Thursday, February 28, 2013

the possibility of knowing

image via  

Last week I finally got around to reading July's People by world-treasure Nadine Gordimer. I loved this bit, where Maureen discovers aspects of her husband Bamford's smell that she's never before had to consider:  
Bam tore off a length from one of the toilet rolls she had not forgotten to provide, and went out into the bush. He left the smell of his sweaty sleep behind him; she had not known, back there, what his smell was (the sweat of love-making is different, and mutual). Showers and baths kept away, for both of them, the possibility of knowing in this kind of way. She had not known herself; the odours that could be secreted by her own body. There were no windows in the mud walls to open wide and let out the sour smell of this man. The flesh she had caressed with her tongue so many times in bed —all the time it had been a substance that produced this. She made a cooking-fire outside and the smoke was sweet, a thorny, perfumed wood cracking to release it. The others—Martha—were wise to keep the little hearth-fire alive always in the middle of the huts. Only those still thinking as if they were living with bathrooms en suite would have decided, civilizedly, the custom was unhygienic and too hot.
The passage calls to mind Ayla Peggy Adler's wish to wind up in the right cave, and her beautiful evocation of how scent informs compatibility and desire. Do you know the smell of your cave-mate (to borrow Ayla's term)? Do you need to find yourself in an actual cave (or hut, as Maureen does in July's People) to know their smell, stripped of deodorants and birth control pills and climate control systems? I ask people again and again, What do you smell like? Do any of us know? 

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Nosy Interview: Ariel Djanikian

Ariel In the Center of the Lagoon Nebula, © A. Caulet (ST-ECF, ESA), NASA
Ariel and I were classmates at the University of Michigan, where I quickly learned that she is the sort of person you delight in having on your end of the table, whether it's in workshop or at dinner. Her debut novel, The Office of Mercy, comes out this Thursday. While you're waiting to get your hands on it, visit Ariel's web site and follow her on Twitter

What do you smell like?
I smell like the coffee shops I frequent on a daily basis. Boots. High Efficiency Tide. Sharpie pens. My hair will net any ambient scent in its clutches: in the morning, that’s soap, but by night I’m frizzed out with the smell of pasta sauce and grilled whatever. Scrubbed clean, I think I smell like the high altitude air around the Caucasus Mountains touched with the verdant woodlands of Pennsylvania. 

What do you like to smell?
Baby spit up, the lingering scent of baby shampoo, the warm baby smell beneath folds of baby fat rolls, the ripe ambrosias of a soiled diaper, detected at close range through terrycloth pajamas. Old guitar strings. (Not that I play.) The stairwell in gyms. (Not that I go.) Decrepit rubber keys on an ancient Casio calculator. Yoda figurines. I like the smell of my house: dusty carpeting and tomatoes. Swimsuits drying on a bathroom hook. Bus exhaust, like from the school buses that used to line up beside our high school every afternoon. Plus the usual: onions frying, garlic roasting, pretzels from street vendors, masking tape, the sweetness of a heavy July afternoon just as it’s beginning to rain, poppies, kindling, acetone.

his good smell

[image via

"I feel good with my husband: I like his warmth and his bigness and his being-there and his making and his jokes and stories and what he reads and how he likes fishing and walks and pigs and foxes and little animals and is honest and not vain or fame-crazy and how he shows his gladness for what I cook him and joy for when I make him something, a poem or a cake, and how he is troubled when I am unhappy and wants to do anything so I can fight out my soul-battles and grow up with courage and a philosophical ease. I love his good smell and his body that fits with mine as if they were made in the same body-shop to do just that. What is only pieces, doled out here and there to this boy and that boy, that made me like pieces of them, is all jammed together in my husband. So I don't want to look around any more: I don't need to look around for anything."  --Sylvia Plath, The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath 

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Nosy Interview: Sierra Nelson

Sierra (photographed by Rebecca Hoogs) in A Beautiful Boomerang Nebula, © Hubble Heritage Team 

Sierra's praises are sung so sincerely by Seattleites I hold dear that it is easy to feel fond of her despite the fact that we've not yet met. She seems to possess that rare stripe of real kindness that radiates even via e-mail. I Take Back the Sponge Cake, her poetry and art choose-your-own-adventure book collaboration with the artist Loren Erdrich, can be purchased here, and her new chapbook, "In Case of Loss,"can be found nestled in the Toadlily Press Quartet, Embark. Sierra is co-founder of the Vis-à-Vis Society, a collaborative poetic team; if you live in Seattle, you can see Dr. Ink (a.k.a Sierra) and Dr. Owning (a.k.a Rachel Kessler) in action and get some poetry-science inspiration at MOHAI this Thursdsay

What do you smell like?  
For many years I smelled like bread because I worked in a small collectively run bakery in Seattle (Touchstone). That bakery no longer exists, and I think the smell has probably worn off by now. Too bad.

And for a short while, also years ago, I drove a '73 Plymouth Gold Duster: original gold paint on the exterior, front seat an amazing sky blue.  She was so beautiful, and broke down almost constantly; I never knew enough about car repair to keep her happy, or maybe nothing could.  She always smelled faintly of gasoline, a smell that I like, and during that time we were together I'm sure that smell rubbed off on me as well.

I like the idea of perfume but rarely actually wear it. Last summer I was on the small Italian island of Ischia and I was taken with a perfume that smelled warm and green to me, something like cut grass. My Italian is only so-so, but I'm pretty sure the man at the counter commended my choice of "scent of a man." Maybe that's why I liked it! I don't wear it often, but when I do, I find myself surreptitiously putting my nose to my wrist like I am receiving a message from a secret agent.

People have sometimes described a smell they associate with me, and for a long time I wasn't sure what it was because I wasn't wearing a particular scent.  But through some sleuthing I think I've traced it, at least in part, to a leave-in conditioner that lists its main ingredient as avocados but actually smells like honey.


What do you like to smell?
I like to shake hands with rosemary when I pass by, especially when it's growing in a gigantic bush as it often does in the Pacific Northwest (including in my front yard). I also really love the smell of sagebrush just after a thunderstorm (I did a lot of my growing up in Nevada, so the scent is nostalgic for me of the silver-grey mountains in Reno and Carson City).  I love the warm, dusty smell of typewriter keys (especially on an old electric that really hums and heats up).  And the red-green smell walking through a cedar forest.  I used to live in a building that always smelled deliciously like laundry soap (the basement laundry room windows were right by the front entrance). I like the progression of smells when making soup (onions and carrots, chopping fresh herbs, how everything smells as it's simmering together).  I love the briny blue smell of the sea, especially when it appears somewhat unexpectedly (like from a seashell picked up from a windowsill, or on a city street when the wind shifts just right).