Jennifer Williams, Ian Andrews, Alex Musgrave
(photo credit: Chris Scott)
My Life in Poetry & Perfume At Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh
with Alex Musgrave, aka the ‘Silver Fox’
Perfume is a personal choice. A few dab a well-loved scent behind the wrists every day, some only on special occasions and others never spritz the stuff. Pondering the varied attitudes and molecular components behind a single perfume is interesting and pairing these scents thematically with poems is even more intriguing. Such was the basis of the rather unusual event with the Scottish Poetry Library and the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. Champagne corks popped cheerfully, local musicians James Iremonger and Atzi provided elegant music on guitar and cello, and sunlight streamed through the glass-panelled Palm House. It was, unusually for Edinburgh, the best kind of weather for such an event.
As the audience settled under swaying palm fronds, it was difficult to guess how this fragrant literary evening would proceed. On high stools sat Jennifer Williams, Programme manager of the SPL, Dr. Ian Andrews of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh and Alex Musgrave, writer of a novel-in-progress called ‘Swoon’ and manager of Penhaligon’s, a perfumery on Edinburgh’s George St.
Dr. Andrews began proceedings with insights about the context of flowers in perfumes and the rather neglected vocabulary of scent. ‘English speakers have a poor language of smell, ‘ Andrews explained, ‘things always smell like something else’. Andrews shared his three favourite scents: the vibrant scent of Spanish orange blossoms, the Japanese Cercidiphyllum tree which smells of candy floss and the South Pacific ‘Ylang ylang’ plant, an aphrodisiac with custard overtones. Andrews also mentioned that he had scents to sample, including an extract of tuberose which was outlawed in Victorian times because it caused spontaneous orgasms in young women. More on that later.
After that, Williams and Musgrave took us through a heady journey of nine poems and ten perfumes. The friendly duo took turns reading aloud the poem and the Silver Fox provided further insight on the creation and compound of the complimenting perfume. Generally the poem and perfume pairings were thoughtful, imaginative and evocative. The selected fragrance broadened the theme of the poem. Some pairings were gloomy, such as Shelley’s ‘Music When Soft Voices Die’ which was paired with ‘Drôle de Rose’ by L’Artisan Parfumeur, a perfume that apparently reeked of elderly ladies: ‘ like old lipstick and tissue paper in a leather handbag’.
But most pairings were dramatic, erotic and reminiscent of the body. Sharon Olds’ poem ‘True Love’ about sex in marriage was paired with the perfume ‘Amaranthine’, which Musgrave described as smelling ‘filthy, like skin under corsets’. Louise Glück‘s poem ‘Vita Nova’ was paired with Gorilla Perfume’s ‘The Smell of Weather Turning’, a very strong-willed scent that Musgrave imagined ‘Tess of the D’urbervilles to be wearing when they came for her’. Too bad Thomas Hardy hadn’t been into perfumes.
It was perhaps one too many pairings, but otherwise it was an enjoyable evening exploring the varieties of perfumes. Afterwards the audience was invited to sip more sparkling wine and take a whiff of the aforementioned scents. From this reviewer’s point of view, the ‘Cuir de Nacre’ (Mother of Pearl) by Ann Gerard was an pleasurable blend of iris, angelica and cassie absolute. It was a compliment to the R.S. Thomas’s ‘A Marriage’, a poem about steadfast love. But it was ‘The Smell of Weather Turning’ that had the strongest impact; the smoky fragrance was evocative of burning hay.
And the tuberose extract? A powerful and sickly sweet smell. And despite Williams’ jokey caution to the women in the room to ‘keep the screams down’, no Meg-Ryan-in-the-diner moment occurred.