page contents

ESSAY
My Sampler Summer
Heidi Czerwiec

jessica-weiller-75962-unsplash.jpg

While I’ve always enjoyed perfume and have worn a few signature scents at various times in my life – Anaïs AnaïsSafariCocoMy Manifesto– I never considered perfume as a hobby, as something one could sample or collect or own a wardrobe of. My relationship to scent had been, until now, monogamous. 

And then my friend, poet Jehanne Dubrow, published an anthology, The Book of Scented Things: 100 Contemporary Poems about Perfume. Its premise: 100 poets each were paired with a vial of perfume. Well, 99 – the collection’s first poem, “On His Reluctance to Contribute to The Book of Scented Things” by Amit Majmudar, is about no scent and begins “All attars are unutterable/…/ What use is ekphrasis if/ The canvas isn’t even bare/ Isn’t even there.” The poets’ responses – which take a variety of approaches, from description to memory/narrative to linguistic play – are collected and numbered like Chanel’s line of fragrances, N°1-100. After reviewing it, I had questions. A lot of questions. 

Where do I start? How do I know what to try? Jehanne steered me away from eBay – “you’re not ready for that yet” – and toward a few sites – Luckyscent, Surrender to Chance, and The Perfumed Court – who sell decants: small samples of a range of scents, both vintage and contemporary. She also named some blogs – Bois de Jasmin, Perfume Posse, Perfume Smellin’ Things, and Yesterday’s Perfume. She apologized profusely, in advance, for what she called a deep and dangerous rabbit hole.

Around the same time, my husband was leaving for the summer. Since starting law school, we had been plotting how we could turn his new career track into our ticket out of North Dakota. After two years at the top of his class, a previous summer interning for a federal judge, plus some ambitious cold-calls to Minneapolis lawyers, he had been offered an eight-week summer associate position with a prestigious firm. We decided that what was best for our family was Wyatt and I staying in Grand Forks, where he could keep a consistent schedule in the familiar comfort of his daycare, which would help support both him and me, while I taught summer school for the extra salary. Evan would spend the summer in the Twin Cities, and we would meet in the center, at his parents’ cabin, on weekends.

Of course it made the most sense. And of course, it was lonely. I read Jehanne’s poem, the extended villanelle “The Long Deployment,” about attempts to preserve her absent husband’s scent in their bedsheets. I read perfume blogs and articles in the evening, after I’d played with and fed our three-year-old and put him to bed. With my husband gone, I could explore other relationships, at least with fragrance. I placed my first order for three samplers, based on descriptions of scent notes I thought I might like: a “Green” vintage sampler, one of “White Florals,” and a “Green Floral Sampler.” And I waited. In about a week, a fat envelope heavily padded with bubble wrap arrived, and ensconced within were 25 carefully labeled and bagged vials.

It didn’t take long to establish a ritual: wait until after I’d put Wyatt to bed, after I’d cleaned up the dishes and put away toys and laundry. Get ready for bed myself, so that I can finally relax. Select two vials – only two, one per arm, to make the samples last. Carefully uncap, so as not to flick or spill any scent inside. Stroke the plastic wand to my skin, one perfume per wrist. Recap, and retire to bed with my notebook and pen to record impressions as the perfumes unfold, with a book to read in the meanwhile.

I began to look forward to this time each night: the perfume applied, the sniffing of my wrists. It became a way to reconnect with pleasure, which otherwise I had to forget in order to make it through those weeks, eating fishsticks and ravioli because they were easy and allowed me to avoid wheedling through dinners with Wyatt, and living in my head teaching summer school and grading papers. Andy Warhol said, “Another way to take up more space is with perfume,” and my perfumed summer where the humid evenings extended the smell were a way to fill my time and fill my empty bed with scent. 

My first, a vintage eau de cologne of Caron’s Narcisse Noir, was a disappointment. I so wanted to be transported by it: the scent of eroticist Anaïs Nin and the crazed Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, I expected to be overwhelmed by sex. After all, Patty, host at the Perfume Posse, had described it as “mostly a narcissus perfume,” but that “this tramp drags the orange blossoms around through the dark mud of crazy.” And while I did smell the white flowers of orange blossom and the namesake narcissus, what I mostly sniffed was resin and incense. A college headshop, and a far cry from femme fatale; more hippie than Hollywood. But my second sample was pure love – my introduction to Germaine Cellier’s work via her Vent Vert, its galvanizing blast of galbanum, a stun-gun of green.

As I worked my way through the samples – loving some, hating others, ambivalent about many – I practiced my descriptions, first taking notes based on my own experiences: what I noticed, what notes I recognized, reactions. Then, I would compare against reviews posted in online blogs and discussion boards, learning the name for that dusty, bitter herbal note I kept smelling (vetiver), or why so many florals carry a not-unpleasant funk (indoles – fecal/decay notes that lurk beneath a good jasmine), or those powdery, soapy notes so popular in old vintages (iris and aldehydes). Some early entries from that time: CB I Hate Perfume’s I Am a Dandelion, “sharp green but with a sickening sweet note like the sanitizer at the veterinarian’s office”; Estée Lauder Private Collection, “flowers and cut stems in a power suit – reminds me of Lucille Bluth”; Serge Lutens’ A la Nuit, “a singular jasmine note shooting through a woodsy base, like the moon through the trees – Mozart’s Queen of the Night.” When I finished with a packet, I ordered more, moving through individual houses I’d read about and wanted to sniff, including both hallmarks like Guerlain and Chanel but also niche perfumers I’d seen reviewed with affection, like Frederic Malle and Serge Lutens, whom the bloggers called affectionately “Uncle Serge.” Then, always the academic, I began filling in the gaps in my fragrant education, tracing back vintage lineages through famous perfumes and their influences. Encountering these major names, I felt the same as Alyssa Harad in her book Coming to My Senses, when she first visits an upscale counter at Bergdorf Goodman’s in New York: “They’re like celebrities to me,” I said. “I can’t believe I actually get to see and meet them in person.”

Perfume samples saved me that summer, gave me something to do, some passion to pursue when I was too tired with no energy left to do much but lie in bed and sniff myself. It became a way to reconnect with my senses. And, at the end of the summer, to reconnect Evan with my skin as I dabbed on favorite finds and let him nuzzle my neck.


Poet and essayist Heidi Czerwiec is the author of the recently-released poetry collection Conjoining, and of the forthcoming lyric essay collection Fluid States, winner of Pleiades Press’ 2018 Robert C. Jones Prize for Short Prose. She lives in Minneapolis. Visit her at heidiczerwiec.com