Tuesday, September 30, 2008


I'm going offline for a day or two. The Benevolent Cosmos--in collaboration with Dave and Southwest Airlines--has arranged for me to escape to Chicago. I expect to see an old friend and lots of art. There may be sniffage involved. I'll see you when I get back. Meanwhile, there's a new post at Turn Outward.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Bring Out Your Dead: Maja, Myrurgia

Yes, I know, strictly speaking Maja is still alive, but the near-criminal reformulation inflicted on it a few years ago has killed it for me, so it makes my roster of the departed.

Maja, for those not lucky enough to have known it in its original state, was a rich, spicy floral. It was one of those perfectly blended wonders that is difficult to describe, but Dioressence comes darn close to being its twin. Maja was just a bit deeper, with distinct carnation and green notes and touch of vetiver in the base. Its tweaked personality is a drastic change, modern and cold in all the places where the original was warm and sensual. Today's Maja is a thin swill that one Basenotes reviewer aptly compared to cheap aftershave.

Maja was launched in 1921, and I have no idea whether it ever had a life as a luxury scent. By the time I came across it in the 1970s it was a drugstore standard, inexpensive but acceptable in polite company, like Emeraude or Yardley English Lavender with a slightly more exotic allure. I know I bought my first bottle at a Rexall in Nashville. Whenever I had to cash to blow I'd head straight there and buy something--anything--to feed my budding cosmetics addiction. Anybody remember Allercreme or Angel Face makeup, or Helena Rubenstein skin care? God, I loved all that stuff.

Of course, I bought fragrances, too, and one day nestled alongside the Jovans and Cotys I saw a cheap gift set of Maja perfume and soap. I'd never smelled it, but I loved the trademark packaging, which reminded me of a treasured doll one of my uncles brought me from Spain when I was small. The moss-green color of the juice was was alluring, too, so like any reckless little perfume freak I snatched up the unsniffed bargain.

I couldn't believe how beautiful it was. It was full-bodied and sexy, so unlike the girlish musks and white florals--Tatiana, anyone?--that were all the rage at the time. Although its composition was completely different, its character reminded me a little of my great perfume love, My Sin. Maja was earthier, though, and less refined than the Lanvin. My Sin evoked the soulful aspect of sex, while Maja was all heart. Its smooth drydown made me think of the warm, velvety skin at the top of a woman's thigh next to her furred mons. (Is that too much information?)

I wore Maja off and on all through high school and college. It was a bit of a guilty pleasure, since it was so cheap and old fashioned, with none of the classic cachet of My Sin or my other beloved oldie, Chanel no. 5. Whenever anybody came in my dorm room and saw it I'd invariably get a "What's that?" I don't think it ever garnered a single compliment. Still, I never stopped loving it, and I was really distressed when it suddenly became difficult to find. I wandered around discount stores and flea markets all through the 80s and 90s looking for it without any luck. I'm sure there were bottles around but I never happened upon one, and no one I asked had ever heard of it.

This was my first experience of the agonized quest so familiar to all vintage perfume lovers. If you think about it, it's astonishing that we are able to maintain a passion for something as trivial as a perfume for decades, especially when clones and cousins abound for pretty much every scent. But nothing ever replaces The One, and the joy of finding it after the long hunt is as much a reward as the scent itself. I got my moment of joy sometime around 1997 in a cosmetic store in Rockville, Maryland, when I found a one ounce bottle of Maja PdT that looked as if it had been sitting on the shelf for years. It is no exaggeration to say my heart leaped when I reached out to take possession of it.

Such drama, alas, is a thing of the past. You can find almost any forgotten perfume on eBay these days, and it can be yours with no agony at all, unless you count the unpleasantness of paying through the nose. I shelled out a ridiculous amount for an old bottle of Maja EdP on eBay a while back. It's beautiful, but I have to say that I got a lot more pleasure out of stumbling upon some old Mexican-made gift sets at a Big Lots store here in Tennessee. (FYI, the Mexican Maja, if you can find it, is inferior to the juice imported from Spain, but still light years better than the reformulation.)

Unlike some of my other discontinued loves, I've got enough original Maja to see me through the rest of my perfume-wearing life. That's probably a waste. Lovely as it is, its erotic charge makes it hard for me to imagine dousing myself with it when I'm 80--but who knows?

Majas on a Balcony, Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (?), 1800-1814. Image from Web Gallery of Art.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Saturday, September 27, 2008

It's a matter of perspective

And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die: For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.
Gen. 3: 4-5

The Nude Snake Charmer, Paul Désiré Trouillebert, circa 1880.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

A random rave

I used to love doing random rave posts at POL. I don't know why I've never done them here, but today it feels necessary. I woke up this morning with an intense craving for roses--which presented a dilemma, given that I must have a dozen or more beloved rose soliflores from which to choose. I sniffed my way through Hové Rose Celeste, Madini Rose, Lagniappe Oaks Cameo Rose, the Fragrance Shop's Magnificent Rose, African Tea Rose and Somalian Rose--etc., etc. I found what I was looking for in Tigerflag's Rose Attar. It's mellow and rich, yet light. It's a very clean rose, but there's nothing sanitized or gutless about it. Being a natural attar, it does have that background of sandalwood, but the flower absolutely carries the day. The bloom is never overwhelmed, even at the very end of the drydown. The whole experience is rose heaven, from start to finish.

Feel free to share a rave of your own if you're so inclined.

(By the way, there are a couple of new posts at Turn Outward: Can we talk? and Druidic morning)

Girl with a Rose, Guido Reni. Image from Web Gallery of Art.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

In honor of a disinterment

Adam, within the fever of the clay,
dreams a young child comes galloping his way,
felt in his cheeks, with double pulse of blood.

But a dark other Adam dreaming yearned
for a stone neuter moon, where no seeds bud,
in which that child of glory will be burned.

From "Adam" by Federico García Lorca, translated by Roy Campbell. Complete poem at Poetry Foundation. (García Lorca's remains are to be removed from their resting place of 70+ years. Read about it here.)

Adam with a Lion, Heinrich Aldegrever, c. 1540.

I'm sure this has gone viral

...but in case you missed it, here's a nice bit of satire, sent to me by Dave.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

One Sentence Perfume Review: Private Collection (1973), Estée Lauder

This salad is glorious, but it could use just a smidgen less vinaigrette.

Notes per Basenotes: Citrus notes, Green notes, Hyacinth, Narcissus, Rose, Jasmin, Pine, Oakmoss, Cedar, Amber, Musk.

Photo by Paolo Ciarlantini from Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, September 22, 2008


I'd hoped to have a "Bring Out Your Dead" post ready today, but life and Mabon observances intervened. While looking for something suitably funereal as a substitute, I came across this clip of the restored 1911 film L'Inferno. You can read more about it here. I've never seen the whole movie, but the imagery in this clip is wonderful, and it captures something of the spirit of Dante. The pasted-on Tangerine Dream score seems to drive a lot of online reviewers crazy, but I don't think it's that bad.** If you're the sensitive type, just hit the mute button.

Clip uploaded by astique333 at Youtube.

**UPDATE: Oops, shoulda looked at the Youtube page more carefully. The music on this clip is not the Tangerine Dream score. It's by a Russian electronic music composer, Eduard Artemyev. You can see his MySpace page here. A trailer of L'Inferno with the TD score is here.

Happy Mabon

My favorite time of year has officially arrived. I'll be celebrating with wine and pomegranates. I hope it's a beautiful day wherever you are.

Illustration from Tacuinum Sanitatis, 14th century, by way of Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

I've got it again

Perfume lust, that is. Like most scent maniacs, my obsession wanes a little (actually, a lot) during hot weather, then returns with a vengeance with the arrival of fall. That's a good thing, mostly. After all, perfume is my vice of choice, and I want to be able to enjoy it to the fullest. Unfortunately, as with other kinds of lust, perfume desire tends to wander places you'd just as soon it didn't. So it is with my revved-up scent passion. I own a nice collection of first class perfumes, and what am I craving? The re-issue of Evening in Paris.

I despise this stuff! It's sweet, timid, sanitized and sexless. It's Peter Pan collars and angel kitsch in a bottle. It votes Republican. I bought it unsniffed at TJ Maxx and should have had the good sense to consign it to the giveaway pile after my first whiff. And why didn't I? Because my spineless inner perfume addict whined that maybe, just maybe, I'd like it someday.

And now I do.

Take my advice, children, and don't let the Devil ride. Purge your shelves of anything you wouldn't be caught dead wearing--'cause if you don't, sooner or later it will catch you.

Notes for Soir de Paris / Evening in Paris from Fragrancex: jasmine, ylang ylang, turkish rose, violet, peach, cedar, vanilla, musk, bergamot.

(You'll find a calmer new post today at Turn Outward.)

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Tea time

"There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea."

Henry James

Illustration from Historia del Arte Erotico

*James quote by way of Brainy Quote.--a BitterGrace Bibiliophile award to anyone who can tell me its source.

Friday, September 19, 2008

One Sentence Perfume Review: Cinéma, Yves Saint Laurent

Promises The Women, delivers Valley Girl.

Notes per Basenotes: Clementine, Almond Blossom, Cyclamen, Amaryllis, Sambac Jasmin, Peony, Amber, White Musks, Bourbon Vanilla, Benzoin

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

BitterGrace is too tired to blog

She's off to enjoy some psychedelic dreams. If all goes well, she'll report back tomorrow (unless it goes really well, in which case she might not.)

Land of Psychedelic Illuminations, Brian Exton, PictureRealm Art Shop. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

"And how death seems a comely thing ..."

Autumn Song
by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Know'st thou not at the fall of the leaf
How the heart feels a languid grief
Laid on it for a covering,
And how sleep seems a goodly thing
In Autumn at the fall of the leaf?

And how the swift beat of the brain
Falters because it is in vain,
In Autumn at the fall of the leaf
Knowest thou not? and how the chief
Of joys seems—not to suffer pain?

Know'st thou not at the fall of the leaf
How the soul feels like a dried sheaf
Bound up at length for harvesting,
And how death seems a comely thing
In Autumn at the fall of the leaf?

Text from Poetry Foundation

The Tree of Crows, Caspar David Friedrich, c.1822. Image from Web Gallery of Art.

(See a companion post at Turn Outward.)

Monday, September 15, 2008

While we're all talking about the pit bull in lipstick,

and genuflecting to the phony heroism of John McCain, and marveling at the sudden collapse of the Obama juggernaut--this is going on. It's so good to know that GWB is doing his bit to recruit more eager young men for al-Qaida. This way, the "war on terror" can continue long after he retires to Crawford. Thanks, George. Laissez les bons temps rouler!

Sunday, September 14, 2008

This clip is long...

but you can never get too much of a good thing, right? This is the late, great Stevie Ray Vaughan with The Fabulous Thunderbirds. Enjoy.

(For something quieter, check out my picture post at Turn Outward.)

Clip uploaded by PHubb at YouTube.

I'm not always crazy about Frank Rich's columns...

but today's is brilliant. He's dead right on every point. Read it here.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

A sweet nothing for Saturday

Alas Madam for Stealing of a Kiss
by Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542)

Alas, madam, for stealing of a kiss
Have I so much your mind there offended?
Have I then done so grievously amiss
That by no means it may be amended?

Then revenge you, and the next way is this:
Another kiss shall have my life ended,
For to my mouth the first my heart did suck;
The next shall clean out of my breast it pluck.

Text from Poetry Foundation

Amorous Couple Spied upon by Children, Adriaen van der Werff, 1694. Image from Web Gallery of Art.

Books, tons of 'em

I've got a review in the Scene this week of Player HateHer by Katrina Chambers and Taj Johnson-George. It's not the sort of thing I usually cover, but the authors are delightful people, and the book's basic message seems a worthy one. The review is here, but before you click over there, just let me state for the record that I, too, have been known to giggle at GoFugYourself.com.

By the way, I've put a permanent link to the Scene's book page just below my music selection, over there on the right. Clicking on it will take you to all the recent reviews at the paper, covering lively fare such as Clyde Edgerton's Southern Gothic comedy The Bible Salesman, and De Niro's Game, Rawi Hage's debut novel set in Beirut--plus scads more. (Interest declared: the paper wants to see evidence that book coverage draws readers to the website. Every hit on the book page is a vote for its continued existence, in a time when lots of papers are dumping book reviews altogether. So, go have a look. New reviews go up every Thursday.)

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Exiles

Dave and I saw this 1961 film last Saturday, and it's extraordinary. Beautiful, but almost unbearably sad. I've been meaning to write a real review all week and haven't had time, but I wanted to call attention to it for the Nashville contingent out there, since this is your last weekend to see it at the Belcourt.

You can read more about the film here, and see a list of upcoming screenings here. Definitely go see it if you get the chance.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

On the anniversary of 9/11...

I want to remember all the victims.

In the name of peace
They waged the wars
ain’t they got no shame

*From "The Great Pax Whitie" by Nikki Giovanni. Complete poem at Poetry Foundation.

Peace, Théodore Chassériau, 1844-48. Image from Web Gallery of Art.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Bring Out Your Dead: Natural High, Garden Botanika

When I said I was going to start this series with a beloved unknown, I wasn’t kidding. I think I might be the only person in the world who still owns any Natural High. It dates from the days when Garden Botanika had lots of storefronts in upscale malls. I don’t think GB even has any brick-and-mortar stores anymore, though it is still sold online and through Ulta. Natural High was a limited edition scent, issued just before the empire went more or less belly up, so there can’t be more than a handful of bottles out there.

I bought mine at the Galleria in Houston, a mecca of high-end consumerism if there ever was one. The Galleria is the kind of place where a fender bender in the parking lot is guaranteed to involve a large Mercedes, and the stores are full of expensively dressed women with frozen faces. At least, that’s how it was in 2000 when I wandered in one dreary November afternoon.

Dave had taken an apartment in Houston, partly because he had a big client there, and partly because we were contemplating divorce. He was coming home maybe one weekend out of six, and I had gone down there to see him and hash over the things people hash over during such times.

Dave calls Houston the land of perpetual cataclysm because there’s always some epic environmental unpleasantness going on: tropical storms, floods, plagues of insects, refinery fires. The dank air is reminiscent of New Orleans, but a Houston breeze carries the acrid odor of petrochemicals instead of the sweet scent of tea olive. Whenever I’m in Houston, at some point I always catch myself trying not to breathe. The city is built on unstable soil, which means most of the neighborhoods have buckled sidewalks, and a lot of the older houses are visibly twisted on their foundations. There was a rather nice old home near Dave’s apartment that had nearly cracked in two.

Somehow all that makes the place seem a little ominous, even on a sunny day. The gray chill of late fall and our marital slough made it seem especially grim, so I went to the Galleria to blow some money and cheer myself up. I was drawn to the Garden Botanika, not so much for the sniffing, but because it was as colorful and brightly lit as a candy store. I remember sampling the scads of fragrances on offer and thinking, How on earth do they come up with this insipid stuff. Ugh!

There was a little display of scents touted as mood enhancers. Such gimmicks usually repel me, but I was desperate to find something I liked, so I sniffed. They turned out to be as crappy as everything else in the store, except for one. It opened with a rush of orange followed by something like fresh cut grass. It was sweet, but without any hint of cloying vanilla, or any of the other foodie mess that seems to infect every sweet fragrance of the past 20 years. The orange was brilliant but not overwhelming, and it faded gently into the bittersweet green note without leaving that stale residue that citrus notes sometimes do. The dry down offered a hint of fresh coconut, one of my favorite smells.

I looked at the label: “Natural High.” That was almost a deal breaker. If I’d been happy it wouldn’t really have bothered me, but since I was in fact depressed, buying it seemed too much like being suckered. Still, I loved it and couldn’t resist.

I wore it that night when we went out to dinner at a Japanese restaurant with a friend of Dave’s. As it happened, it was election night: Bush v. Gore, round one—-before the tie-breaker, or the coup, depending on your point of view. And there we were, smack dab in middle of the Bush family breeding ground. The restaurant’s owner had turned on a TV set so we could watch the returns. Phil, Dave’s friend, is a white native Texan, but he speaks Japanese well enough to make his living as an translator. He was alternately yakking with the wait staff in Japanese, and leading our table in noisy insults toward Bush. The two sleek couples at the next table-—Bush lovers by birth, you could tell—-were shooting us dirty looks, which only encouraged us. (The guys, as I recall, were drinking a lot of sake. I don’t have an excuse.)

We ran the Bushies off, and hung around a while hoping the political contest would resolve. The guys drank more. I sat there sniffing my wrist, feeling, I must admit, kinda cheered up by the scent. Eventually we gave up on the election and went home to Dave’s grungy little bachelor pad. As I curled up with my pillow I was still getting whiffs of sweet orange and hay.

Of course, you know how the story turned out. Dave and I stayed married, and George Bush got to play war with real soldiers. And I have this little bottle of a happy scent to remind me of a sad time. There are maybe 20 spritzes left. I ration them carefully.

Photo of nude woman with an opium pipe by Jean Agélou, circa 1910, from Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

I promised a perfume post this weekend

...but I lied. I'll put my inner scent freak on display shortly, I swear. Meanwhile, here's a little glamour to start the week: Sarah Vaughan in commercial pop mode, circa 1951.

Originally uploaded by ladynea at YouTube.

Sarah Vaughan bio

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Bring Out Your Dead: A Perfume Series

One reason the perfume content of this blog has gotten so thin is that I'm pretty seriously out of the loop these days. It's difficult to have much to say about the new releases or the latest mutilation of a classic unless you're spending a lot of time trawling the perfume blogs, hanging out on the forums, and sampling. It's not that I don't still respect and enjoy hardcore 'fume chat. It's a huge pleasure for me to drop in at Perfume Shrine or the Posse, and I love reading the great reviews from all my old POL buddies on their blogs; but unfortunately, time and funds for perfume are both a little short, so I just can't keep up to speed well enough to enter the conversation.

I don't love my collection any less, however, and I find that my taste and responses to scent continue to evolve. Lately I've been fixated on the discontinued (or hopelessly disfigured) fragrances that I deeply love. Most of them have been part of my life for a long time, so I have a wealth of associations attached to them. Sniffing them induces instant reverie, and the memories always seem to have a particular power because they're evoked by something that is, in a sense, no longer of this world. It's a little like hearing a whispered message from a ghost.

This is the time of year when the Wheel turns toward death, diminishment and closure. Starting with Mabon (the autumnal equinox), the barrier between the living and the dead grows thinner until Samhain, when it is most easily crossed. So, with that in mind, this seems like a good time to commune with the cut flowers in my collection. Over the next few weeks I'm going to blog about some of my favorite dead perfumes. These posts won't be reviews in the usual sense--no need for that, since most of them are either well-known classics, or so obscure a review would be pointless. I'm just going to write a bit about what the fragrances mean to me, how they fit into the narrative of my life. If I do it right, they'll offer a little voyeuristic peek into the nature of scent obsession.

Mabon, of course, is still a couple of weeks away, and I'm going to wait until then to ponder the really precious juices, but look for a couple of warm-up posts in the meantime. First up will be a beloved unknown. Stay tuned ...

Still Life with a Skull, Philippe de Champaigne (1602-1674).

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

One long horror story

The Dancer from Khiva is the memoir of an Uzbek woman, born in a traditional rural community in the 1960s. She escapes that life and winds up in grim post-Soviet Russia. The book is pretty much one long horror story, and yet Bibish comes through as a very appealing character. Her writing--at least as it is translated--is a bit primitive, and the narrative is haphazard, but none of that detracts much from power of the experiences she describes. This is very much a woman's book, by which I mean it expresses something fundamental about what it's like to move through the world as a woman. Bibish doesn't have a feminist consciousness at all, but she does have a very clear understanding of the way she's hindered by the "otherness" of being female. The book is definitely worth checking out, even though I disapprove of the way it's being marketed. My review in the Scene is here.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

"Reason, a kind of innate deity"

Pastoral Dialogue
by Anne Killigrew, 1660-1685

Remember when you love, from that same hour
Your peace you put into your lover’s power;
From that same hour from him you laws receive,
And as he shall ordain, you joy, or grieve,
Hope, fear, laugh, weep; Reason aloof does stand,
Disabled both to act, and to command.
Oh cruel fetters! rather wish to feel
On your soft limbs, the galling weight of steel;
Rather to bloody wounds oppose your breast.
No ill, by which the body can be pressed
You will so sensible a torment find
As shackles on your captived mind.
The mind from heaven its high descent did draw,
And brooks uneasily any other law
Than what from Reason dictated shall be.
Reason, a kind of innate deity,
Which only can adapt to ev’ry soul
A yoke so fit and light, that the control
All liberty excels; so sweet a sway,
The same ’tis to be happy, and obey;
Commands so wise, and with rewards so dressed,
That the according soul replies “I’m blessed.”

Text from Poetry Foundation. A more complete version of the poem can be found here.

Portrait of Hypatia, Elbert Hubbard, 1908. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Wikipedia page on Hypatia.

So, I guess some babies are more important than others

If you ask me, Sarah Palin is the best thing to happen to Barack Obama since Michelle said yes, and I can't claim I'm immune to the general fascination with her wacky religion, her fondness for killing large animals, and the baby mill her household seems to be running; however, isn't it just sad beyond belief that while our government is sponsoring the slaughter of children in Afghanistan, all anybody wants to talk about is Palin's knocked-up daughter?

Monday, September 1, 2008

So much for freedom of the press

This is a video of Amy Goodman being arrested at the Republican National Convention this afternoon. Nice, huh? Read the details at Democracy Now!.