ON LEARNING THE ALPHABET OF SCENT AND INTENTION
A is for
alone, which is how you have to learn to understand perfume, eventually, even if someone gives you a copy of the indispensable Perfumes: The A-Z Guide by Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez as my husband, Martin, did for me on my 30th birthday. As these authors note,
A, too, is for
alphabet. As the title suggests, one can learn one's perfume ABCs, and probably should. But educated or not, only you can tell for sure that you know what something smells like, both to and on you, and only you can gain comfort in describing smells with confidence. Nobody else can say that you are right or that you've finally "gotten" it—in this regard, learning about perfume can be a bit like learning to read: a teacher can help, but only you can sense for certain that moment when art versus apt comes into clarity, or boy versus buoy, or cat versus cut, and so on through the letters.
And A is for
aldehyde, one of many pieces of polysyllabic nomenclature you will learn if you let yourself start getting into perfume. The German chemist Justus von Liebig coined the portmanteau in the 1800s: a contraction of the Latin for "dehydrogenated alcohol." But it was Ernest Beaux in 1921 who used synthetic aldehydes in tandem with a floral structure to create Chanel No. 5, the first great modernist masterpiece of fragrance.
B is for
Beth, my middle sister, three years younger and my very best friend. We used to share a room, and when we were small and traveling as a family we'd share a bed. I always felt reassured by having her near, specifically by smelling her. She would usually fall asleep first, and I would lean over to sniff her hair, her scalp. She remains one of the best-smelling people in the world to me.
C is for
conscious consumption, something you're doing if you're consuming perfume. It's a luxury, yes, but it's also a community. You can buy it as a commodity, but you can also swap and share and gift it. Smells are like weather, around you all the time, but they are also a secret knowledge and you can, if you want, choose to get initiated.
D is for
dominance and D is for difference, two kinds of feminism I wish I'd learned the distinction between earlier. I identified as a feminist at a very young age—like, eight—but for years I believed that the optimal way for women to be "equal" was to try to be "the same" as men. This meant a rejection of all things "girly"—dresses and sensitivity and you'd better believe perfume. In junior high, when all of the girls on the first day of gym class received our welcome-to-seventh-grade-here's-the-kind-of-shopper-you-should-be-based-on-your-gender package, it came with, among other things, a sample of the ridiculous and powdery pink Love's Baby Soft perfume. I was torn, secretly, between wanting to throw it away immediately and wanting to hoard it forever.
E is for
exhaust from the tailpipe of a truck, a huge blue pickup, my dad's enormous Chevy, death-starring its way over Nebraska dirt roads on the way to visit our rural relatives, German shorthaired pointers in the flatbed and rifles under the seat and me and my little sisters in the back, faces to the glass, spotting birds—pheasant, mostly, sometimes quail—in the roadside ditches so he could shoot them from the window, not wanting to abet in their feathery murder, but craving fatherly praise for having a keen eye, for being brave and not squeamish, for picking out the life in a dead-looking winter landscape. Maybe that is why, these days, one of my favorite perfumes is Balenciaga's Paris, a fragrance of ambivalence: violets and gasoline.
F is for
fruity and floral and feminine.
F is for
the fear and rejection thereof, learned in my family and learned from religion.
And F is for
fuchsia, a color brought up during a conversation I had last month with my mother. It was my birthday phone call—I was turning 33. My mom had to excuse herself temporarily because someone had come to her suburban door. When she returned to the line, I asked who it was, and she told me it had been a political canvasser, the challenger candidate for mayor in my hometown of Woodridge, Illinois. The long-time mayor was resigning after almost a quarter century of service, and the guy who'd just rang was the opponent to the long-time mayor's hand-picked successor, a woman. Excited, I asked my mom who she thought she'd be voting for, figuring she'd say the woman, because the long-time mayor had done a decent job, so why not pick his candidate? But my mom is the kind of person who will say, as she did to me that day, that she might not vote for the hand-picked successor because her signs are "so girly." "They're fuchsia with lavender script—this handwriting font," she said, annoyed and disdainful. "They look more like they're for a high school student council than for anything serious." My mom and I disagree often, and I try to pick my battles, but I had to say "Mom, you would honestly not vote for her because her signs are feminine? But you would consider voting for her if she were behaving more like a man?" Here, she backpedaled, saying her reluctance was about professionalism, not masculinity. But that attitude is what I grew up with. A house of three female children, all encouraged—explicitly and implicitly—to avoid being too female. When I visited my parents later that month, on Saint Patrick's Day, they had signs for the guy candidate staked in the yard.
But F is also for
fuck that because I love perfume and I love being female, and now, at last, I can love them both openly. It took me 30 years, but I got here.
G is for
Guerlain, the French perfume house founded in 1828, one of the oldest in the world. They are the makers of one of my favorite perfumes: L'Heure Bleue, named after the blue hour, aka twilight. Created in 1912, L'Heure Bleue is a floral oriental fragrance that smells like almonds and orange blossoms and anise-seed pastries, if those smells could also be dusky and melancholic. The scent is dusty and rare, even slightly medicinal, and the description from the Guerlain website is not to be missed: "One summer evening, Jacques Guerlain was overcome by intense turmoil. It was the suspended hour, the hour when the sky has lost its sun but not yet found its stars. Everything in nature is clothed in a blue light." I've been told that this perfume is a difficult one to wear, but I love it on paper and I love it on me. If someone doesn't personally like this perfume, that's okay, I get it—it's "old" smelling. I have a bias toward the historic as opposed to the modern, and this perfume feels like space-time travel: one spritz and I'm in Paris before the Great War. But you'd have to have a heart of stone not to admire the story of its creation, or the craftsmanship involved in its formulation, which is exquisite. To dismiss L'Heure Bleue would be like dismissing Shakespeare or Mozart or even Monet.
H is for
head cold and how having a bad one makes me feel desperate and disoriented because I cannot smell—heavenly scents or hideous—and I fear each time that I will never get that sense back, though I always do.
I is for
interactive, which perfume decidedly is, as was The Art of Scent exhibit that my friend Abby and I went to see last December when we were in New York. Curated by Chandler Burr at the Museum of Arts and Design, this show was the first ever to explore the craft of perfume. According to Holly Hotchner, "At MAD, we are always looking to push boundaries and question the hierarchies in art by exploring the materials and processes behind groundbreaking work. There has not been the exploration or recognition of olfactory art as there has been of art that stimulates the other four senses." Abby and I proceeded around the spare white room, sticking our heads into sniffing stations embedded in the walls. Pneumatic machines exhaled the scents in intensely saturated streams of air, as opposed to commercial presentations that make use of alcohol. In this way, we could have what the show called "a more concentrated scent experience," smelling the displays without making ourselves smell.
J is for
jasmine, the loudest smell, to me, in Kim Kardashian by Kim Kardashian, an audacious white floral with tuberose and gardenia screaming almost as piercingly. I got to smell it in a class I was teaching on the figure of the fallen woman in English literature. One of my students, Kristen, knew that I liked perfume and mentioned, during her Powerpoint on models and celebrity, that she had just gotten a bottle. She offered a spritz to anyone who was interested, though there were surprisingly few takers. I mentioned how Virginia Woolf had written of her fellow author Katherine Mansfield that she "stank like a civet cat that has taken to street walking." Then I let Kristen spray me, figuring it was a smell aide instead of a visual one: a smisual aide, if you will. While Kim Kardashian is nothing I'd normally wear, it was fun to ride the train home that night feeling so uncharacteristically voluptuous—like I'd accidentally splashed myself with cheap and sexy apricot juice while frolicking in some psychotic boudoir.
K is for
Kant, Immanuel, the 18th century German philosopher who wrote, among other things, The Critique of Judgment. In it, he allows that while "beauty" and "sublimity" are subjective, if you decide that something is "beautiful" or "sublime," you will very much desire that other people agree. Per Kant, if you're able to cultivate good taste, then you become able to contemplate any object that is worthy of contemplation by way of something he called the free play of the imagination and the understanding. Naturally, you'll also want friends who possess a similar capacity. For me, my best perfume friend has been my writing partner and perfume genius Elisa Gabbert. When I was finally ready, at age 30, to start letting myself try perfume, she was right there with the invaluable recommendations.
L is for
Lynch, David, who says, "Detectives are the best characters because mysteries are the greatest thing." Perfume infuses everyday life with mystery—a secret passageway, a hidden staircase of smell, a cryptogram in need of deciphering—and casts you as the detective always with another new case to crack.
M is for
Mitsouko by Guerlain, a fruity chypre with a spicy base created in 1919, and named after the heroine of Claude Farrère's Russo-Japanese War novel La bataille, or The Battle. I discovered a vintage bottle of the discontinued Eau de Cologne version in an antique store in New Glarus, Wisconsin among all the cheap-o Avon dregs. I got it for five dollars—a total score—but I did not get merely the perfume and the bottle. I got, as with many passionately pursued hobbies, the thrill of the hunt and the satisfaction of the catch. And I have, because of this hobby, a constant sense of searching and purpose—you never know what wonders might be hiding on the grimy shelf of the next junk shop booth.
N is for Nostalgia
and how a given smell can seem nostalgic even at its onset, so closely is the sense of smell linked with memory. This instant longing for the past even in the moment of initial encounter is typified for me in Traversée du Bosphore, a perfume I received for my most recent birthday.
O is for
olfactory associations and how they often defy what might be called logic. How they can give body to what might be called intuition. Smells that I somewhat irrationally love are skunks, alfalfa fields on humid nights, and cool damp basements in the summertime, as well as birthday candles that have just been blown out, which I always associate with the smell of ghosts.
P is for poetry
and one of my favorite definitions thereof by Todd Swift: "Poetry is any use of language that somehow exceeds sense with strangeness and style." Smells are elusive, hard to locate even when you know what to look for, and also so complex that you cannot comprehend their entirety in one encounter—a whiff, a sniff, a huff, a puff. Like a poem, a scent has sense, makes sense, but also surpasses it.
Q is for
quiet camaraderie, which I often feel with my fellow perfume-wearers when I am able to recognize a stranger's fragrance as they pass me on the subway. In The A-Z Guide, Sanchez describes the fruity patchouli Angel by Thierry Mugler as "a joke" but a "perverse, brilliant" one "with the same relation to your average sweet floral as the ten-story-high demonic Stay Puft Marshmallow Man from Ghostbusters to your average fireside toasted sweet." It is a joke that I appreciate being in on whether I am wearing it and someone identifies it on me, or I do the same to someone else. I like the silent satisfaction of walking down the street and knowing that the guy who just passed is wearing Viktor and Rolf's Spicebomb, which comes in an absurd grenade-shaped bottle, because I happen to be wearing it too.
R is for
really not knowing what I smell like, but wishing that I could. But just as it's almost impossible to tickle yourself, so too is it almost impossible to smell yourself. Or at least it's almost impossible for me. Once, I asked Martin (who happens to be one of the most wonderful-smelling people on earth) what he thinks I smell like and he said, "dryland herbs being lightly crushed under the hooves of a juvenile bighorn sheep." Then he added, "To be clear, you smell like the herbs, not the sheep. I just added the sheep because the herbs needed to be crushed by something." I've had other people tell me I smell "clean" and like "cut grass" or "green plants," so he seems to be onto something. Also, typically, green scents don't work well on me, so maybe that's partly because I'm already "green."
S is for
smell as sentiment, but not sentimentality, and S is for Shalimar and Shoulders, White, my mother's scents, which smell beautiful on her, but incorrect on me.
T is for
Toucan Sam, cartoon mascot of Kellogg's Froot Loops, forever suggesting that you "Follow your nose! It always knows," which is excellent advice, except when your nose doesn't know, and then everything is terrible. Recently, I came down with a vicious rhinovirus and it caused me to have zero sense of smell for approximately 48 hours, which threw me into a listless drift of despair. I had had colds before where I could barely smell anything, but this was unparalleled: like, stick your head in the trash and smell nothing. Stick your nose over a bottle of acetone and nothing. Chop an onion and nothing. It was horrible and uncanny.
U is for
used to—I used to think that gray hair smelled like smoke—and U is for unisex, which a lot of good perfumes are. Martin and I got each other a shared bottle of Vetiver Fatale this most recent Valentine's Day and it works on both of us.
V is for
vegetarian, which I have been for 18 years, but I still like meat smells: backyard barbecues, chicken soup at my grandparents' house, or pork roast at my parents, hotdog stands and hamburger grills and the smoky sweet-and-savoriness of summer BLTs.
W is for
weirdo, and stealthily acting like one, walking around after a smelling spree where I divided my arms into three sections each and visited Saks and Nieman's and even Barney's, which means sniffing my own skin every few minutes to see how things are faring, which ones I like and which must be washed off post-haste.
X is for
extra-specialized vocabulary which I love to cultivate: EdP, EdT, and EdC; top, middle, and base notes; olfactive families like Oriental, Fougère, Bright Floral, Green, Gourmand and on and on. To love perfume is to be a cataloguer of the esoteric, and to read reviews in which smells get described as blown-out speakers, metallic honey, neo-brutalist, a still life of scents, a Barbie doll wearing a tiny leather vest, or this sensation of being in a very old building, reading poetry written on musty vellum.
Y is for
you and that's who perfume is for, ultimately: yourself. Perfume is a way to liven up the commonplace and add texture to the banal. It provides a new means of experiencing your body, your environment, your brain, your life: the incense in the church, the woodsmoke in the air on a crisp winter night, the whiskey in your grandfather's glass of iced tea, the reverberation in the ozone after the thunder.
Z is for
Zephyrus, a puff-cheeked drawing of the Western Wind in a book of stories my parents used to read to my sisters and me.
I dedicate this piece to my collaborative poetry writing partner Elisa Gabbert without whom I'd never have gotten into perfume, and whose perfume reviews are brilliant, as you can see [here] and [here]