Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Summerpeg and the Schnozz

I'm sitting in a very cool hotel room on a very hot Winnipeg evening, watching the Jays play the Twins in Toronto. An uneventful, even dull, trip here, with the exception of four slightly rowdy fellahs from New Zealand, whose presence was a positive relief--but they got off in Jasper. There weren't many people in my car--or on the train as a whole after Jasper, which is probably what allowed us to arrive here 15 minutes early. On-time performance is a goal much more readily attained when you're making little money...

A pleasant consequence of my lack of work was a bit of time for on-the-job reading. I've got Diane Ackerman's A Natural History of the Senses along with me and I finished the first chapter, "Smell," on my way here. The writing occasionally gets a bit purple, but her style's excellent for the most part and the subject matter fascinating. She says one thing in particular that caught my eye (and nose, I suppose): "One of the real tests of writers, especially poets, is how well they write about smells. If they can't describe the scent of sanctity in a church, can you trust them to describe the suburbs of the heart?" I like the thought in the first sentence, but the second is an example of how she can get carried away in her prose. It strikes me that "the scent of sanctity in a church" is reminiscent of the overpowering ripe-cheese reek of an industrial hog farm and the suburbs of the heart are dark and dismal precincts full of bored teenagers and frustrated adults.

I remember, during my brief stint as a student at Concordia University, writer-in-residence Anne Dandurand complaining that very few English writers lead with their noses, that the olfactory was a nil factor in their atmospherics. She's probably right. The example par excellence of smell-lit, of course, is German novelist Patrick Suskind's Perfume, a book brilliant in parts, if somewhat uneven on the whole (his novella The Pigeon is a more uniformly excellent book).

Fact is that smells are, as Ackerman acknowledges, very hard to capture in words. I've made a few attempts over the years. It's probably not coincidental that I included two versions of the poem "A Whiff of Mussel Mud" (for the other version, you'll have to buy the book!) in Unsettled. Not just because I was unsure how to write about smell, but because smell is so closely linked to memory, far more than other senses, and the poem is explicitly about the kind of intense déjà vu that a smell can occasion, so having two versions of the same poem, spaced out in the same book, might create a similar feeling of "hey, wait a minute..."

A more recent poem of mine was published by Liz Bachinsky in a recent issue of Event:


The dim stink of skunk carried in
From the woods isn’t unpleasant—
Distance and diffusion
Make it more perfume than weapon

And it mingles in the brainpan
With a memory you can’t put a finger on
But linger over anyway—a vaccine
Couldn’t be, without a speck of infection;

Anti-venom is drawn from pure poison;
And the life you lead on this land
Was allowed by the death of your parents.
It hurt, but diffusion and distance

Make it bearable. When you live with a constant
Scent in your nostrils, you can’t
Stand it at first, then come to love it, then
It grows so faint you forget its existence.

Again, the link between stink and think--or at least recall. The poem's fictional--both my parents are alive and I would have it no other way--but is based on a statement I've heard my dad make on more than one occasion, about liking the distant smell of skunk spray. (I too am fond of the smell, but can't say to what extent that fondness is linked to my father's statement, and to the man himself, because I think of him whenever I smell skunk now--which is quite frequently in East Vancouver.) Indeed, many expensive perfumes are made from a trace of the foulest odors known. And I tried formally to build that idea into the poem, ending each line with a variation on an n-sound, a rhyme scheme that, while incessant, doesn't declare itself boldly, but which I hope might enter the brain, through the ear (as nasal proxy), obliquely and insidiously. It's a very quiet poem compared with much of my other recent stuff.

I'm looking forward to reading the rest of Ackerman's book. I have a definite bias towards poetry that embraces the sensuous, poetry with tangible texture, vivid imagery, aural resonance, and maybe the odd drifting aroma. A lot of the poetry that dissatisfies me seems to be merely verbal, to lack other dimensions, to be writing or idle chatter rather than the by-product of living and the embodiment of urgent speech--to be, in short, the work of a disembodied mind. Of course there's no such thing, pace Descartes and all the other ghost-in-the-machine fallacists he spawned, so I suppose it's more a matter of a mind insufficiently engaged with the sights, sounds and smells of the world it inhabits.


Anonymous said...

I love that Elizabeth Bachinsky poem. It's so refreshing to read a poem where the poet actually has something important to say. I haven't read her book yet but will make a point of it now.

Zachariah Wells said...

I'm sure Liz would thank you for the compliment, anon, but the poem is one I wrote, which she published in Event, where she's the Poetry Editor. I amended the sentence to make that more clear. And I do appreciate the compliment.