Monday, February 23, 2009

"as many sensual perfumes as you can"

I went shopping for essential oils to blend my own "signature" perfume yesterday. I was thinking about what Star Trek might smell like, you know, but as I chose fragrances that appealed to me, one by one, I ended up not describing a starship or her crew but an afternoon on the coast of Sicily, in the spring when the orange trees bloom.

Here's my blend:

*base note: cedar: a carved wooden box to store your tender secrets in; the heavy, resinous sweetish aroma of a grove along the Mediterranean Sea

*middle, or heart, note: neroli: perfume to make bees' heads swim, diffused from bitter-orange blossoms, which blanket the hillsides like springtime snow

*top note: sweet orange: bright and fresh, the way your fingers smell after you peel an orange

Cut with a drop of two of rosemary, wafting, grey-green, from the rocky cliffs overlooking the sea

(Vodka substitutes for perfumer's alcohol.)

The scents got me thinking of the trip my uncle sent Bink and me on, two springs ago. He'd called out of the blue one day, saying he'd always wanted to go to the Old Country, but now he could afford to (at 79 years old), his emphysema prevented him, so would I go and bring back stories for him?

I guess these aren't actually cedars [Cat writes she thinks they are umbrella pines]; but here I am, climbing a huge hill above Monreale, the town where my grandmother was born in 1900.

Last night, after I blended my first experimental batch of fragrance, I called my auntie. She told me my uncle, her brother, is in the hospital and may move to hospice soon. My uncle was a sailor in the navy, after World War II. (I've posted my uncle's tale of meeting Hal, his partner of 47 years, here.) Seems his odyssey is nearing its end.

In honor of his marvellous journey, so far, here's "Ithaka," the poem by C. P. Cavafy, (1863- 1933, Greek poet, from Alexandria, Egypt), a hymn to full engagement of the senses, which suggests, "buy... as many sensual perfumes as you can."
If you're stopping on your wandering way to Ithaka to buy perfume, Sicily's on the route.

by C. P. Cavafy

As you set out for Ithaka
hope your road is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery,
Laistrygonians, Cyclops,
angry Poseidon - don't be afraid of them:
you'll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians, Cyclops,
wild Poseidon - you won't encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope your road is a long one.
May there be many summer mornings when,
with your pleasure, what joy,
you enter harbours you're seeing for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind -
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to learn an go on learning from their scholars.
Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you're destined for.
But don't hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you're old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you've gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvellous journey.
Without her you wouldn't have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won't have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you'll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

(translated from the Greek by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard)


bink said...


Can't mention Sicily and oranges without mentioning that we ate orange slices sprinkled with cinnamon every morning with breakfast.

fresca said...

And bought artichokes out of a vat boiling with lemons... Oh dear! Let's hop on a plane... to anywhere!

momo said...

What a beautiful picture! How I'm longing for Mediterranean fragrances now. I'd even take Californian (bay, madrone, eucalyptus).

Blas and Loren read this poem at their wedding; it has a special place in our hearts.

Darwi said...

Such a touching post!
It's amazing how smells can bring back memories.
And it's pity that we cannot bottle up the summer song of crickets and that sweet smell of the see breeze coming from the Mediterranean see in those hot and heavy summer evenings....

fresca said...

Oh, yes, fragrances and sounds--and also the feel of that salty air on our skin too...

Momo, I'd never thought of this poem as a wedding poem, but of course it is very much a first-setting-out poem as well as a poem for the end-of-the-journey. (It was read at Jackie O's funeral, I think.)

In fact, it is a bit naive, isn't it--saying you won't encounter these monsters unless you bring them with you.
Ha! If only they were only within us, but they are out there in the world too.
Still, I love the poem.