Smell-O-Poetics: A Review of Atomizer
by Elizabeth A. I. Powell
LSU Press, 112 pages
If I had to choose just one thing that poets and perfume-lovers have in common, it would be this: both possess an insatiable obsession with obsession. They collect and catalog. They peel back every layer. They think, speak, dream in the language of association. They break open the animal mechanism of desire to find out how it works. In Elizabeth A. I. Powell’s Atomizer, scent becomes the associative language the poet uses to navigate us through the complex human circuitry of seduction and religion, biology and romance.
In “The Ordinary Odor of Reality,” Powell tells us:
Outer space smells like rum,
so says spectral analysis,
but all my trauma reeks of
baby powder and chlorine.
(p. 30, ll. 4-7)
Is there a way to describe this any more vividly? We can only approach the unknown through the language of what we already know. We can only map strange territory with the familiar tools we hold in our sense memory. Imagine you are describing a UFO encounter to a police sketch artist, but you can’t use sight or sound cues. How can smell alone possibly fill in these gaps? (We all binge-watch X-Files and Law & Order: SVU, right?) The power of these scent images is in their association with what we know—how they build an emotional landscape the same way triggered neurons retrieve pieces from our complex web of memories and reassemble them, snowballing from one connection to the next and the next. Even more than poems that rely on the more expected visual imagery to pull the reader into the world they are building, Powell’s scent-driven poems get inside the reader’s head, using our own experiences connected to these familiar scents to create the poems’ associative reality:
I am having a smell dialogue
with mold and wet earth and sand
that resides in the woods and playground
inside my memory.
(p. 30, ll. 15-18)
I do have to confess that I am not a stranger to this intersection of poetry and perfume. I jumped headfirst down this rabbit hole back in 2014 while co-editing an anthology called The Book of Scented Things: 100 Contemporary Poems About Perfume. So, Powell didn’t have to do much to charm me with her poems, but she did anyway. The voice that permeates this collection is one that is simultaneously confident, vulnerable, and most of all, curious. This curiosity is met with an unguarded honesty and dry humor that I trust without question. She seamlessly incorporates the jargon of online dating into poem after poem—even the Shulammite woman swipes left and right here. History, art, and pop culture are woven throughout, from I Dream of Jeannie to the Song of Solomon.
There are moments in Atomizer when I wonder if maybe the scent language Powell is creating here is a new kind of floriography, without the Victorian petticoats and corsets. In the poems about her mother, the scent that overwhelms us is lavender, lavender, lavender. So, lavender becomes not only associative, but symbolic. The recurring scents in the Biblical poems are frankincense, myrrh, balsam, rose. In the poems of desire and seduction, they are civet, citrus, patchouli, cardamom. Some of these are part of the long-held language of smells and ingredients created by perfumers, their passed-down knowledge of attraction and chemistry and lust. But some are much more personal and contemporary. In “Poem with Atoms in It,” Powell’s synesthesia explodes these scent associations outward and inward. Scents trigger visceral responses in her other senses—certain smells become colors or tastes or touch sensations.
Not only does she create these beautiful scent-maps with her lush lines and precise word choice, Powell explores some of the strange science of scent and the biology of desire. “Arousal is a communication the body makes,” she says in her poem “Spritz” (p. 46, l. 5). In this poem, we learn about smell dating, where potential (human) mates are matched through the compatibility of their pheromones:
Even the bees
pollinating roses and jasmine for endnotes know
the olfactory signatures of their own group.
(p. 46, ll. 9-11)
When it comes to cattle matchmaking on a dairy farm, it’s not hard to see (or smell) the depressing parallels:
The barn’s romance
filled with the stench of nitrogen.
(p. 41, ll. 3-4)
In “The Book of Sires,” Powell gives us the sad, clinical truth of it:
[T]he best way
to propagate is at a distance where
you can’t smell the raw stench
of sex, where it is practical,
based on actual data for mating.
(p. 41, ll. 28-33)
She closes this poem with what seems like just another intriguing smell factoid, but it becomes a grave gut-punch:
For to perfume is to cover up truth,
like the way the Oscar Mayer factory
used to scent the air all around
Madison, Wisconsin, with fake sweet,
strawberry scent, so no one thought
about the entrails and bones of those bulls
and their tortured burning.
(p. 42, ll. 25-30)
Nothing kills the mood faster than the smell of death (and complicity).
Rather than the zoomed-out, God’s-eye view of it all, Powell’s poems draw our eye in closer—to all of the individual molecules that comprise this human experience:
This poem disperses my existence,
separating it into parts—words, sprays,
dots of color, scents.
(p. 63, ll. 19-21)
Think of a chord of music, which is made of several different notes played simultaneously. Powell’s poems shift the focus from the chords of scent and experience to the individual notes that comprise them—all the top notes, the heart notes, and the base notes. This concept is built into the structure of the book itself, in which even the section titles become poems listing their evocative combinations of scents: “Bergamot, Blood, Clouds, Clove, Metal Desk” (p. 7) or “Patchouli, Bedsheet, Cut Grass, Oak Moss, Burning Hair” (p. 51). The effect of this is again tied up in the web of associations that each of these individual scents (or ideas of scents) creates. Breaking down each whole into its atoms turns the magical inside out so we can see the science underneath. But then, when we search further and look under the hood of science, we see magic again.
Lindsay Lusby is the author of the poetry collection Catechesis: a postpastoral (The University of Utah Press, 2019), as well as two chapbooks, Blackbird Whitetail Redhand (Porkbelly Press, 2018) and Imago (dancing girl press, 2014). Her poems have appeared most recently in New South, Gulf Coast, The Cincinnati Review, Passages North, and Plume. With Jehanne Dubrow, she has co-edited two poetry anthologies, including The Book of Scented Things: 100 Contemporary Poems about Perfume (Literary House Press, 2014). Her first lyric essay “You Never Think It Could Happen To You: A Reckoning with True Crime” will be published in the Fall 2020 issue of Waxwing. She is a Senior Poetry Reader for Cherry Tree.