Sunday, May 30, 2010

Kissing the Mask

"Just as when for the first time a man glimpses the skin below a woman's neck he can envision her nakedness more plausibly but certainly not exactly (and, as I have mentioned, the W-shape of the unpainted skin on the back of a geisha's neck--adjoining fangs--is said to represent the vulva), so when I see the edge of a geisha's under-kimono I begin to imagine not her naked body necessarily, but the layers and layers of unknown colors, dances, thoughts, all the way down to the woman herself, whom I can never hope to know."

From Kissing the Mask: Beauty, Understatement and Femininity in Japanese Noh Theater, with some thoughts on Muses (especially Helga Testorf), Transgender Women, Kabuki Goddesses, Porn Queens, Poets, Housewives, Makeup Artists, Geishas, Valkyries and Venus Figurines by William T. Vollmann.

Vollmann's book is so good I bought it twice. More on that later. Meanwhile, you can read reviews of Kissing the Mask here and here. The geisha in the photograph (c.1934) is Matsuei, supposedly the inspiration for Komako in Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata--a book Vollmann mentions, along with about a million other things, in Kissing the Mask.

Friday, May 28, 2010


I was driving along the interstate Thursday afternoon and I wound up stuck behind a big, white tanker truck painted with the words “LIVE FISH.” Traffic was heavy and I had a lot of time to wonder why someone felt the need to warn me that there was a tank full of live fish on the road. Should I fear the fish? Do they represent a hazard of some kind? Or maybe the supposed threat runs the other way and someone’s giving me a heads up so I don’t inadvertently transform the live fish to dead ones--though unless I steered my dinky car under the wheels of the mammoth truck, I’m not sure how I’d do that. And if I did tie it up with the truck, there would surely be more important casualties than a few hundred fish. At least one, or so I like to think.

All these questions aside, I marvel at the power of a simple phrase to conjure sense memories and associations. Even while I was obsessing over the intended message of “LIVE FISH,” I was smelling the scent of the lake where we used to go fishing when I was little, feeling the way the heat rose off the limestone bank and the way the handle of the pole dug into my palm--and, of course, shuddering slightly at the sensation of grabbing a doomed fish as it squirmed on the hook.

Actually, I was never an enthusiastic angler at all, and hardly ever fished when we went to the lake. I much preferred joining the fish in the water to hauling them out. It would make more sense if “LIVE FISH” made me think of Barry the pet goldfish who lived two weeks, or the koi in my grandmother’s garden pond, or the minnows that darted around my ankles when I went wading in the creek. But no, “LIVE FISH” made me think--fondly, nostalgically--of killing fish. Which I’m pretty sure is not what the author had in mind.

Big Fishes Eat Little Fishes, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1556

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

One Sentence Perfume Review: Kiss in the Dark, Hové

Mmm, Shalimar ... no, Emeraude ... Shalimaude...

A guess at the notes: Bergamot, lemon, oppoponax, jasmine, rose, incense, sandalwood, patchouli, amber

The Hové website

Le Baiser, Carolus-Duran, 1868

Monday, May 24, 2010

"Wishes left on your lips..."

Wishes left on your lips
The mark of their wings.
Regrets fly kites in your eyes.

"Wistful" by Carl Sandburg, from Smoke and Steel, 1920.

Image © 2010 Nika Zakharov. This sketch is from a wonderful blog Nika shares with fellow artist Julissa Mora. Go to Figuratively Speaking for 2 to see more of Nika's work.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

"as numinous as words"

There are moments when the body is as numinous
as words, days that are the good flesh continuing.

From "Meditation at Lagunitas" by Robert Hass.*

In Werner's Rowing Boat, Anders Zorn, 1917

*This is a great poem, I think. Click the link to read it and tell me what you find.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Continuing my obsession with the theme...

 is a beautiful watercolor of the Narcissus by Charles Demuth, c. 1917. You'll find a few (very few) words from me on a different subject at Turn Outward.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

"The torment of possibility"

They thought I had fallen in love with my own face,
And this belief became the night-like obstacle
To understanding all my unbroken suffering,
My studious self-regard, the pain of hope,
The torment of possibility:
How then could I have expected them to see me
As I saw myself, within my gaze, or see
That being thus seemed as a toad, a frog, a wen, a mole.
Knowing their certainty that I was only
A monument, a monster who had fallen in love
With himself alone, how could I have
Told them what was in me, within my heart, trembling and passionate
Within the labyrinth and caves of my mind, which is
Like every mind partly or wholly hidden from itself?

From "Narcissus" by Delmore Schwartz. Read more here and here.

Narcissus at the fountain, Altobello Melone, c,1500

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Mon Péché

Lately I’ve been contemplating my stash of My Sin, which consists of 4 large bottles of edt (3 full) and two little vials of parfum. That’s a rather modest hoard by perfume freak standards, especially when you consider that this dear, departed Lanvin is the nearest thing to an HG I’ll ever have. Still, I am wondering if I should surrender some of it, or maybe even get rid of the stash altogether. At my present rate of use it will take me years to get through it all, and I’ll be very reluctant to see that last drop go. Odds are—barring some catastrophe, or radical action on my part—I will leave behind at least one not-quite-empty bottle of aged juice when I exit the planet.

I think all perfume obsessives know that the hoarding impulse is not really about the pleasure of scent, or even simple greed. Our favorite perfumes are touchstones for us. One of the ways we create our identities is through our subjective responses, our likes and dislikes. We declare ourselves to other people through our preferred pleasures, yes--but it’s really more than that. We actually recognize ourselves in the familiar reaction we feel to a particular scent. Experiencing a beloved fragrance is like looking in the mirror or writing your name. It reminds you who you are. That’s why finding out a favorite perfume has been discontinued—or worse, reformulated—is so distressing. It feels as if some piece of your very self is in danger of disappearing. Hoarding is a hedge against that.

Perfume is just one of many such existential crutches. Favorite foods, clothes, trinkets, books, records, photographs, love letters—there’s no end to the stuff that we think we need to keep within reach so we won’t forget ourselves. That’s natural enough, and not altogether bad, but I’m feeling the need to cut a few things loose. A crutch you don’t really need is just a burden, and surely at this point in my life I can do without a few of mine. And yet, somehow it feels like a transgression to dispatch even this one old friend...

Vanity, Hans Memling, c.1485

Friday, May 14, 2010

"Thou comfortest as music does..."

Thou comfortest as music does, and wine,
And grief dies smothered in thy purple fold.

From "Il Bacio" by Paul Verlaine

Mihály Zichy, c.1900

"...the butterflies of the bird world"

"You feel that America's warblers deserve a celebratory literary tradition, as bringers of the spring, to compare with the swallow, the nightingale or the cuckoo in Europe: Ode To The Warblers, Hymn To The Warblers, Waiting For The Warblers. There needs to be a Keats of the warblers; but they've never had their poet."

That's Brit Michael McCarthy writing about the neglected beauty of American warblers in The Independent. Read the rest of his tribute here.

Photo of Common Yellowthroat from Wikimedia Commons.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

"At the roots of an arcade of tulip trees"

One of the houses we lived in when I was small had a giant tulip poplar in the back yard. It shaded a large wooden sandbox that I claimed as my own, since my brothers were too old for sandboxes. I’d haul my dolls out there and play for hours, protected by the tree. I loved the fleshy flowers that dropped down from it in the spring. They’d litter the ground, and I was fascinated by the way the petals turned leathery and brown as they decayed. My attachment to that tree has stayed with me all my life. If I have a totem tree, it must be the tulip poplar

Tulip poplars get very tall and their roots are rather fragile, so they are prone to coming down in storms, especially when there’s a lot of rain. There are quite a few of them on the ground in the park right now, thanks to the flood, and the flowers are scattered everywhere. The blooms themselves have no scent, but if you tear open the center pod (the “ovary”), there’s a wonderful green fragrance inside—a mix of pine, cucumber and cut leaf. I’ve been stopping at least once every morning this week to pick up a flower and take a hit of that smell. It’s on my short list of dream perfumes. I’d love for some brilliant nose to re-create it.

I went looking for a poetic reference to the tulip tree and found something wonderful by Csezlaw Milosz. Here’s the relevant snippet:

America for me has the pelt of a raccoon,
Its eyes are a raccoon’s black binoculars.
A chipmunk flickers in a litter of dry bark
Where ivy and vines tangle in the red soil
At the roots of an arcade of tulip trees.
America’s wings are the color of a cardinal,
Its beak is half-open and a mockingbird trills
From a leafy bush in the sweat-bath of the air.
Its line is the wavy body of a water moccasin
Crossing a river with a grass-like motion,
A rattlesnake, a rubble of dots and speckles,
Coiling under the bloom of a yucca plant.

From "A Treatise on Poetry: IV Natura" by Csezlaw Milosz, translated by Robert Hass. Read more here.

Photo by Jean-Pol GRANDMONT from Wikimedia Commons

Monday, May 10, 2010

The snapping turtles...

 not understand why everybody is so upset about the flood. I made my first trip back to the lake this morning since the big rain, and saw three large specimens, all apparently delighted with the mud and high water. Insofar as it is possible for reptiles to have facial expressions, they looked very smug ...(more)

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Random Rave: Oud Mubakhar, Itarji

I've been seeking out some olfactory comfort these past few days to counteract the time spent cleaning up my nasty, wet basement. This morning I ferreted through a pile of old samples and came across a vial of Oud Mubakhar that arrived along with the Itarji perfumes I blogged about last year. I can't remember if I sniffed this particular samp when it arrived. If I did, it didn't make much of an impression--maybe because I was so thrilled with the stuff I'd actually ordered. I dabbed some on this morning, not expecting anything special, and immediately started wondering if it might be bottle-worthy. It's that rare thing, a light oud perfume. There's a fleeting whiff of something citrusy in the opening, but once that passes, Oud Mubakhar is nothing but a subdued agarwood note.  The notorious aromatic punch of oud is not entirely missing, but it's tamed considerably. The overall effect is fresh and natural, with just a hint of opulence. I could never have imagined wearing an oud fragrance in the summer, but Oud Mubakhar is something I think I could enjoy even on a sweltering day. That lightness probably makes it a poor choice for people who cherish the hot, heavy quality of most oud perfumes; but if, like me, you're one who likes oud in tiny doses, it might be just what you're looking for.

Reclining river nymph at the fountain, Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1518

Saturday, May 8, 2010

What we did during the deluge

The writers at Chapter 16--including me--have gotten together to comment on the recent wateriness. You can read a few words from our fearless editor here, and a quick link to all the essays is here.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

And the lucky Bourbon French winner is...

...Dissed--or should I say dissed? You know who you are. Click the email link over there on my profile, please, and send me your address along with your choice of scents. I'll get them off to you shortly.

While we're on the subject of luck, I'm sorry to say that I'm feeling even luckier than I did a few days ago. Though my home was almost untouched, the flood damage in this area has turned out to be even worse than we first realized. Many people here are in need of immediate help, and there'll be a lot of repair and rebuilding to do. If you would like to help, The Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee is a very good place to drop some money. You can do that here. Thanks!

La Partie de Dés, René Schützenberger, 1910

Still got a mess here...

...but I've got sunny skies and spring flowers, too. Lucky me. I'll be back shortly with a real post and the name of the Bourbon French winner. Happy Thursday.

Photo by BitterGrace

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

One Sentence Perfume Review: Rose Celeste, Hové Parfumeur

Beautifully bloodless, like Lucy in Count Dracula's thrall.

Notes: Rose soliflore, with touches of sandalwood and green notes

Hové's website is here. Photo by BitterGrace.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

"The rainbow, cloud imbiber, may be seen"

In case you haven't heard, we're having some serious flooding hereabouts. I've got a nice reflecting pool in my basement, but no major damage. The dogs are physically fine, but seriously freaked out. I was tempted to post that horrible Carl Fredrik Kiörboe painting (you know--this one), but I decided y'all would rather see people suffer. This particular rendering of Le Déluge is by Antonio Carracci, son of Agostino. (Pa did one of the most popular pictures in the Gallery of Antique Smut.)

I'll be busy dealing with that wet basement for the next day or two, so posts may be haphazard. Have a good week. Here's some wisdom to keep in mind for unsettled seasons:

A storm should never catch you unprepared.
Aerial cranes take flight before its rising,
The restless heifer with dilated nostrils
Sniffs the air; the squeaking hirondelle
Flits round and round the lake, and frogs,
Inveterate in their mud, croak a chorale.
And too the ant, more frantic in his gallery,
Trundles his eggs out from their hiding place;
The rainbow, cloud imbiber, may be seen;
And crows go cawing from the pasture
In a harsh throng of crepitating wings;
The jeering jay gives out his yell for rain
And takes a walk by himself on the dry sand.

From Robert Fitzgerald's "Passages from Virgil's First Georgic"

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Turtle conjuring

I’ve been noticing the scarcity of box turtles on my walks lately, even beginning to wonder if the population is declining for some reason. Last night I went to bed with turtles on my mind—and this morning, as if I had conjured them, scads of turtles ...(more)

Enjoy Beltane!

Do something generative and pleasurable.

Nymphs Offering the Young Bacchus Wine, Fruit and Flowers, Caesar van Everdingen, 1670-78