Elizabeth Powell’s lyrical essay “Summer Undid Me: Guerliain Imperiale (Bedroom), 1853” testifies to the most powerful human sense: the olfactory gland that doubles as a detector of odors and trigger of erotic ecstasy. “I have set sail,” Powell confesses unabashedly. “The lightweight of this scent, how it is friendly in its top notes, gathers us/ beside each other, it is the beginning of my imagining love and as it wafts it mixes with desire./ I am full.”
Powell lyricizes the erotic perils and delights of exotic perfumes that have over the centuries besotted lovers, including her, with a sensual efficacy that justifies their reputation as irresistible aphrodisiacs. Powell’s language in this essay is as seductive as the perfumes she extols, descending the page in tight brief stanzas with Nabokov-like wit and eloquence. A love poem to both her lover and the perfume he gave her (Guerliain Imperiale, (Bedroom) 1853), this “essay” issues a wise but vain caveat about the bearer of swoon-inducing scents that both inspire as a muse and conquer with smell: “He [the speaker’s lover] knew the limbic system, how the ancient brain full of procreative and fearful/ urges was attached to smell, and processed the reaction and how it would react before you or I/ were even aware.”
SUMMER UNDID ME: GUERLAIN IMPERIALE (BEDROOM), 1853
Dear Reader, Fellow Perfume Testers and Collectors, Parfum Editors, Shunned Lovers Who Can
No Longer Stand the Scents:
The world is too much with me—I said.
The sun was hot in the window. I hate hot sun in the window. It is stressful.
The bed’s white sheets out of a study by Gaston Bachelard in the “Poetics of Space”.
This perfume my lover wore was first made in 1853. Um, okay, I say:
It’s girlie perfume. He was sexy in it. Lemony.
And this poem, if it is anything, is the fight of the will with inattention,
is a dare. The bottle of Imperiale has 69 bees on it, all stinging.
A bee knows everything about the genitals
of plants. This perfume, Eau de Cologne, Imperiale, by Guerlain, known
as one of the Guerlainades, whose top notes are so bavard talkative:
bergamot, neroli, verbena, lemon, orange, and once it settles into the skin
makes heart notes of lavender,
until the base arrives at the end of cedar wood, Tonka bean, reminding
that the future has come and is leaving soon.
Made by His Majesty’s Royal Perfumer on the Rue di Tivoli in Paris:
It came out three years after Wordsworth died,
in honor of Napoleon IIIs wife Eugenie, mother of Prince Imperial,
descendent of Josephine (for whom Chardin produced perfumes)
and Napoleon’s third brother. But at that moment
the robust and citrusy scent meant I could cry.
I was a Romantic and he had no idea what that meant.
Unlike Napoleon I to Josephine, he preferred his women washed.
Unlike Napoleon he didn’t bestow violets, noticing how they were (like himself)
stealth, ethereal in their ability to turn off receptors, avoid being
smelled. I loved to wait for his magic, like a violet’s after anosmia.
He wrote messages about other women he planned to sleep with
on the public perfume blog. He had me in this perfumed trance.
I disassociated a bit on the wind of scents, and made
no sense anymore, for a while.
(If you are not Dearhearted, do not bother reading this, DearReader.)
Me, the once eight-year-old girl sticking a needle
in her index finger over and over,
how I taught myself not to cry. Years ago now
when after I was contained in my alone box, my house of no food, gone parents,
I’d walk downtown to the perfume shop where the Swedish saleswoman
let me luxuriate in the glow of glass and crystal, Windex and atomizers,
pretending to care. But no one cares really. Perfume is a cover up.
Perfume is about making sex not private. Perfume is about “smell me”
no matter if you want to or not. Seduction. Sedition.
Maybe it was in the confines of this scented space I first smelled the freedom
of Guerlain, and it reminds me now that I have escaped, and makes him seem safe,
the way I smell him before I realize I smell him, his cage surrounding him.
He is part of the inner dialogue I have been corresponding with since then—
I’m not sure how he found me.
When the beautiful soul dies it smells of roses everywhere.
He kept me topsy-turvy, changing scents every four dates,
as a way to continually disrupt and introduce narrative.
He kept throwing me off his trail, his scent.
Or maybe the number four, connected …to…was part of… his mathematical mind, which I knew
nothing about and when I said I could not do math he’d go mad.
“Yes, you, can.” I don’t know why he thought that important. I can count syllables, spondees,
who cares about trig or calc.
My French stepmother was once the Givenchy lady at Lord and Taylor
and my sister in charge of spraying customers with new scents
as they walked into 1986 where Elvis Costello still jams and cabarets.
You see dearheart, dearreader, dear person who might be
kind: I had spent my wad of will. Just give it to me, baby.
I had been his Chanel girl. This gave me entrée. Later
he said he would marry the Guerlain shop girl at Bergdorf’s.
Just joking. But, not. I would warn her later.
When I’d read the five-year restraining order, all the lurid details
of how he beat the Shalimar out of his five foot wife from Nantes.
He marketed to me who he was and is and could be. His Guerlain bees:
I craved to be stung. Who are you to me,
he’d think, and pick a fragrance from his hundred bottles,
and manila envelops of samples from midwestern housewives
who were actually beautiful and sad. People
he met on his blogs. He had already charged me
with his leathery buttery bergamot, his old school Dior Fahrenheit,
mixed with the layers of his original scent, a case in archeology. O discovery
is treacherous if sexy. The limbic risqué dance of my desire got away from me,
made me obsess on the scent of him, so soon he seemed to be everywhere,
in the coffee shop, on my sleeve, in the pineal glands and in my nose hairs.
“The rarest blooms mix their soft perfumes,” Baudelaire said in his poem
“Invitation to the Voyage” fifteen years after Imperiale appeared.
I have set sail, no going back
even if the earth ends because it is flat in the imagination of this love story.
The lightweight of this scent, how it is friendly in its top notes, gathers us
beside each other, it is the beginning of my imagining love and as it wafts
it mixes with desire. I am full:
I’m just not yet sure which lover I am the artist or the needy girl.
This poem tries to make a world where I can be both, and other things,
among the citrus of morning and its mourning of night.
He knew the limbic system, how the ancient brain full of procreative and fearful
urges was attached to smell, and processed the reaction and how it would react before you or I
were even aware.
He is that deviously smart. Like Anateus or Egoiste, both by Chanel.
The way he used structural or behavioral patterns
to establish me inside his kingdom.
Wordsworth wouldn’t have approved. He liked the natural
world, not the idea of the natural world. And dear reader,
I wanted him like I wanted to kill myself as a child,
and later at other times, a deep merging into the hills
and lakes unknown, the ultimate petit mal. Mysterious O.
DearReader, Dearheart, How do I unlove him?
I am writing a spell to undo the alchemy
of his smells. Dear Reader, I’m foolish in my Cristalle, my No. 19,
my Estee Lauder mascara, my skinny jeans, my thwarted desires,
that light on the bed and his cheekbones. I ordered a book on Amazon
about a guy who is a sociopath murderer of women, a perfume obsessed
man. After the theater one night, he told me over Sinatra,
steaks and iceberg salads,
his uncle killed his aunt. Then the next day told me he was surprised
my last boyfriend (who didn’t like it if I ate ice cream)
hadn’t killed me. How lucky I was!
This lemony summer scent is the one he wore that day.
we had made love for the first time, after the book award gala
where my book almost but didn’t win, and in the morning
he was going on a date with someone else. I figured it out.
Still I went to breakfast with him. Maybe I wouldn’t had I won
the award. The darkness Dear Reader, is that everyone,
everyone is so beautiful once. The indent in the center of his chest,
where possibility resides. The thick horsehair of his head. Long finger
pushing the atomizer.
Dear Reader, too much psychotherapy,
twelve steps, was no match for the Imperiale scent constructed
of the idea of summer light and the beauty of women in dresses
and men in seersucker with straw hats by a pond that one sees
from a bed with white sheets.
The scent made me carnal,
it made me a kite tangled in a tree,
it made me a watercolor brush stroke, rose near gold
in a summer scene depicting Maine. Light on his white sheets.
There was the smell of sunshine and the smell of his meanness.
I loved him into my own moon-cratered soul and I fell
in darkness toward imagine moonlight inside the stark
September sunshine. And my will does not bring him back, DearReader,
dearhearted one, not even an alchemy of scent can reconjure.
So memory comes, and so a memory goes, pollinating
other flowers for other lives.
Now that smell of lemons seems sour and sad.
Not the lightness effervescent. The sunlight changed
on the bed, my atoms stirred and mixed like martinis,
shaken. O Being! I look out the window, a chickadee
flies into my face. Crashes into glass. Falls, and falls.
And the bees are loose
I’d rather die under his hand than of lung cancer or slow pain or anyway else.
O dearhearted Reader, do not try to help me:
Now we’re getting dressed again. Au Revoir.
They will know him by this smell: