I am quicksilver, the fox in the night, emotional about the poetry, love & desire in scent, read me.

Sunday 28 July 2013

Sweet & Floured Skin: ‘Castaña’ by Cloon Keen Atelier

Castaña is Spanish for chestnut, a familiar nut with a singular smeared and floury taste. Sweet or savoury, chestnuts are very distinctive; an acquired taste like asparagus, anything caprine and pomegranates. I love them candied, cooked with game, ground, distilled, fried or simply roasted in their shiny shells. They smell of the earth, chthonic. Despite growing on trees, they seem more correct on the ground amid leaf litter and the colours of autumn.

I have a very specific memory of roasted chestnuts linked to a miserable night in Paris as a student in the early 90s. I was an early manny and as such, part of a vast network of often unpaid naïve student slave labour, expected to appreciate the glamour of the city and the experiences being somewhat grudgingly extended to us and yet work ridiculous and demanding hours.  

My friend C and I didn’t go home that Christmas and the guy I’d been seeing brushed me off like snow on his shoulder. We lived off Boursin, horribly cheap wine in plastic bottles, baguette and C’s miraculous garlic-laden macaroni cheese she managed to conjure up on a hot plate in her little room. God knows where our money went. We look amazing in the photos, so on clothes, booze and cigarettes I guess.

One evening we were in the Marais, after a few hours of pastis on a chilled terrace, wandering the Place des Vosges, one of our favourite places, vibrant by day, shadowed and eerie at night. It was drizzling and the streets were mobbed with shoppers, bags crashing into us as we moaned to each other, over-dramatising as only petulant, slightly pissed English students could. I was never dressed properly for any weather, thin t-shirts, ripped jeans and a cricket sweater that had seen better days. More rent than tourist. I’m sure it was all horribly deliberate. The photos demonstrate a smug knowingness I hardly recognise now. I always had a fag in my hand no matter what the weather.

Everywhere we wandered, peering in at windows and dodging manic cars and raging klaxons, we could smell roasted chestnuts. It’s a very distinctive smell, unlike anything else, soft and inviting, wrapped in milky smoke. The little Dickensian stands emitted its heat and glow into the saturated evening. I wanted some, badly. The smell made my stomach howl. The marchand des chataignes was from Marseilles, his singsong accent, blurring his vowels like Mireille Matthieu. I remember begging him for two bags as I only had enough for one. Whatever I said worked, he waved his black-smutted hands at me and muttered joyeux noel…smiling through the rain. I shouted joyeux noel back and ran to find C, who was standing in a doorway, angrily trying to light a crooked damp cigarette.

The smell of those sweet hot chestnuts, split and crisp, reeking of the newspaper cones the seller had made himself has stayed with me forever. Ink and floured nuttiness, sugared starch, but most of all, a scent of streets, of lights and rain, traffic fumes and exhaustion. I am very wary about eating roast chestnuts now. I see the vendors, smell the whiff of cracking burnt shell, the ooze of sweet inside. But I’m not sure I want to actually rekindle that particular memory. We walked for miles as we always did, Rue de Rivoli, Louvre, Chatelet, Gare de Lyon, Bastille, back to our rooms. In the morning I remember my fingers smelled of fire and sugar, the smudged newspaper tossed across the floor near my crumpled Gitanes.

I have cooked with chestnuts since, stuffed partridge with them, pan-fried them with sprouts, maple syrup and walnuts, made a sauce with them, mixed with prunes and Armagnac and poured it over venison. And I’m anyone’s pretty much for a quality marron glacé… If you told me I had a rare disorder which meant I had to spend the end of my days living off marrons glacés and honeydew melon, I would be a very happy Fox.       

However as a fragrance note is rare enough to stand out. Strange really, because it is a very distinctive note, warm and sugared, floury and woody-soft. They taste like they look. Snug and golden. There are hints of saffron, patisserie, spiced apple, sweet potato and artichoke. The texture is glutinous and dry, powdered and strangely sherbety. There are a few rather unusual perfumes that have taken chestnuts as a theme and done lovely things with them. Betrand Duchaufour has been creating perfumes for the Sersale Family at the Hotel Sirenuse on the Amalfi coast for a number of years now. I am huge fan of his hot, terracotta-infused Paestum Rose. But his melancholic and comforting Sienne L’Hiver is layered with notes of the earth: truffles, leaves, straw, coal roasted chestnuts, violet, woods and musks. The elements of wandering through forests, of trying to lose oneself, kicking at the ground, all around the odours of autumn descend and infiltrate the senses.

The other one is Aqua di Casta by Testa Maura, created by Corsican perfumer Xavier Torre. These are really beautiful intense fragrances, made with true passion and desire. Carticasi is another one, a profoundly resinous floral with ylang and rose but tempered with the weird brittle snap of mastic. Wonderful. Aqua di Casta is a homage to the chestnut trees of the Castagniccia Corsican highlands. Blended with pepper, wood and ginger it is a dry sun-swept scent, filled with the rustle of leaves and sound of coruscating summer winds.

Tuesday 16 July 2013

The Reek of Truthful Desire: Les Parfums de Vero Profumo

I am not sure how sexual and graphic I will end up being in this piece, but it’s a long time since I have smelt perfumes this visceral and erotic. With me, perfume is a skin thing. Juice on skin. Ink on skin. Flesh as canvas. The body beautiful bores me. The body painted, anointed, dipped, carved, oozing smoke, indoles, musks, sweat, vanilla, hot petals, tears and leather. Now that’s interesting.

The incomparable Vero Kern is inseparable from her wanton and compelling fragrances. Once worn, they own and haunt.

Her Onda was the subversive and palpable hit of my poetry and perfume event at Edinburgh’s Botanic Gardens on a late May evening of sun and sensuality. Séville à L’Aube by L’Artisan Parfumeur and Gorilla’s The Smell of Weather Turning also caused considerable ripples. But it was Onda as it name suggests that caused the biggest wave. I chose it as my scent of the evening to wear. I knew I would as soon as I smelt it in Bloom Perfumery in London moths ago. My flesh and garments were doused in the bitter-sexy tarantella of ylang, bergamot, honey, passion fruit, musk and woods. This was just the eau de parfum. I then anointed my pulse points and laced my throat with Vero’s skeletal extrait Onda companion. Pared down it may be - mace, vetiver, ginger and coriander – but it packs quite a salacious punch.

So on the night I radiated Onda with the subtlety of an erotic dirty bomb and smelt bloody gorgeous. Everyone I greeted wanted to know what I was wearing, leaning in like olfactory vampires to inhale, tempted in several cases to even lick me.

What I’m calling the sensual reek of Onda is something mainstream perfumery has been fleeing from for years. Skin, real skin, flushed and handled, lit with libido and longing, a blush of coition or just the promise of all the above to come. The French have always embraced this reek, the skank beneath the vanillic bouquet. Exploring in classical delicious formulae, the hint of something unsavoury yet intensely moreish lurking under jasmine, roses, iris, lavender and exotic balms. Animalic notes bringing the skin to the edge of disrepute.

Sadly the rise of clean scents, white musks and the weird crossover of detergent and towel notes into mainstream perfumery have caused a massive backlash against reek and skank. The world of ozonic and deadly locker room sport scents have laid waste to the decadent beauties that once sashayed their lascivious wares through international perfumery. The US mainstream market is obsessed with these clean smelling scents and the stickier neon end of the gourmand trade. (Although some fascinating small niche houses like DS & Durga, Slumberhouse and Kerosene are doing innovative and fascinating olfactory things in the US). Far Eastern tastes are generally more floral, the weather and cultural desires dictate a more feminine and accessible approach to scent. Another huge market is Brazil, where it is all about the fruit, in everything, shower gels, home scents, detergents and of course fragrance. The humidity and weather patterns often mean multiple showering, cleansing and therefore Brazilians love love love their fruit. It’s a tough market to break. No coconut, papaya, banana, kiwi, passion fruit, local specialties, it ain’t gonna happen.

I think however a secret yearning for reek and skank explains the ubiquitous rise in the use of Oud (agarwood) by nearly every major player, mainstream or artisan across the global market in recent years. Few have resisted its sweaty allure. Essentially Oud wood is the infected heartwood of Aquilaria or Gyrings trees. A form of mould, it parasitises the heart of its host and the result is both prohibitively expensive and well nigh on irresistible.

There is no denying the underlying armpitty and unwashed corporeal headiness that Oud brings to scent. But it requires quality and the right aromatic partners to reveal its true beauty. I love it with rose and iris, sometimes a dusting of chocolate. L’Artisan Parfumeur's Al Oudh is my favourite, followed closely by Francis Kurkdjian’s original Oud (which just burns out my synapses…), the fabulously foul Musc Koublai Khan by Serge Lutens and then Amber Oud by By Kilian which I am reluctant to like because as a brand they so blatantly signal all the exotic clichés of Oud I have come to hate. But hey ho, the skin likes what it likes.

Like many of us I would imagine, my first real introduction to mainstream Oud was through Tom Ford’s hirsute M7 for YSL in 2007. It was quite a revelation, created by the power pairing of Alberto Morillas and Jacques Cavallier, it really shook up the world and had so many people asking: what is agarwood? The rebooted 2011 version M7 Oud Absolu however is ghastly, a namby pamby pretender to the Burt Reynolds Cosmo Centrefold original. I liked the coldly burnished way M7 vibrated off the skin like varnished cello notes. It was oddly medicinal too, feral in its search for purpose.

The campaign reeked of sex too, shot as a full frontal of French martial arts champion Samuel Le Clubber; the guy was as hairy as hell and had his bits out. Not everywhere mind, some countries (well most actually) panicked and cropped him. The image was composed as an echo of the Yves Saint Laurent’s daring bespectacled nude campaign for Homme, his first men’s fragrance in 1971, taken by Jeanloup Sieff. 

But anyone who has ever worn Kouros by Pierre Bourdon, launched in 1981, will know that YSL is no strangers to skank. Kouros still divides, despite signs of obvious tinkering. The graphic civetty bathroom odour of aldehydes, wormwood, musks and lemon blended so outrageously with carnation, orris, leather and jasmine tipped a fougère into a piss-stained, backroom work of art.

Other great reek and skank perfumes I would mention include Schiaparelli’s gussety Shocking, the original Jicky by Guerlain, Germaine Cellier’s original knife-wielding Bandit and Penhaligon’s Hammam Bouquet, which must have been achingly beautiful before being gutted of its animalic roar and gossipy sexuality. I consider all of these prime examples of fragrances that once allowed us to truly explore the concept of the brothel beneath the skin. We all have a hankering for carnality; only some of us choose to embrace it as the blue hour approaches.

Thursday 4 July 2013

Poetry & Perfume IX- ‘Vita Nova’ by Louise Gluck & ‘The Smell of Weather Turning’ by Gorilla Perfume

Vita Nova

By Louise Gluck

You saved me, you should remember me.

The spring of the year; young men buying tickets for the
Laughter, because the air is full of apple blossoms.

When I woke up, I realized I was capable of the same 

I remember sounds like that from my childhood,   
laughter for no cause, simply because the world is 
something like that.

Lugano. Tables under the apple trees.
Deckhands raising and lowering the colored flags.
And by the lake’s edge, a young man throws his hat into 
  the water;
perhaps his sweetheart has accepted him.

sounds or gestures like
a track laid down before the larger themes

and then unused, buried.

Islands in the distance. My mother   
holding out a plate of little cakes—

as far as I remember, changed
in no detail, the moment
vivid, intact, having never been
exposed to light, so that I woke elated, at my age   
hungry for life, utterly confident—

By the tables, patches of new grass, the pale green   
pieced into the dark existing ground.

Surely spring has been returned to me, this time   
not as a lover but a messenger of death, yet   
it is still spring, it is still meant tenderly.

It is the final verse of this poem that haunts me.

Vita Nova, (new life) was published in 1999. The eponymous poem, Vita Nova for me, looks at loss and memory. A lover gone. Childhood recollections surfacing as gestures and minutiae unfurl scenes and elemental images in the poet’s fertile, wandering mind. It is a poem that seems fragranced; sun, apple blossom, cakes, grass, tables and the promise of spring, the hint perhaps of rebirth, shift and change.

You saved me, you should remember me.

I find intense melancholia and uncertainty in Gluck’s airy depiction of a European childhood. Echoes of things vanished. It is a painterly scent, depicted in poetic small strokes laid down over a larger more resonant canvas. A little like Impressionism, the details shift, merge and finally coalesce into sharper focus if you step back and allow distance to settle between you and the language.

The Smell of Weather Turning is still the best piece of scented work from Gorilla in my opinion. I know Breath of God is highly regarded and quite rightly so, but The Smell of Weather Turning marked the beginning I think of a beautifully mined set of perfumed beliefs in English pagan and folkloric past. This obsession of Mark and Simon Constantine’s became apparent in the last set of new releases from Gorilla, or Volume 2 as Gorilla like to refer to them. With influences and inspirations as diverse as smugglers, Kerouac, Sikkim, English folklore, jazz, electronic surveillance and ancient barrows, Gorilla produced a startling and highly original selection of deeply wrought formulae. New packaging and a marked difference in olfactory style really set these new releases apart. They have depth and resonance beyond the bottle, that is rare in perfumery. Each scent is wrapped up in an olfactory mythology of its own. They are singular and divisive as all truly interesting things should be. 

I have blogged on The Smell of Weather Turning, it was a scent that really caught me unawares, causing huge emotions and memories to well up and overwhelm me. The scent is made form ingredients only available 5000 years ago: oakwood, beeswax, roman chamomile, English peppermint, nettle, mint and hay. This weird astringent smeared blend transported me back to my African childhood, standing in a dusty yard, watching a column of ants as the sky tilted and the air ran dry. The storm that followed was both utterly terrifying and exhilarating at the same time. Debris everywhere, and the most extraordinary smells. Loamy odours of smashed earth and shattered marigolds, drowned acidic insects and steaming soil.

The fragrance has druidic origins and is supposed to represent the scent of a landscape after a thunderstorm, the sudden scudding of clouds across the sky, rain fleeing. The sun appears and everything is warm again, safe.

My reading has always been deeply personal, influenced as we all are by our upbringings and olfactive influences as we grow, love and experience life. In my blog piece I mentioned Hardy’s Tess (one of my favourite novels) and the appallingly calm moment they come for her at Stonehenge in the early morning. This scene would reek of The Smell of Weather Turning hanging in the damp Wessex air as the police and Angel wait for Tess to wake, to take her away to face her terrible inevitable fate.

This strange poignancy is why I thought of it for Vita Nova. At once, green and medicinal, a sharp and inclusive promise of things to come and yet pervasive, forcing memories to rise and fall. A suggestion of spring, but a reminder too that things die and the heart stays forever broken in places. A scent that conjures landscape and elemental forces for a poem about emotions lost amid the delicacy of shattered memory. Both concern the emergence into light from darkness.

A new life. Can we truly ever really do that? Memories haunt and follow us. It is in their nature to do so. But we should embrace this. The Smell of Weather Turning is a profoundly elemental scent, tied to landscape and memory, notes that have purpose and resonance, possess reason. At first glance poem and scent seem worlds apart, but the almost claustrophobic blend of notes, cast across ancient skies and Gluck’s litany of rose-tinted obsessive recollections echo and blur across each other meeting finally in the final skin-shaking lines.

Tuesday 2 July 2013

Poetry & Perfume VIII - 'Snow Melting' by Gjertrude Schnackenberg & 'Poudre de Riz' by Huitième Art

Snow Melting

By Gjertrude Schnackenberg

Snow melting when I left you, and I took
This fragile bone we'd found in melting snow
Before I left, exposed beside a brook
Where raccoons washed their hands. And this, I know,

Is that raccoon we'd watched for every day.
Though at the time her wild human hand
Had gestured inexplicably, I say
Her meaning now is more than I can stand.

We've reasons, we have reasons, so we say,
For giving love, and for withholding it.
I who would love must marvel at the way
I know aloneness when I'm holding it,

Know near and far as words for live and die,
Know distance, as I'm trying to draw near,
Growing immense, and know, but don't know why,
Things seen up close enlarge, then disappear.

Tonight this small room seems too huge to cross.
And my life is that looming kind of place.
Here, left with this alone, and at a loss
I hold an alien and vacant face

Which shrinks away, and yet is magnified—
More so than I seem able to explain.
Tonight the giant galaxies outside
Are tiny, tiny on my windowpane.

This was another case of fragrance first.  Pierre Guillaume is a prolific and mercurial man, beautiful too. Vain, prodigiously talented and totally secure in his awareness of himself as someone how can create singularly unique aromas.

His main line is the rightly lauded Parfumerie Générale, a collection of truly inspiring and individual scents that have garnered tremendous critical praise and a loyal following. They have clarity and intent, each fragrance created using the best possible raw materials and glorious aromachemistry. Pierre likes to play too, with our senses and expectations. There are often notes that shock and surprise in each creation. He likes to find something that will bring the unknown to the mix. Like a host inviting a wildcard guest, someone edgy and unpredictable; however the canny host knows the mix of guests will be enriched by the addition and the result will be an unforgettable evening. His work is the marriage of modernist olfactory architecture wrapped around the beautiful and innovative naturals he can source. I can only really describe it as the sensation of being in a glass tower of scent, thousands of feet off the ground, knowing that only a pane of glass is between you and the vertiginous exterior. But somehow, the fragrances contain safety, cocooning.  The juxtaposition of cold glass, steel and the sensualities of the natural world is how I view Pierre’s unique world.

I wear his Cuir Venenum, all raspberry beer, hops and dirty leather -which emanates from a compulsive burnt Bakelite smell. And Felanilla, a feline vanilla, with a deeply sexy flambéed banana/rum facet that smells delicious as it settles down into the flesh. I am currently re-visiting one of my all-time favourites Musc Maori, one of the first I ever bought in fact and one of the most delectable chocolate gourmands of all time. Milk chocolate, silky smooth, Galaxy indulgence. You feel dipped and cleansed, quite a feat.  The beauty is in the use of Cumaru wood and the very subtle use of coffee and green notes to float the sweetness.

There is now a clever and deceptively simple diffusion line called Huitième Art, very different in style, exploring Pierre’s fascination with oddity and effect. They are minimal in tone, three to four impressions, in very distinctive white porcelain bottles shaped like primitive smooth ceramic owls. I wasn’t sure at first, but Pierre’s technique of layering the effects over one other like gauze is very seductive and the more I sampled them, the more I loved them. I liked most of them actually, but Poudre de Riz was my favourite. Powder. How could it not be? But it is so much more than that. It is a white scent, snow, cold air, exposed skin, the hairs on the body rising as you walk into a haunted room. Powder, chalk, dust… smashed glass, crystalline tears, icing sugar. These are my things. I get them. I look for them in scent. Like roses, plastic and leather, I love the scent of powder, be it the aftermath of calamity, concrete and dust or the vintage violet-tinted fallout of setting powder and Johnson’s baby stuff.

Poudre de Riz is an aloof gourmand. Sweet and moreish but cold and distant at the same time. Vanilla, monoï and tiare flower lay down amid coconut milk, maple sap, caramel, sandalwood, iris, cedar, tonka bean, tolu balsam, benzoin and damask rose. The effect is skin, snow, loneliness. For me it is a very private scent, one I will only wear alone. It draws in the walls and dims the lights. So I had my scent, now I needed my poem. In my memory I recalled a poem about that mentioned snow and bones and raccoons washing their tiny hands in meltwater. I remembered the lines:

Tonight this small room seems too huge too cross.
And my life is that looming kind of place.

Snow Melting is a bizarre and moving poem by Gjertrud Schnackenberg, a glittering and aesthetically complex American poet, born in 1953. 

The poem explores distance and loss, the cracks that often loom between us. We are dwarfed by nature and weight of simply living. It is the details that will hobble us and bring us down. The poem opens and closes like lungs, breathing softly. There is expansion. The small details, a bone found in melting snow, a shared memory of a raccoon by a brook tied to departure as the snows leave. A treatise on the pain and vagaries of partaking and donating love. Then the telescoping to a room -

Tonight this small room seems too huge to cross.
And my life is that looming kind of place.
Here, left with this alone, and at a loss
I hold an alien and vacant face

These lines are very hard to say out loud, they seem to demand an inner silence, a prayer inside, behind the eyes. Life seemingly immense and insurmountable with loss and grief, everything distorted by vacancy of love. Snow at the beginning, galaxies at the end, tiny, tiny on my windowpane. I would need a coating of something. A barrier. We all crave comfort from time to time, looking for it in many places, food, love, booze, drugs, sleep and warmth. Lots of clients ask me for comforting scents, cocooning fragrance, soft and skin-close. More often than not, vanillic in character, powered with a lick of orange blossom. There is immense safety in Poudre de Riz, Pierre Guillaume’s clever manipulation of milkiness and sweetness creating a sense of detachment and whiteness, like an ashen cell, where the body can heal.

There is aloneness in Poudre de Riz, a drifting, like snow nuzzling glass. But as it drops into the skin, it seems to raise memories, phantoms; loves lost. So many gourmand fragrances neglect to stir the mind, but Poudre de Riz moves with the innate and studied grace of a silent Oiran to seduce the senses and wrap the wearer in crepuscular drifts of memory.