Scent, Sex, and Roofing Tar

February 13, 2017

Contributor’s Marginalia: Maryann Corbett on “Introduction to Desire” by Chelsea Rathburn

I will never, alas, be a fragrance aficionado. Most fragrances set off in my throat a histamine cascade that turns my nose to a spigot, even fragrances I remember loving years ago, like Chantilly or Tea Rose or Chanel No. 22. Worse, some chemical odors—bathroom cleaner, say, or furniture polish—trigger an old inflammation in my bronchi, leaving me gasping, bent double on stair landings, helpless to get enough oxygen. It wasn’t always this way. Something I inhaled did this, some danger in the air.

Knowing this—knowing too that as I age my sense of smell is dulling—I am especially aware of smell as a conundrum, in writing as in life. In writing, it’s a difficulty so well known that the most basic of writing instruction confronts it: smell is hard to describe. “All attars are unutterable,” writes Amit Majmudar in the anthology The Book of Scented Things. Diane Ackerman, in A Natural History of the Senses, calls smell “the mute sense, the one without words.”

Approaches to this problem are as various as poets. Most often we get at a smell obliquely. It’s a detail, operating with others as part of a scene. Think of the ripe roots of Roethke’s “Root Cellar,” or “the beautiful, useless tang of eucalyptus” in Heaney’s “Skunk,” or the nameless unguent of Catullus 13. Rarer is the poem that confronts the smell itself, directly. Sometimes such a poem concentrates and compounds a smell we already know, as in Ondaatje’s “The Cinnamon Peeler.” At other times, it works by complete evasion. A poem called “Smell” by Trevor West Knapp seems not to be about smell at all but about the exquisite details of the act of breathing, as if that act were something new—as it is for the poem’s subject, a fact we become sure of in the poem’s final lines about the infant’s scent-wise awareness of his mother. Nothing in the poem describes the smell itself, only what the smell accomplishes. Emelihter Kihleng’s “The Smell” is evasive, too, describing the scent mainly in a Pacific Island language English speakers are unlikely to know. Michael Donaghy’s “The Incense Contest” references many scents, yet its climax is not a smell, but the chaos of memories that the smell brings back.

And in all these examples, smell operates to make the poem more physical, more visceral, and often more sexual. Chelsea Rathburn’s “Introduction to Desire” does that, too, but not in the way we expect at a first glance at the title. At the literal level, the desire in the title is for a smell in itself, but an unlikely one: the smell of hot roofing tar, “almost-death/ almost-perfume, dark and vertiginous.” (Vertiginous is unexpected here; it conveys the feeling of falling headlong into the tarry barrel, as if into hell.) The smell works, not by itself, but as part of a collage of summer effects, described as the child narrator would see them: “like a bush/ in flower throbbing with bees,” heat rising off the tar barrels “like a cartoon pie’s visible vapors,” the child in summer idleness thinking in terms of cartoons. The smell is enjoyed as part of the physical activity of seeking it, “pedaling up and down the street/ as slowly as I could without falling. . .” All perfectly childlike, and at the same time, that other desire insinuated by the title is present. There is the pull, the lure, the absolute attraction of a bodily sensation. The pedaling slowness, to make it last as long as possible. Even a touch of embarrassment (“What did the roofers think?”) And finally, with high school and the end of childhood, there is the letdown, the once-pleasing smell

. . . clinging to my clothes
till I was sick, a betrayal I taste
each time I turn down a freshly paved road.

It’s the same old betrayal always, all the marvelousness of the world and the body, all of it letting us down. It’s just as I said. Sooner or later, the air itself is dangerous. Breathe deeply.

Maryann Corbett lives in St. Paul, Minnesota. She is the author of three books of poetry and two chapbooks, most recently Mid Evil, the 2014 winner of the Richard Wilbur Award. Her poems, essays, and translations have appeared in such magazines as Barrow Street, Christianity and Literature, Dappled Things, Ecotone, First Things, Rattle, River Styx, Sewanee Theological Review, Southwest Review, and Subtropics and in anthologies like Imago Dei and Measure for Measure: An Anthology of Poetic Meters. New work appears in Able Muse, Crab Orchard Review, Thrush, and others. Corbett is also a past winner of the Willis Barnstone Translation Prize and a past finalist for the Howard Nemerov Sonnet Award. A fourth book, Street View, is forthcoming in 2017.

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