Restless Messengers: Poetry In Review

Double Trio: A Restless Messengers Symposium

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Tracing Perfume in Double Trio

Tyrone Williams

Double Trio constitutes a massive restatement and expansion of the motifs and themes that Nathaniel Mackey has pursued, motifs and themes that have pursued him, since the 1970s. While music (composed, recorded, performed, etc.) is a dominant theme in his fiction (at the center of the novels’ plots are the compositions, performances and recordings of an avant-garde “jazz” band) and a recurrent motif in the serial poetry, I want to examine a less obvious, albeit insistent, motif that likewise threads itself throughout both genres. That serpentine motif is perfume and its variants (musk, fragrance, aroma, etc.). The broad rubric of the serial fiction—From A Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate—might have well announced that the olfactory sense would elevate itself from mere motif to assertive theme, yet smell, odor and fragrance, never mind perfume, remain—thus far—a motif in the novels. The apparent discrepancy between the collective title of the fiction and the narratives of the individual books interests me as a way to think about the discrepancy between the double helix of the titles under which the poetry is announced—“Song of the Andoumboulou” and “Mu”—and the motif of perfume, fragrance and aroma. Another way of saying this is that the collective title of the fiction could easily serve as a collective title for the poetry, again, not as a theme but as a sotto voce motif. Indeed, it may well be the case that Double Trio is only a collection of motifs, a multivolume project without a dominant theme per se.

The noun perfume appears forty-one times in Double Trio, more than fragrance (seventeen times) but far less than the conditional voice of certain verbs (“would,” for example, appears 684 times). Perfume is thus neither infrequent or frequent in the collection, yet its appearance in both the fiction and poetry suggests it has a privileged, if not unique, place among the images that populate Mackey’s pantheon. Perfume is thus a major motif crisscrossing Mackey’s creative writing in general. Because this writing is literally sensuous, perfume connects with his interest in nasality (another motif in the fiction), in the nose and sense of smell. However, smell is neither the least nor most important sense in Mackey’s writing. Hearing, playing and “seeing” music (e.g., the appearance of balloons during performances) dominate the “plots” of the novels, despite the overall title that evokes the sense of smell. Examining the function of smell per perfume in the poetry offers, I believe, insights into one of the themes we can trace in both genres: what it means to recall a past that may not have ever existed. I don’t mean anything like nostalgia. For Mackey, the stakes are much higher. His concept of the past is one that informs the present as both historical conjunction and mythic disjunction. The present is “informed” by the past in the most material (e.g., genetic inheritance) and abstract (e.g., knowledge, belief, etc.) ways but the past also exists (and persists) as an inference of the present. While it might be tempting to align these concrete introjections and abstract projections along an axis of certainty and uncertainty, or even more recklessly, truth and falsehood, right and wrong, Mackey’s writing neutralizes this temptation, primarily (though not exclusively) by his use of grammatical and syntactical strategies. The properties and behavior of perfume is thus one example among several that serves to demonstrate ambivalence and ambiguity while functioning as “more” than just an example of the persistence of the past, the inferences of the present. A comparison of the relative limits of the senses will illustrate what smell can and cannot do in regard to these movements.

On the one hand, humans can generally hear sounds, see objects, at greater distances than they can smell odors. Of course, this is true along the vertical axis (we see stars and planes that we cannot smell); a disaster along the horizontal axis (e.g., the fires that engulfed the Western states in 2020) were detectable by both sight and smell for those living in certain Midwestern states. On the other hand, the senses of taste and touch are dependent on physical contact. Per spatial distance, then, smell is generally an intermediate sense. What about temporal distance? That is, which sense can evoke the past, recent or older, most faithfully, most authentically? As we know, these are impossible questions to answer. Moreover, psychology and psychoanalysis tell us that no one sense has a privilege regarding the evocation of an individual’s past; it very much depends on the specific conditions (familial, social, economic, cultural, etc.) of a person’s upbringing. What might it mean, though, to “recall” a past that preceded one’s birth? How could one know that a past recalled is, in fact, a past (as opposed to a false or invented memory)? In Double Trio these abstractions can only be “guaranteed” by their being grounded in, tethered to, materiality, to the senses. In relation to the sense of smell, what does it mean that the remains of the past linger as molecules of perfume which are still emanating from a broken bottle? And since the bottle is broken, does perfume waft from fiction to poetry, from poetry to fiction, suggesting that the “bottle” cannot be fixed at any location, in any genre? If so, perfume would resist classification (is it a bouquet, an aroma, a fragrance, an odor?) as well as the constraints of an archive (having escaped the ur-archive of a bottle). And yet we might understand Mackey’s writing in general, and the poetry in this instance, as attempts—perhaps impossible ones—to preserve an archive of perfume traces. And if these traces of perfume are both “close” and “far” from the broken bottle from which they are still emanating (we have no idea “when” the bottle broke), smell, an intermediate sense, is a limited, if privileged, method of detection. We would need distant senses—sight and hearing—as well as close ones—taste and touch—to offer a comprehensive “knowledge” of perfume even if such knowledge would necessarily be an abstraction of smell, the one sense that can actually detect the “essence” of perfume. In regard to these issues, Double Trio poses these questions: is perfume best apprehended as smell alone? What might it mean to see, touch, taste and, above all, hear perfume?


Among the English Romantic poets, Wordsworth, Keats and Clare emphasized synaesthesis as an essential component of sensation, the ways that bodily senses and impulses provoke one another and evoke both memory and perception, conjoined in imagination. In the latter half of the 19th century, synaesthesis was elevated to myth as the limits of rationalism led to widespread disillusionment in the West. Synaesthesis became one of the “attributes” of non-Western cultures (particularly Asian and Arabian), culminating, in the early 20th century, in Pound’s famous, if erroneous, assertion that one of the Noh plays he translated is partially defined by “listening to incense” (cf. Guide to Kulchur). However, as both academic and nonacademic history has taught us, error is generative, and one of the most ancient and widespread myths concerning error is that of an original unisexual human succumbing to division (thanks to human error or divine decree). This myth is one of the motifs guiding Mackey’s poetry (and to a certain extent, his fiction). In the first two books of Double Trio, Rub and Wrack, the designations male and female are inextricable from the rules of grammar that engender pronoun (he, his, him; she, hers, her) and signal gender in proper names (-o for male, -a and -ette for female). Once assigned proper names (Anuncio, Anuncia, Zeno, Zenette, etc.) and their respective pronouns these figures enter human history as vectors of hierarchal myths. For example, Mackey alludes to the story of Adam and Eve: “…A throwback/ Zeno/called it. Zenette called it so as well, / of late on the scene again….” (Tej Bet 136). However, “before” there is the fallen state of male and (belated) female, it appears that there is an originary division of Soul and Self. Thanks to the ambiguity of the Hebrew language, this division is sometimes interpreted as the divide between individual humans and the collective humanity, between earth and humans, etc. Soul would seem to retain the memory, so to speak, of Anuncia, attempting to suture division, while Self, apparently inwardly focused, would appear to embody abandonment per Anuncio: “’I couldn’t wait to be / looking back.’ Soul wanted to / say, / ‘Sweet Anuncia.’ Self said, ‘It / all / moved on.’” (Tej Bet 3) Designating Anuncia as the principle of unity and Anuncio as the principle of division reverses the creation myth associated with Adam and Eve. However, Mackey’s use of enjambment and punctuation complicates any simple equation between self as forward-looking division, soul as backward-looking unity. The period after “back,” the use of the neutral pronoun “it” in the line just before the one quoted, and the enjambed phrase “Soul wanted” suggest that any of these conditional statements could have been said, had they been said, by either Soul or Self.

These grammatical and syntactical strategies are familiar to any seasoned reader of Mackey’s prose and poetry, but if we think of these deconstructive operations in terms of smell and sound, in terms, that is, of Pound’s error, mistranslating, roughly, the medicinal properties of perfume into listening to perfume, what are we to make of lines like these: “Sound the soul of perfume one / heard / if one heard anything, a blue benedictory / waltz.” (Tej Bet 65) Is a blessing medicine? That is, is God’s favor and protection a mode of medicinal treatment? If so, if vaccines, for example, which offer protection against certain diseases, can be understood as terminological / technological updates of divine blessings, holy benedictions, then Mackey has simply “corrected” Pound’s error. On the other hand, insofar as the benedictory involves listening to the word of God (even if one is reciting a prayer to oneself out loud or in silence), Mackey has only played out a variation on listening to perfume. Pound’s “error” could not be more on target: listening to perfume is therapeutic and pleasing (that “benedictory waltz”), a mode of synesthesia that includes while exceeding the bodily organs as, per Horace, delight and instruction.

If one can indeed listen to perfume, then perfume may be archived as a memory of aromatic sound. However privileged the sense of hearing is accorded in this and other formulations, perfume is present even if one cannot sense it, can neither smell nor hear it: “A perfume we couldn’t / smell but knew was there pervaded the / bus.” (So's Notice 253) In this context, what does it mean to know? Knowledge is here less consciousness than intuition, an anticipation based on the collective memory of a bouquet or fragrance once smelled, seen, or (and?) heard. Because smell is specific enough to inform a collective (any “we” can lay claim to the pleasures or revulsions of certain smells) and inexact enough to undermine any we (e.g., “You mean you can’t smell that?”), perfume’s misty drift from its liquid origin is analogous to the experience of diaspora, a drifting apart that is both a scattering and a sowing, a movement that enjoins memory as remembering and anticipation founded on (floundering toward) a historical past gradually disappearing into myth. Insofar as perfume and its variants (fragrance, aroma, odor, etc.) may become indistinguishable in the same ways that music or language and their variants (noise, cacophony, gibberish, etc.) may be substituted for one another, the senses of smell and hearing communicate with one another not only in the psychological experience of synaesthesis but also via the eustachian tube which connects the nasal and aural passages. Rhinology and otology separately and together (Ear, Nose and Throat clinicians) may thus well serve as the foundation for the possibility of an archive of perfume as sound.

Post by Tyrone Williams at 12:00 PM on 4/24/2021

Tyrone Williams teaches in the English Department and Philosophy, Politics, and the Public honors program at Xavier University. He is the author of several chapbooks and books of poetry, most recently a collaboration with Pat Clifford (washpark, 2021).