I have grown old
but these words remain
tell her for me
because it’s very important
there will come one May night
of every year she’s alive
when the whole world smells of lilacs
Al Purdy from “May 23, 1980”
I’m going to guess we all know what Al meant by that specific night’s scent. His words immediately bring back my own memories of lilacs and their scent. As a kid my mom cutting them and bringing them into the house, the house filling with their scent, I see my mom as she was then. Or the backyard where my kids grew up, the lilacs at the edges of the yard, the scent wafting in through open windows. I see my kids as they were then in the backyard, maybe with a basketball, Mr Huber next door working in his shed. Or lying in bed alone in the dark in a certain time, the scent of lilacs making their way in. How those nights seem alive as spring fully takes hold and because of the nostalgia also holds loss.
Scent apparently is hardwired directly into the memory areas of our brain, it doesn’t go through the filters that the other senses do. So there is an intensity to those memories unlike our other senses. And unlike most of our other senses can also be there without experiencing the others. Your eyes can be closed, it can be quiet and you can be remote from the source of the scent but there it is. The rest of the body also not necessary to experience it or to take part in the experience.
Which I think is one of the reasons, one of many reasons, that Louise Glück’s poem, Mock Orange, works so spectacularly. The intensity of the experience of the scent of the Mock Orange is compared to her body’s response to sex. She says she hates the flower and sex because of how they are both invasive to the thinking part of her, a response without control. Does the speaker really hate it or does it allow her to say things she might otherwise not? At least, that’s how I read it, I’ve heard other readings as well so feel free to disagree. Which is also what is interesting about poems, isn’t it? How the reader brings themselves to a poem so the response is kind of like Glück’s here, a response not fully controlled, so is then like a scent eliciting a response that is unexpected and uncontrolled by the conscious mind.
Which brings me the the haiku master Basho who talked about the “poetics of scent” in linked verse. A way of linking verses that is more in the air between the verses, a scent that is there but not necessarily explicit but brings about a response. And often haiku includes explicitly scent, not just as metaphor for linking, knowing it would bring up associations for the readers. Plum blossoms for spring.
Like lilacs for here in North America. And one of the most famous lilac poems being Walt Whitman’s 1864 pastoral elegy for Abraham Lincoln and the dead of the American Civil War, When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d. I read that lilacs had only been in North America about a hundred years before Whitman’s poem was written but already had intense associations, for Whitman with spring but now with death as well. He brings in other scent in the final lines in combination with the central images from the poem.
Which seems a good way to end this essay, in the fragrant pines and cedar, dusk and dim. See what associations that brings up for you, this scent poetics. I can already feel the coolness of the evening air in those words without it being said, some sadness within that space.
For this video, which is the prelude to Cormorant’s Diving, I’ve used an old photo from childhood combined with a steam of consciousness flow of photos with movement and some evocative music to emulate what I think of as the poetics of scent.
Hope you enjoy it.