“A dunghill at a distance sometimes smells like musk, and a dead dog like elder flowers.”
–Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Notebooks
It’s a bright morning in early May. I leash Chester, our border collie, and head south on Louisiana Avenue, the street empty of other pedestrians. We take a desultory pace, like an old couple out for a stroll. Leash looped around my forearm, I look up, watching for birds, while Chester sticks to the lawn strip with his head down, occasionally stopping to cock his leg. His eyes are focused on the grass a few feet ahead, but absently; all attention is clearly concentrated in his nasal cavity. A thick stand of clover, the lower branches of a holly tree, and a wax-paper sandwich wrapper offer absorbing subjects for inspection.
Not everything draws his nose. After last night’s rain, the white azalea bush is heavy as cake frosting, its perfume thick. But it does not pertain to him. Likewise, the sweet smell of hops from the Budweiser Brewery, a lawn mower’s clippings, and gasoline sloshed on the curb are olfactory background to be filtered out. He sifts the world for relevant signs.
Predictably, traces of urine and old turds are Chester’s expertise: he examines each stain as if under a glass slide. Although I may catch a whiff of ammonia and lilac in cat piss, or yeast and jasmine in dog feces, expressive variety is lost on me. But a dog’s nasal membranes, the size of a handkerchief unfurled, allow for subtle gradations and recognitions of what has passed.
It’s a quiet, local gossip. Surely this trace was left by Poncho, Mr. Hubbard’s dog, got loose again and ambling up and down the block, in a quandary as to how to spend his freedom. Beyond where and when, the trace may carry somatic information of infection, unhappiness, or a full belly. Insides are out, nothing is private. When Chester inhales, or touches his tongue to a dried droplet on a violet leaf, the outside is in again.
Smell and taste differ radically from vision and hearing in conveyance. Whereas the latter are stimulated by energetic phenomena, smells are carried by plumes of particulate matter on air currents, dispersing as the air stirs. As matter blown apart, smells invade our sensorium and adhere. Apart from our shame or revulsion, smell is in this respect more intimate than sight or hearing, closer to touch. It stirs wants and fears beneath what the eye can see or intellect discern.
“Is it even possible to think of somebody in the past?” the writer Aidan Higgins asks. The source may be long gone; the dog that ambled by at noon sleeps on a chair. Yet its smell remains a palpable presence. We are so accustomed to the certainties of sight that olfaction baffles time. It ripples through the world like books or dreams.
From an open window, the smell of pine cleanser rides a wave of cooler air onto the sidewalk. Following an etymological trail, I find that the world smell relates to the Slavic smola, which means “resin” or “pitch.” Pine has long been a demonifuge, driving away evil spirits with purifying smoke. Household cleaning products, household gods.
If sight is evidential (I saw it with my own eyes), smell moves us closer to essences. I have known some people who exude the scent of chlorine or vanilla with sweat, a faint but indelible association. In Greek thought, an inner fire distills essences from the more volatile portion of a being. As Herakleitos writes, “the stuff of the psyche is a smoke-like substance of finest particles that gives rise to all other things; its particles are of less mass than any other substance and it is constantly in motion.” Somewhat more mysteriously, he adds, “In Hades psyches perceive each other by smell alone.” For the Greeks, bodily odors and breath carry the effluvia of essence, undiminished while the organism lives, the sole continuity of the psyche when it dies. They burnt offerings, making taste and smell primary to their experience of divinity. Such was the case with most of the ancient world, from Han to Heliopolis. In Exodus, the Lord goes so far as to give Moses a detailed recipe for incense, promising to meet him in the smoke.
Perfume emerged as a variation on incense, per fume meaning “by smoke.” Yet applied to the body, it assumed increasingly erotic associations. A rose, eros. “A bundle of myrrh is my beloved to me,” the poet writes in the Song of Solomon; “Whenas the meanest part of her, / Smells like the maiden-Pomander,” Robert Herrick claims of Lady Abdy. Perfumes both mask and amplify the pheromones, carrying hints of something vaguely urinous. The bass notes of many perfumes have drawn from the bowels of sperm whales and civets or the glands of Himalayan musk deer. Walking into any steak house, one could detect the steroidal odors of exotic creatures on both men and women; only the human is forbidden. Beneath the light and quick scent of hyacinth, sage, cinnamon, or sandalwood, a warm animal smell lingers.
Human olfaction is full of such preoccupations, deflections, and echoes. We have little language proper to smell, only makeshift analogies that take on currency through volatility. On my daily walks, pipe tobacco from a screened porch recalls pot roast, and I find that nitrogen is a prominent element in each. As I pass The Blackthorn, its beery floor brings to mind cheddar cheese, and diacetyl may be the shared compound. But such links hardly amount to a system of classification or taxonomy. Confronted by an airplane glue I might say “unguent” or, synesthetically, “aluminum”; whether these are circumstantial or chemical associations I cannot say.
In the vast dark of olfaction, only cooking, wine, and perfume are illuminated by science as well as intuition. Yet even in these fields, characterizations remain empirical and exploratory. The scientist Luca Turin has described one perfume as “brilliant, at once edible (chocolate) and refreshingly toxic (caspirene, coumarin).” Perfumery is replete with such oxymorons intended to project social desire, a devil for every angel. For wines, most descriptors are suffixed nouns: buttery, grassy, oaky, earthy. Like the painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo, the wine connoisseur fabricates composite portraits from flowers, fruits, and vegetables. We do not find ourselves in an order of things but rather in a constellation of metaphors.
Each person accretes a private concordance of olfactory associations over the course of a lifetime. The resemblances are unstable, often sparked by emotional resonance and secondary associations. In this respect, smell is tightly woven into the fabric of consciousness. At some depth, our notions of the world must be founded on odors–a familiar world of milk, sweat, skin, and detergents–from before the eyes could focus.
The poet Robert Duncan writes of butterflies “in warm currents of news floating, / flitting into areas of aroma, / tracing out of air unseen roots and branches of sense / I share in thought.” Aromas have their own argot, a chemical code that triggers unconscious impulses in the nervous system. I get the news with each inhalation but have few words for it. We know more than we know but have no means to measure the extent of our participation in the world.
In literature, smell and taste often stand in for the mute fact of lived experience. Though I cannot verify the claim, I suspect that the chemical senses can be found most often in works of autobiography or memoir. Marcel Proust, after all, wrote thousands of pages on the flavor of a petit madeleine soaking in tea and what memories it evokes. The taste and its associations are inextricable yet ultimately incommunicable. As Proust writes, “The past is hidden somewhere outside the realm, beyond the reach of intellect, in some material object (in the sensation which that material object will give us) of which we have no inkling.” In A Remembrance of Things Past, as in a great many books, odors come to us from a lost world with sad voluptuousness. Each taste or smell bears no substitute, enters no general currency, but longs for a more perfect articulation. In melancholic reverie, we want no approximations of what we love.
I am reminded of a passage in Basil Bunting’s poem “Briggflatts,” subtitled “an autobiography,” in which he enumerates the pleasures of the senses. Taste comes first in the list, followed by sound and touch:
It tastes good, garlic and salt in it,
with the half-sweet white wine of Orvieto
on scanty grass under great trees
where the ramparts cuddle Lucca.
The intimacy of taste sympathetically encourages an intimacy in the language, resulting in the apt but unexpected word “cuddle” applied to city fortifications. Yet at the end of this list, sight introduces a gap of self-consciousness that can never be mended:
It looks well on the page, but never
well enough. Something is lost
when wind, sun, sea upbraid
justly an unconvinced deserter.
Looking and writing are sure but distancing, Bunting suggests. We abandon full participation in sensual experience for its representation. According to the poem, “something” lost may be the smell of burning applewood or the twitter of a lark; meanwhile, the mason’s chisel “spells a name / naming none, / a man abolished.”
“Briggflatts” records a counterpoint or argument between the senses, each of which accords differently with time. Doubtless we carry time with us, each cell a tiny clock. Yet the experience of it comes to us in plumes, waves, particles, and through impulses of the nervous system. A bull chases hurdling shadows (sight), knots of applewood smolder all day (smell), pulse determines pace (touch), and a wagon rattles in polyrhythm:
harness mutter to shaft,
felloe to axle squeak,
rut thud the rim,
In these various senses of duration, animals figure prominently, a bestiary of bull, lark, vulture, cormorant, slow-worm, tortoise, starfish, hermit crab, salmon, bass, rat, bear, and border collie. To test the amplitude of time beyond human scale, creatures are enlisted as emissaries of the senses. At high altitude, ocean depths, or close to the earth, they enact modes of attention. If anthropomorphism interprets the world in human terms, we can with patience arrive at its inversion: not humanizing but creaturely.
It’s a warm evening in early June. As we walk south on Louisiana Avenue, Chester catches the scent of something–who knows what–upwind: his nose tilts into the air, nostrils flaring, accurate lips slightly parted. Meanwhile, I watch the sky for birds. Above Roosevelt High, a pair of red-tailed hawks spiral on updrafts into the clouds. A starling trails behind them, hectoring the male with jabs at its slick fan of tail feathers. But having made its point, or simply half-hearted, the starling soon descends. As the world pours away, the hawks enter silence and damp air. Loose and indifferent, their wheeling dilates with ascent; aloof and aloft, they are all eyes. The sun’s lost to me behind roofs of houses, the whole street filled with shadow. But a thousand feet up, the sun must ride the tree line of Tower Grove Park, daylight for a quarter-hour more. Though witness to each other, our days are not the same.
(Turtle Point Press ISBN 978-1-933527-22-2)