Sunday, February 28, 2010


Since I first read it on Friday, I've been trying to decide what I think about this Counterpunch column, which declares that SeaWorld is engaged in something that looks a lot like slavery. Here's a key passage from the column:

For those who think the references to slavery are excessive, remember the words of Frederic Douglass, quoted by Hribal. Douglass often made direct comparisons between the treatment and use of other animals and that of himself. “When purchased, my old master probably thought as little of my advent, as he would have thought of the addition of a single pig to his stock! Like a wild young working animal, I am to be broken to the yoke of a bitter and life-long bondage. Indeed, I now saw, in my situation, several points of similarity with that of the oxen. They were property, so was I; they were to be broken, so was I; Convey was to break me, I was to break them; break and be broken – such is life.”

I'm usually unsympathetic to the more extreme animal rights arguments, mostly because I think they're based on a simplistic, arrogant view of nature, and on childish ideas about death. However, I can't deny that there's something particularly disturbing about the fate of the performing orcas. Forcing such an intelligent animal to exist in conditions that drastically shorten its life seems deeply wrong--much worse than, say, killing it for food (not that I'm promoting that idea). I can't quite parse out my response, though, and I confess I've never seen one of these shows. I'm curious to know what other people think about the slave analogy--does it seem apt?

The Fate of the Animals, Franz Marc, 1901

Friday, February 26, 2010

"A lover with disaster in his face"

Ancient History

Adam, a brown old vulture in the rain,
Shivered below his wind-whipped olive-trees;
Huddling sharp chin on scarred and scraggy knees,
He moaned and mumbled to his darkening brain;
‘He was the grandest of them all—was Cain!
‘A lion laired in the hills, that none could tire;
‘Swift as a stag; a stallion of the plain,
‘Hungry and fierce with deeds of huge desire.’

Grimly he thought of Abel, soft and fair—
A lover with disaster in his face,
And scarlet blossom twisted in bright hair.
‘Afraid to fight; was murder more disgrace?...
‘God always hated Cain’ ... He bowed his head—
The gaunt wild man whose lovely sons were dead.

Siegfried Sassoon, 1920

Cain and Abel, Gaetano Gandolfi (1734-1802)

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Verghese, Giovanni, etc

We seem to be all about writers with lyrical names at Chapter 16 this week. New offerings include an interview with physician/author Abraham Verghese by Paul Griffith, my profile of poet Nikki Giovanni, and a few words with and about Bob Shacochis, by his former student Ed Tarkington. Click and enjoy.

The End of the Story, Marcus Stone (1840-1921)

Wednesday, February 24, 2010


"Your voice, my friend, wanders in my heart, like the muffled sound of the sea among these listening pines."

 Stray Bird 80, Rabindranath Tagore, 1916

For M.G.

Two Girls Reading in a Garden, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, c.1890

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Aftelier Lumiere

I’ve been sitting at my desk for the past hour, working at the computer and taking periodic sniffs of the dab of Lumiere on the back of my hand. I usually find this to be a good method of testing perfumes. I let myself experience the scent while my mind is occupied with other things, and some idle portion of my unconscious organizes my impressions for me. All I need to do is check in, get the data, and string a few sentences together for the review.

Unfortunately, sometimes my inner perfume scribe flakes out and has nothing definitive to tell me. When I quiz her, it’s like trying to make conversation with your sullen teenage cousin at the family reunion:

So, what’s the opening like?

Um, I dunno. Sorta green and lemony. Nice. Kinda like furniture polish—but, y’know...good furniture polish. Nice.

What about the heart?

Good. A little bit flowery, but not really flowery

And the base?

It’s like...being outside. You know. In the summer.

My inarticulate response should not be interpreted as dislike or disappointment. On the contrary, I like Lumiere quite a lot. I just can’t really explain why. I look at the list of notes—green tea, frankincense, boronia, blue lotus—and think, Yeah, I reckon they’re all there. None of them really jumps out at me, though. What I experience is a mellow, thoroughly integrated mélange of herbs, flowers and frankincense. It's a bit like Creed's Aubepine Acacia with the sharp edges sanded away. I’m reminded of sitting beside a pretty pond at the end of a summer day, just enjoying the fragrant air and blissing out. Lumiere is very blissful. Also, I should note, utterly unisex—a perfect neck-nuzzling scent for either gender and all persuasions.  It has decent lasting power and mild sillage.

September Moonrise, Charles Warren Eaton, 1900

Monday, February 22, 2010

"...a temper of the soul"

"What holds a civilization together, and makes the difference between creative growth and decay? What is the foundation that underlies and sustains all the activities of a people and energizes and forms that special unity we call culture? Peace. The peace which comes from the habit of contemplation. It is not intellectual knowledge of the unity of human endeavor, nor a philosophical notion of the ultimate meaning of the universe. It is an inward sense and an abiding quality of life, a temper of the soul. It is not rare nor hard to find. It offers itself at moments to everyone, from early childhood on, although less and less often if it is not welcomed. It can be seized and trained and cultivated until it becomes a constant habit in the background of daily life. Without it life is only turbulence, from which eventually meaning and even all intensity of feeling die out in tedium and disorder."

From "The Quiet Center," Kenneth Rexroth, 1965. Read more of the essay here.

Trees in Moonlight, Caspar David Friedrich, 1824

Sunday, February 21, 2010


It was actually warm here today, and sunny. I traded my parka for a fleece jacket on my morning hike, and I opened a window in the kitchen this afternoon so I could enjoy the sweet air. I know I'm getting a little ahead of myself. It's not really quite spring. The world is still brown, and the only promise of a bloom comes from the emerging jonquils in the front yard--which I suspect are not going to make it this year because Porter keeps peeing on them. But still, winter seems to be packing for its departure. I'm happy.

The lovely weather has me in a mood to write about perfume, so check back later this week for a review of Aftelier Lumiere, and maybe I'll get to a few more Madinis while I'm at it. Y'all have a happy Monday.

Spring, Henryk Weyssenhoff, 1911

Another stray bird

"The sparrow is sorry for the peacock at the burden of its tail."

Stray Birds, 58, Rabindranath Tagore, 1916

Peacock and Peahen, Maruyama Okyo, 1781

Friday, February 19, 2010

"Love is no pardoner"

The man who married Magdalene  
Had not forgiven her.
God might pardon every sin ...   
Love is no pardoner.

From "The Man Who Married Magdalene" by Louis Simpson

The Penitent Magdalene by (top to bottom) Guido Cagnacci, 1663; Anton Raphael Mengs, 1752; Titian, c.1532

Thursday, February 18, 2010

A purely personal post

Today is the sixth anniversary of my father's death. That's him in the photo, taken circa 1950. He was a complicated man: very smart, self-indulgent, contrary, cruel and soft-hearted by turns. He liked Pink Floyd, Johnny Walker, Alison Krauss, hot weather, Bloody Marys, rare beef, and butter pecan ice cream--not necessarily in that order. He knew his way around a pool table, and his best friend for the last years of his life was an awesomely fat golden retriever named Rufus. I'm tempted to say I remember him the way Irving Feldman remembers his father, but in reality I have a lot more in common with Sharon Olds. And honestly, I like it that way. Sweet sentiments have their place, but when it comes to memories I prefer mine messy and complicated. Makes life more interesting. My father taught me that.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

"...honey sweating through the pores of oak"

The golden age was first; when Man yet new,
No rule but uncorrupted reason knew:
And, with a native bent, did good pursue.
Unforc'd by punishment, un-aw'd by fear,
His words were simple, and his soul sincere;
Needless was written law, where none opprest:
The law of Man was written in his breast:
No suppliant crowds before the judge appear'd,
No court erected yet, nor cause was heard:
But all was safe, for conscience was their guard.
The mountain-trees in distant prospect please,
E're yet the pine descended to the seas:
E're sails were spread, new oceans to explore:
And happy mortals, unconcern'd for more,
Confin'd their wishes to their native shore.
No walls were yet; nor fence, nor mote, nor mound,
Nor drum was heard, nor trumpet's angry sound:
Nor swords were forg'd; but void of care and crime,
The soft creation slept away their time.
The teeming Earth, yet guiltless of the plough,
And unprovok'd, did fruitful stores allow:
Content with food, which Nature freely bred,
On wildings and on strawberries they fed;
Cornels and bramble-berries gave the rest,
And falling acorns furnish'd out a feast.
The flow'rs unsown, in fields and meadows reign'd:
And Western winds immortal spring maintain'd.
In following years, the bearded corn ensu'd
From Earth unask'd, nor was that Earth renew'd.
From veins of vallies, milk and nectar broke;
And honey sweating through the pores of oak.

From Metamorphoses (Garth translation), Book I

The Discovery of Honey, Piero di Cosimo, 1505-10 (Click on the image to enlarge it.)

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Aftelier Pink Lotus

All my longtime perfume pals know that I am a great fan of lotus fragrances. You can read tributes to a couple of my favorites here and here. So naturally when Mandy Aftel asked me which Aftelier perfumes I'd be interested in reviewing, I was quick to mention Pink Lotus. The association with Madonna made me a little wary, but I was completely wowed by Cepes and Tuberose and I was curious to know what miracle Mandy might have worked with another floral note I dearly love.

Well, I guess I do have at least one thing in common with Madonna, because Pink Lotus is definitely designed for someone who adores the flower. Mandy's creation is a powerful dose of pure, vibrant lotus, with just the right amount of smooth sandalwood for support. What makes the fragrance of the lotus blossom so compelling is its marriage of a tart, watery element with smooth, fleshy sweetness. The ideal lotus note, for me, is a perfectly balanced negotiation between those disparate qualities. Aftelier Pink Lotus comes as close to my ideal as anything I've ever sampled. Sniffing it, I feel as if I'm nestled in the flower itself, enveloped in its moist, rich olfactory aura.

Natural lotus scents occasionally have a faint whiff of muddy pond about them--something I actually enjoy as long as it doesn't become overwhelming. Pink Lotus, most of you will be happy to hear, has absolutely no hint of pond scum whatsoever. The fleshy aspect, however, does develop considerably on the skin, at least it did on mine. The late drydown of Pink Lotus is gorgeous and sexy in way that would be perfect for a hot date, maybe not so perfect for the office. And when I say "late" drydown, I do mean late--this stuff has terrific lasting power for a simple floral. I got four hours from a tiny dab.

Photo of a lotus blossom at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden by Sage Ross, via Wikimedia Commons.

You can read some interesting observations about the different varieties of lotus here.

Monday, February 15, 2010

"The vast onion of the actual"

The vast onion of the actual:
The universe, the galaxy,
The solar system, and the earth,
And life, and human life, and men’s
Relationships, and men, and each man ...
History seeping from capsule
To capsule, from periphery
To center, and outward again ...
The sparkling quanta of events,
The pulsing wave motion of value ...

From "The Phoenix and the Tortoise," The Collected Longer Poems of Kenneth Rexroth, New Directions, 1970, 77-78. Excerpts from this poem are online at Bureau of Public Secrets.

Scenography of the Copernican world system from the Harmonia Macrocosmica of Andreas Cellarius, 1660.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Things are very interesting around here...

It's shaping up to be a wild week, so I'm not sure I'll be blogging every day. I do hope I'll find time to review at least of couple of the gorgeous Aftelier perfumes I've been lucky enough to sample, and I may manage a book review as well. We'll see.

Hairy Harry, Mad Peter and Tiny Amon, Agostino Carracci, c.1600 (You can read a discussion of Carracci and some observations about this painting here.)



It’s not terribly cold here, but it’s gloomy and there’s been snow on the ground for days. I haven’t had much company on my hikes. On Thursday morning I listened to a long concert from a pair of coyotes who were very riled up about something, and Saturday morning a great blue heron flew over the lake....more

"The most ethereally beautiful music of the twentieth century..."

In the course of an online conversation about Olivier Messiaen, friend of the blog Stella P introduced me to a wonderful essay by Alex Ross about Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time. That in turn sent me hunting for the music online so I could share it with you. This clip contains the fifth movement, "Louange à l'éternité de Jésus." It is indeed ethereal music and needs an attentive listener to work its transcendent magic. If you're not familiar with the work, I suggest at least skimming the essay first so you'll have an idea what you're getting into. If you want to hear more, the recording Ross mentions is available for download at Amazon.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Something sweet for Valentine's Day

And all her face was honey to my mouth,
And all her body pasture to mine eyes;
The long lithe arms and hotter hands than fire,
The quivering flanks, hair smelling of the south,
The bright light feet, the splendid supple thighs
And glittering eyelids of my soul’s desire.

From "Love and Sleep" by Algernon Charles Swinburne

Idylle, Léon Bonnat, 1890

Friday, February 12, 2010

Stray bird

That I exist is a perpetual surprise which is life.

Stray Birds, 22, Rabindranath Tagore

Male nude, Pierre-Paul Prud'hon (1758–1823)

Thursday, February 11, 2010

"It preserves language..."

"It preserves language, and it can only do it in one way—through pleasure, because we want to remember those phrases. That's the only way language can be preserved, because we want it. Because we continue to want it. Even if we don't know what it means anymore, we still want it."

That's Kay Ryan, U.S. poet laureate, talking about poetry in an interview I did with her for Chapter 16. She had a lot of fascinating things to say, which you can read here. It's a big week for dialogue at the site--in addition to the Q&A with Ryan, there are interviews with Eric Schlosser and Juan Williams. Go to the home page to see it all.

The Reading Lesson, Emile Munier (1840-95)

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

"For all those who suffer, not in the flesh"

This being a time confused and with few clear stars,
Either private ones or public,
Out of its darkness I make a litany
For the lost, for the half-lost, for the desperate,
For all those who suffer, not in the flesh,
I will say their name, but not yet.

From "Minor Litany" by Stephen Vincent Benét. Complete poem is here.

Patience, Sebald Beham (1500-50)

Monday, February 8, 2010

"All night the flares go up..."

The Dragon and the Undying

All night the flares go up; the Dragon sings
And beats upon the dark with furious wings;
And, stung to rage by his own darting fires,
Reaches with grappling coils from town to town;
He lusts to break the loveliness of spires,
And hurls their martyred music toppling down.

Yet, though the slain are homeless as the breeze,
Vocal are they, like storm-bewilder’d seas.
Their faces are the fair, unshrouded night,
And planets are their eyes, their ageless dreams.
Tenderly stooping earthward from their height,
They wander in the dusk with chanting streams,
And they are dawn-lit trees, with arms up-flung,
To hail the burning heavens they left unsung.

By Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967), from The old huntsman and other poems, 1918

Ruins at Reninghe (Flanders), Georges Emile Lebacq, 1917. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Mecca Balsam from La Via del Profumo

Since I first read about it at Perfume Shrine, I’ve had a feeling that the line would be to my liking, so when Dominique Dubrana emailed me a while back asking if I would accept a sample of Mecca Balsam for review, I couldn’t say yes fast enough. I have a weakness for rich, complicated fragrances, and an olfactory pilgrimage to Mecca sounded very promising. So promising, in fact, that I let the package from Italy sit here for a couple of weeks, afraid to find out that it contained the disappointment of some dull or noxious juice.

It didn’t. From the first spritz, I knew this perfume was going to make me happy. I can’t really parse the opening notes, but I get an impression of coriander, tarragon, etc. At this stage Mecca Balsam has a fresh, almost brisk quality, but oud and incense are lurking underneath, shadows of more serious things to come.

The heart is an opulent woody/spicy mélange featuring a subtle presence of oud with hints of fenugreek and cinnamon. A touch of smoky incense wafts through it all, but it’s never overwhelming. The promotional copy makes no mention of spikenard, but I fancy it’s hiding in there somewhere. I’m reminded of two of my favorite Dawn Spencer Hurwitz creations, Khyphi and Arome d’ Egypt, though Mecca Balsam is a more harmonious marriage of notes than either of those. It also has a drier quality, with a very slight suggestion of powder, especially as the middle notes fade.

The base notes are all about the sweetness of tobacco, amber and labdanum. Profumo’s website mentions notes of Damask rose and tuberose, but they are so cozily nestled in the composition that I only find them if I go looking. Depending on my mood, this might be the point at which I’d start to fall out of love with Mecca Balsam—not because the base is unappealing, but because it’s too seductive, too nice. Most of the complexity disappears, leaving just a snuggly, syrupy warmth, a la AG Sables. There is a ghost of pungent oud but it’s not substantial enough to provide a real counterpoint. On days that I need a comfort scent I’d welcome such sweet simplicity, but the serious perfumista in me always feels a little disappointed when the drama ends this way.

For those of you concerned with bang for the buck, Mecca Balsam has very good lasting power for a natural. I get a good 6 hours of fragrance from a single spritz. Sillage is about what you'd expect from a scent of this type--plenty strong, but not a screamer.

Mecca Balsam is available at the website, and can be ordered as part of a sampler.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

"No animals were harmed..."

No animals were harmed in the making of this joyful noise:
A thick, twisted stem from the garden
is the wedding couple's ceremonial ram's horn.
Its substance will not survive one thousand years,
nor will the garden, which is today their temple,
nor will their names, nor their union now announced
with ritual blasts upon the zucchini shofar.

From "Zucchini Shofar" by Sarah Lindsay

Illustration by Martin van Maele from L'Histoire comique de Francion, 1925.

Friday, February 5, 2010

"The moon is a sow"

The moon is a sow
and grunts in my throat
Her great shining shines through me
so the mud of my hollow gleams
and breaks in silver bubbles

From "Song for Ishtar" by Denise Levertov

Animal studies from a notebook, Giovannino de' Grassi, 1390s

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Oranges, roses and the haunted house

The mention of olfactory dreaming in today’s First Nerve post got me thinking about my own smelly dream life. I’ve never kept track but I believe I experience some purely imaginary odor in about one dream out of four. Oddly enough, although I can mentally conjure up the scent of favorite perfumes when I’m awake, I don’t recall ever dreaming a favorite fragrance. If I actually wear a scent to bed it may worm its way into a dream, but my sleeping self seems to have no memory of My Sin or Narcisse Blanc.

Since reading Avery’s post I’ve been trying to catalog my repertoire of dream smells, and I realize it’s quite limited. There are a few foods—chiefly coconut, chocolate and oranges—that I often eat with gusto in dreams, and those feasts always include the pleasure of scent. Rose and pine are my sleeping ‘mood’ scents. They just appear along with whatever images or action I’m dreaming, like an olfactory soundtrack. I’m usually aware of them during the dream, but sometimes I’ll only recall them being present after I wake up. Often as not, they seem to be my way of comforting myself if something disturbing or sad is going on.

The one nasty smell I inflict on myself in dreams is a distinctive dank, musty odor...sort of a cross between damp basement and rotting book. It has had a featured role in some of my worst nightmares. I went through a phase in my twenties when I had terrifying dreams about being pursued through the rambling rooms and halls of a strange house, and that smell was always present. I'd wake up sweating and shaking, the stink still strong in my mind. As I said, it’s a distinctive smell, not just a generic moldy odor. It wasn’t until I wrote a post a while back about my grandfather that I realized where I came to know it. It’s the smell of the haunted house ride he used to take me on, which I loved. Strange how the mind sifts and recycles.

A Dream of a Girl Before Sunrise, Karl Briullov, 1830-33

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

"There is no happiness like mine"

Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.
There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry.

The librarian does not believe what she sees.
Her eyes are sad
and she walks with her hands in her dress.

From "Eating Poetry" by Mark Strand

Paar in der Bibliothek, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, 1930

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Just something nice

I drove to the main branch of the Nashville Public Library today to get some material I needed for an article. I slipped in, hunted down the necessary books, and scurried back out again. No time for browsing, since I was mentally on the clock and in a hurry to get back home to the computer. The library was as mobbed as I've ever seen it. The weather today was chilly and wet, so the homeless folk were there in force. They were clustered around the computer terminals or sitting at the tables reading with friends. Little groups were hanging out in the stairwells and hallways, talking quietly, intensely. (Go here to read reflections from Kevin Barbieux, Nashville's 'Homeless Guy,' on the importance of libraries to the men and women who live on the street.)

Stay-at-home mothers with kids--mostly white, prosperous, and worlds apart from the street denizens--were also heavily represented, since school was out. The kids all seemed to be having a pretty good time, as kids generally do in libraries. I love the way young children struggle with the protocol of the place, running around and squealing, then dramatically shushing each other. The mothers had that harried-but-satisfied look that parents get when they are providing their children with virtuous entertainment.

I'd guess that those two groups made up easily 80% of the patrons. Together they turned the library into the most pleasant, cordial place I've been in a while. The trouble with living out in the sticks is that you don't often get that urban experience of diverse people happily jostling each other in a shared space. Actually, you don't generally get much of that in Nashville, since it is as socially segregated as most sprawling New South cities--maybe more so. It was nice to see it and to share in it briefly before heading back to semi-rural solitude.

"Pococurante's Library", illustration for Candide, ou l'Optimisme (Paris: Sirène) 1759

Monday, February 1, 2010

Milk for Imbolc

You pump it from six goats
morning and evening
and renew your own. The baby
is harnessed to your back,
her dark head wobbling. Your life
and its order that isn’t mine.

From "Milk" by Shirley Kaufman. The complete poem is here.

Laren Woman with a Goat, Anton Mauve (1838-88)

One Sentence Perfume Review: Prelude, Balenciaga

Tough call: attractively odd, or just plain baffling?

Partial list of notes per Fragrantica: Aldehydes, Orange, Bergamot, Carnation, Cinnamon, Jasmine, Rose, Tolu Balsam, Amber, Patchouli, Civet, Vanilla

Sphinx, Franz von Stuck, 1904