Perfume of embraces all him assailed

I recently received my contributor’s copy of The Book of Scented Things, edited by Jehanne Dubrow and Lindsay Lusby. This collection arises from an intriguing conceit: the editors sent small vials of perfume to a bunch of poets and asked them to write something inspired by the scent. The book is remarkable for the range of styles represented. I asked the editor if she had simply sent solicitations to every poet on the PEN roster, but she assured me we were all specifically selected. (The roster is decidedly “mid-career,” as most of the poets have published only two to three books.) I dutifully dabbed some on my wrist, and was immediately transported back in time—not surprising, considering the well established link between scent and memory. When I was finished with my “research,” I gave the vial to my daughter, who probably still has it safely tucked in a box of rare and secret treasures. Perhaps one day she’ll chance upon it, unscrew the cap, and recall her own wonder-struck childhood?

In any case, I was pleased to find a good many of my favorite contemporaries represented in the book. Some of them have already been mentioned on this blog, but today, I’d just like to focus on Patrick Phillips. Of all the fine poems in this collection, his “Green Irish Tweed” was among the highlights for me. The poem is very loosely a villanelle, though Phillips takes great liberties with the form. And the form is perfect for the subject, as memory is itself repetitive, cyclical, unlikely to travel in straight lines. The repeating lines are never repeated verbatim, and are therefore suggestive of the way that remembering is also rewriting.

The scene is simple enough: the speaker, now a middle-aged man, is transported back and forth from the present to an instance in his boyhood, when he stood in front of the bathroom mirror, touching—fetishizing—his father’s shaving tools, his razor and cologne. There is a sense of compassion and nostalgia for the boy’s innocence and awe that completely avoids sentimentality. The details are stark, concrete, and familiar, which fosters a strong connection for the reader (or for me, at least). What boy never took his father’s razor and pretended to shave, acting out the true motions of manhood? And yet, the beauty, the mystery, lies in what is missing, what remains unsaid and left for the reader to surmise—as in, “Your brother still lovely, your father still strong.” The understanding is that, 30 years later, the brother and father are not lovely or strong. It’s the reader’s job to consider the reasons. And think of what a powerful and unusual word that is to describe a brother—lovely. And yet, just a few lines earlier, the brother is described as being (or at least being with) someone “totally totally stoned.” Regardless, I doubt I’ve ever described my brother as lovely. Also left to the imagination is the actual father. We have his artifacts, but not the man. Even his face is not his own, as it has been supplanted by the poet’s face: “In the mirror, you’re still forty-one / wearing a face that your father wore then.” His absence is made all the more acute by the final line: “Where you breath, and your father comes home.” On the one hand, this is all wish-fulfillment. But deeper, it’s a recognition of the passing and cycling of time. When the father “comes home,” it is in fact the son who sees himself as the father. Another thing I love about this poem is the superposition of time, as it’s not always clear what’s in the present and what’s in the past. Rather than causing cognitive strife, this opens up layers of complexity, as the sense of the poem changes based on the reading (and rereading). Odd to say, but this poem reminded me of another favorite (but very different) poem—”Encounter,” by Czeslaw Milosz, which ends,

O my love, where are they, where are they going
The flash of a hand, streak of movement, rustle of pebbles.
I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder.

I had been planning to write about Phillips’ first book of poems, Chatahoochie, for some time now, and may still do so in the future. For now, let me simply give it my highest recommendation. And, of course, let me also give a plug for The Book of Scented Things. There is probably no better compendium of mid-career American poets on the market right now.