05 November 2013

Elegy with Osage-Orange

Next fall Literary House Press will be releasing it's first poetry anthology, The Book of Scented Things: 100 Contemporary Poems about Perfume. Not only was I invited to co-edit this project, my boss (and LHP series editor, Jehanne Dubrow) also encouraged me to write a poem for it. Here was the prompt: you are given a specially selected sample of perfume and then you must write a poem that is inspired by or engages with that particular scent. We were pleasantly surprised by the enthusiastic response we received from the poets we solicited to create brand-new poems for this special project and we have been blown away by the results of their writing experiments. 

But when I sat down to complete my perfume-poem assignment, I must admit to being stumped. My chosen scent was Lime Basil & Mandarin by Jo Malone. And I liked the scent and it did conjure up some vivid images, but the problem was none of them felt meaningful. A page-worth of purely descriptive passage is great, but why should I care about it if all of that description has no central purpose, has no real soul? And if I don't care, a reader sure as hell won't. I had to keep branching out to let more distant associations reach into my reasons for writing and take hold. 


Osage-orange photo borrowed from Springfield Plateau blog.

After watching and reading different reviews of this particular scent, the complaint about the mandarin scent being far too faint for some noses led me back to Louise Glück's well-known scented poem "Mock Orange"a favorite both of mine and of Jehanne'sas well as a solid foundation on which to build my poem. But as I was writing, what started as a response to Glück's poem turned into an elegy for my beloved grandmother, who died in 2011 after three years of Alzheimer's hell. In her backyard was a monstrosity of a tree called Osage-orange (or Hedgeapple, or what-have-you). When I was younger, my cousins and I were always disgusted by the softball-sized, reptile-skinned "fruit" that bombed the yard every fall. My grandmother called them Monkey Brains, so we did too, of course. I didn't know what they were really called until a few years ago. But the way these ugly, inedible things earned their "orange" descriptor is the distinctly orange-colored wood of the tree and the very faint citrus smell of the otherwise prohibitively-bitter fruit.

This poem prompt took me to a place I never expected it to take mea place of both guilt and grief surrounding the last few years of my grandmother's amazing life. But I'm so glad it did. And I hope you are as excited as I am to read this poetry anthology when it is printed in Fall 2014.


P.S.
This foray into the world of perfumes has had other side effects as well. These past few months, my partner in perfumed-poetry has been introducing me to dozens of designer scents and along the way I discovered a fervent love for Creed's Spring Flowera perfume created exclusively for Audrey Hepburn and not released to the general public until 1996. And this frugal cheapskate tightwad (me) has finally worked up the nerve to buy her own bottle (at $165 for 1 oz.). But I have decided that indulging in really good perfume is just one of those rites of womanhood.

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