works of Betty Macdonald, author of The Egg and I + that anecdotal account of the Great Depression “Anybody Can Do Anything”. In the latter she describes the morning commute on the Seattle street-car: a woman wearing a coat that looked “as though she’d dipped a collie in water + slung it round her neck”; and inhales the “crowded morning smells of wet raincoats, hard-boiled egg sandwiches, bad breath and perfume”.

Anybody Can Do Anything

Some of our most memorable encounters with scent are fleeting olfactory glances in the street: I remember a Nile cruise in 1992 and disembarking at a midnight Luxor to find the wharf in a blue cloud of the scent of the moment, Volupte. Yesterday’s sprint into M + S (I only wanted the loo) was enlivened by a waft of Youth Dew insinuating itself through the main doors: like running into an old childhood friend. And remember poor old Al Pacino bewitched by Caron‘s immortal Fleurs de Rocaille in the movie “Scent of a Woman”?

The moral maze: if you are bewitched by a passing scent, should you stop the wearer and say something? I mean: should you praise, or enquire? Most women ( and men too for that matter) love to be asked: whether they will give you a truthful answer is another matter. My mother was a great ambassador for Serge Lutens‘ pearly jasmine masterpiece A la Nuit, attracting attention with it wherever she went…but she could never remember the name. Others prefer to keep their own secret and will fob off the questioner with temporary memory loss or deliberate misinformation. I love the way that perfume encountered on the wing can spring a surprise and alter your whole perception of a scent. Chance encounters with two very famous but tricky scents metamorphosed for me in a magical and unexpected manner that stays with me still: a beautiful mahagony-haired girl in black fur and Samsara buying postcards at the National Gallery about 12 years ago. And even more distant but just as bewitching, a trail of Chanel No 5 wafting across the stalls at an otherwise uninspired afternoon at the ballet, traced to a pair of honey-tanned shoulders above white linen.

My favourite anecdote is of Frederic Malle‘s pre-launch testing of Musc Ravageur: famously, he sent out his P.A. sprayed with the prototype and found her pursued on the Metro like a vixen by hounds. Paris had voted on her feet: formula confirmed!

Image from Amazon.co.uk

The loveliness of Queen Alexandra

Queen Alexandra the Princess of Wales

I belong to that generation who in infancy heard a great deal about Alexandra of Denmark from people who still remembered her huge blue eyes, her bewitching smile and incomparable charm which miraculously project even today from cinema newsreels of 100 years ago. Some of us might go so far as to observe that Prince William’s looks are inherited as much from his paternal gt gt gt grandmother as from his mother. Alexandra rivals even the late Princess of Wales and Elizabeth the Queen Mother in the British royal popularity ratings on account of the conventions of her day setting her slightly apart from her subjects: there was no hugging, weeping, betting or gin and Dubonnet to encourage a woman-to-woman mateyness. Alexandra was ethereal, elusive, remote and revered; yet she projected such warmth, sympathy and grace coupled with flirtatious caprice and vibrant feminity as to make her adored though untouchable.

She dressed to please herself, pinning Orders and crown jewels on at random wherever they suited her best, regardless of protocol. Her fans and accessories were ordered from Carl Faberge; she was famously slim and diet-conscious in a very porky age. But how did the divine Alexandra smell? Alexandra Rose Day, founded in her old age commemorated her love of that flower and Floris supplied both her and her husband’s mistress, Mrs Keppel with their Red Rose. Long discontinued, this was a magnificently petally, velvety, deep soft rose which had as great an influence on rose scents in its time as Malle’s Une Rose in the 21st century. Ladies of Alexandra’s day were considered to be flower-like in their delicacy, their sensibility and fragility – they should be scented like blossoms, avoiding the coarse actressy voluptuousness of musk, civet and amber. A faint odour of flowers should emanate from their clothes, laid up in fresh lavender, rather from their bodies: colognes and toilet waters were still applied to handkerchiefs rather than to the skin or the hair, a practice still considered “fast” – a useful and telling word long since obsolete, alas.

Queen Alexandra would have been well aware of Grossmith’s best-selling perfumes, recently revived this century in their old splendour – Phul Nana, Shem El Nessim and Hasu no Hana. Her daughter-in-law (the future Queen Mary) wore Grossmith’s Bridal Bouquet to her own wedding – an occasion on which it was noted that Alexandra looked lovelier than the bride. Houbigant, Guerlain and Piver would have been familiar names to her. She lived long enough to smell Chanel No 5 and the baroque splendours of Caron even if she was too much of a Victorian to have worn them. But after the rose, the flower most traditionally associated with Alexandra is the violet – in the style of her day she pinned huge corsages of them to her clothes, carried bouquets of them in public and incorporated velvet and silk violets in her toques – the convention of royal ladies not obscuring their faces by wide brimmed head gear being already well established. Besides, as her mother-in-law Queen Victoria waspishly observed, “Darling Alix has the tiniest head I have ever seen” so that Alexandra was well aware of the flattering appearance of small, high turbans. She moved in a mist of Parma violet cologne, sheer silks and lace,the perfection of Edwardian womanhood.

Her rooms at Sandringham and Buckingham palace were crammed with roses, violets and azaleas. Faberge also recreated her favourite plants in crystal, gold and precious stones. Her favourite floral scents would have scented her gloves and rice powder for the face. I wonder whether this well-known fascination of the nation’s favourite old lady (she died at 80 in 1925) for these fragrances led to them for so long after her death to be considered old-fashioned and demode. And then quite suddenly, around ten years ago, the tide turned again and rose and violet perfumes came back, firstly via the niche perfumers and then amongst the commercial houses. One of the most opulent and most artful is Lipstick Rose, in the Malle collection – here Ralf Schwieger triumphantly updates the accord, introducing a violet-rose perfume with fruity aldehydic notes of immense vibrancy and panache, but still displaying a retro powderiness and floral poignancy that is the quintessence of Alexandra.

Image from Wikipedia

Happy The Bride

Bridal Bouquets, Perfumes for Brides

Consider the flowers you will be carrying and the bouquet: do you wish to team your scent with these or to complement them with your perfume?

If you are planning to marry this spring or summer it is by no means too soon to start thinking about what fragrance you intend to wear on the Day of Days: as we have observed before, one of the most important factors in choosing a new scent is to allow ample time. For your wedding the final choice to be absolutely spot on: your perfume will be as important as the dress and your hair, and so here are a few hints and tips to enable you to find the perfect scent.

1. However lovely the scent may be, remember that the bride is the star of the show, not her fragrance. Her scent must frame her, enhance her, empower her – not overwhelm or distract attention. Never choose a novelty scent or something “amusing” or garish for the wedding day.

2. Match the perfume to the style of the wedding: are you inviting 1000 guests to a cathedral or 6 intimate friends to your garden or registry office? Your dress: a satin crinoline and Chantilly lace veil or cotton frock?

3. Leading on from the above: will you be changing between ceremony and reception? or after the reception for another evening function? Do you therefore require more than one scent?

4. Are you searching for a special scent just to be worn for the wedding day and perhaps reserved thereafter for anniversaries and very special sentimental occasions? Or are you celebrating the beginning of a new life by inaugurating a new signature scent?

5. What season/climate are you marrying in? What are your expectations of the temperature and the weather? Remember that the scent of perfume will swell in warmer weather and diminish in cold.

6. Secure samples of all likely choices to try out for a day or two: this you be doing in any case with all perfume purchases but for your wedding day you must ensure that the perfume you wear will be absolutely right: you should feel completely comfortable in it. It must make you feel marvellous and with no reservations whatsoever.

7. Consider the flowers you will be carrying and the bouquet: do you wish to team your scent with these or to complement them with your perfume?

8. Make the perfume your own choice. Take advice from friends by all means – then ignore it. I honestly believe that everyone is better to shop for perfume ALONE, without those well meant recommendations and hints of your nearest and dearest. Take time out for yourself and shop in thoughtful peace and quiet, with the help of an expert.

9. Within reasonable limits, choose a perfume with good lasting power and tenacity – you need a scent that will last well without repeated applications. Failing this, select a scent which is available in small bottles so that you can secrete one about your person during the celebrations.

10. Avoid olfactory clashes with bridesmaids and groom! The bride has the starring role: everyone else in her retinue should “dress down”.

Image from Flowersbydesign.net