Saturday, 23 July 2011


L'Artisan Parfumeur, Coeur de Vétiver Sacré

*** Put that in your orange and smoke it

Well, this is a pain. Guy Davenport once remarked that English is a Romance language in the same way that a porpoise is a fish, or a bat a bird. This gives you a nice sense of the degree to which Karine Vinchon's new fragrance works as a vetiver only if you squint at it. Full of ideas and potentially subtle, it doesn't quite come off.

Vetiver oil is extracted from the root of a fragrant tropical grass, which points to some of its fascinating qualities. Simultaneously earthy and airy, it has both a liquorice aspect and something of the autumnal cleanness of well-rotted compost after a crisp frost. Vinchon's fragrance is billed as an attempt to deconstruct the raw material's wonderful cool, grassy smokiness into a citrus~spice~smoke accord, the three core notes set in a frame of black tea which suits all of them. I can see the thinking---hey, vetiver smells kinda like lapsang souchong!---but sense a misparsing of the natural here. Vetiver possesses clean/rubbery and citric angles to go with its dry, earthy vaporousness, but trying to do that with orange and bergamot falls flat here. The concept's not actually a bad one, as aged vetiver oil can smell strikingly like single malt---see Profumum Roma's Fumidus---and whisky in marmalade is of course delicious. But to make the most of the ingredients, Vinchon should have turned the orange down fifty decibels and turned up the peat to compensate, but I suspect L'Artisan's noses fretted that the result would be too austere and make women less likely to buy the fragrance. (Everyone knows women like candied sweet things, don't they? Meh.)

The cod-hermetic blurb ('an offering to the gods', 'a mystical journey from East to West') and a glug of incense sidling around make me strongly suspect that Vinchon is attempting to replicate the structure of Bertrand Duchaufour's Bhutan-inspired Dzongkha (also for L'Artisan), but using vetiver instead of the latter's iris. Again, it's a good, literate idea: vetiver and iris are both cool, introverted materials, and the snowy Himalayan spirituality of Dzongkha shows how well warm spice and tea notes can work in such a composition. The problem is that what vetiver does best is melancholy, not solemnity; it's the more worldly-wise sister of chirpy lemongrass (a botanical relative). The actual vetiver here keeps sliding off the back of the fragrance---an effect like glimpsing, though the tipsy crush of a house-party, a sad-eyed, Modigliani-faced girl all by herself in the kitchen.

Coeur de Vétiver Sacré is an interesting idea and full marks for effort, but the overall effect is of a slightly-off pomander. Buy Andy Tauer's Orange Star if you want the kippered fruit aspect, or get Tom Ford's excellent, soapy Grey Vetiver if the other side appeals.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Take A Break

I've long loved J. C. Squire's hilarious parody, 'If Pope had written "Break, Break, Break"'. First, here's the original Tennyson poem which provides the object of Squire's parody:

Break, Break, Break

Break, break, break,
On thy cold gray stones, O Sea!
And I would that my tongue could utter
The thoughts that arise in me.

O well for the fisherman's boy,
That he shouts with his sister at play!
O well for the sailor lad,
That he sings in his boat on the bay!

And the stately ships go on
To their haven under the hill:
But O for the touch of a vanish'd hand,
And the sound of a voice that is still!

Break, break, break,
At the foot of thy crags, O Sea!
But the tender grace of a day that is dead
Will never come back to me.

And here's Squire's clever literary lampoon, deftly capturing the zeugmatic style and leisured scribe-by-the-yard manner of the earlier 18th century:

Fly, Muse, thy wonted themes, nor longer seek
The consolations of a powder'd cheek;
Forsake the busy purlieus of the Court
For calmer meads where finny tribes resort.
So may th' Almighty's natural antidote
Abate the worldly tenour of thy note,
The various beauties of the liquid main
Refine thy reed and elevate thy strain.
See how the labour of the urgent oar
Propels the barks and draws them to the shore.
Hark! from the margin of the azure bay
The joyful cries of infants at their play.
(The offspring of a piscatorial swain,
his home the sands, his pasturage the main.)
Yet none of these may soothe the mourning heart,
Nor fond alleviation's sweets impart;
Nor may the pow'rs of infants that rejoice
Restore the accents of a former voice,
Nor the bright smiles of ocean's nymphs command
The pleasing contact of a vanished hand.
So let me still in meditation move,
Muse in the vale and ponder in the grove,
And scan the skies where sinking Phoebus glows
With hues more rubicund than Gibber's nose. . . .

(After which the poet gets into his proper stride).

And here's my own.

'If David Jones had written "Break, Break, Break"'

In Quintile month                   or Sextilmonað

                  the rising waters                   insolent footlappers

white horses of Lear’s kingdom                   salt daymares

on shorelines                   and tidemarks                   

                shatter the

Where is your curragh                   Inspiratrix of All Graces?

                  Are you she                   solemn as a rushlight on the tide

pale Venus of the northern seas?                   Be you Branwen, Fflur,

foamflower Essyllt            hung with whale-tooth ivory?

            Is it
MAPONOS or Mabonograin

with his black creel         and bone-blue catch

chanting countersong to Dylan’s


                  Caesar’s barges cross the strait, aquila-signed

                  against landfall sergeants of alder-pool, Stour-bend ---

αιαι αιαι                   cries Private Davies

                  Pretannic woad worn,

put out y'r bloody cigarette, man, there'll be hell to pay if Fritz clocks that, see---





(and so on for another 78 densely-footnoted pages.)

Tuesday, 19 July 2011


L'Artisan Parfumeur, Al Oudh

**** dirty hot

Well, this was a bit of a bold one. Who wants to smell like body odour?! Well, me, as it turns out.

Al Oudh is composed by the masterly Bertrand Duchaufour, whose aesthetic tends to be marked by an incredible knack for the pellucid, a see-right-to-the-bottom kind of transparency that is no doubt fearsomely difficult to achieve. It's a bit like Gustav Klimt's one-dimensional decorated surfaces---whether it's hieratic gold spangles for weathly Viennese, splodgy whorls of purple hollyhocks, or shimmering green birchleaves, each image hovers before the eye as a single tessellated plane. Thus, mutatis mutandis, with Duchaufour's translucent effects: whether working with incenses, woods, and papery smoky smells (Timbuktu, Kyoto, Dzongkha), drenched tropical florals (Fleur de Liane, Amaranthine), or sappy, milky leaves (Calamus), he achieves great depth without obscurity or fug.

Al Oudh is in the incense vein, with a core of burning agarwood chips. Oud/agarwood is an extraordinary substance---and whether there is any natural oud in this fragrance I shall leave to those with better noses than I---a kind of woody-sweet medicinal pong, interestingly clean and dirty simultaneously. A bit like spices, a bit like cough syrup, and a whole lot like armpits, the temptation is always to neuter its tomcat, on-the-turn forcefulness. Happily, Duchaufour went the opposite way, and has bolstered the oud note with a number of, uh, funky animalics: civet, castoreum, and the 'yesterday's shirt' honk of cumin. Over this he floats a lovely soft, dry rose, like a full moon over a Cairo slum. The whole thing makes one laugh at the way it breathes life into orientalist cliché. Yes, it's got a whiff of the souk. Yes, it's a what 1940s stage villains termed 'a Dusky Beauty'. Yes, I imagine---and I've put some effort into the exercise---it probably smells much like Jake Gyllenhaal's nethers in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (above). After several months with a 10ml sample, I've come to the conclusion that this is a Good Thing.

Drolly marketed for both sexes, I doubt that Al Oudh would make a good feminine, unless you happen to be either a) naturally intrepid, or b) Lady Hester Stanhope.

Great Nature's Second Course

One of the temptations of keeping such a long-term blog as this is to put a shape on life, to try and impose a narrative arc on a inherently rather aimless stream of obiter dicta. In general, everything pretty much carries on as it has, in a non-teleological way and without vast upheaval. Nevertheless, there has of late been a minor miracle, in the shape of a lovely complex molecule which puts me out like a light.

Yes, readers, I finally went to the GP about my galloping insomnia and constant nightmares, and was prescribed Zolpidem. I have subsequently had three nights of the most blissful, Lethean sleep I have had for about five years.

Getting wound-up is the killer, you see. There is of course helpful anxiety that spurs one on, but I have been labouring under the unhelpful kind that afflicts many young academics in the humanities, because there are no jobs. Specialized as miniature yellow treefrogs adapted to live in one type of tatty rainforest bromeliad, even as the chainsaws growl in the middle distance, academics at my stage of life often suffer from a characteristic, precarious Angst und Weltschmerz. In my case, it feels like somewhere inside there's a six-year old banging away at all the keys at the far right end of a piano keyboard all the time. I had got used to waking up for twenty minutes every hour and three quarters during the night, every night, with worry twanging and trembling through the air like an evil aeolian harp and loneliness stuck in my throat like a wishbone.

So you'll have noticed the general shift from postmodern drollery to lassitude and gloom that's hung over Cantos (and my life) of late. BUT (but), it turns out I wasn't, in fact, in a downward spiral into the greedy grave, hemmed in by the parched bricolage of academic life; I just hadn't achieved slow-wave sleep for a very, very long time. Readers, after three nights, I have risen again. Not only am I up, I am not falling asleep in my chair at 5pm like a gummy old spinster; I surge with Whitmanian vim and lissom elasticity; and best of all, I can concentrate.

* * *

The above are prolegomena to reflections upon sleep. I'm very prone (because of my disturbed rhythms) to enjoy a number of unusual effects associated with the whole experience, not all of them unpleasant. There are some tiresome tics associated with drifting off---I always need to pee after the light's been off for about fifteen minutes---and I occassionally suffer from a bizarre sleep disturbance called 'exploding head syndrome'. No, this is not a David Cronenburg visual effect, but something a little like the way that your feet sometimes kick sharply without warning as you drop off, usually accompanied by a falling sensation. What I get in addition (though, thank God, not often) is, as I drift into sleep, a sudden, pottery-shattering BOOM or crash that only I can hear, as loud as a bomb blast in the next room. Needless to say, I jerk upright, and often leap out of bed altogether, shaking and with my heart hammering.

As regular readers will know, my dreams are often so vivid and often so exhausting that they are indistinguishable from being awake---in particular they are frequently highly textual, with me speaking foreign languages, reading, or writing. I had an exquisite one about a week ago in which I was leafing through an imaginary, newly-published book called Shakespeare and the Horizon of Consciousness. (See, I can do self-referential meta-dreams.) The first chapter was called GLANCES and had a beautiful discussion of the semiotics of different expressions made with the eyes in the plays and in Early Modern culture more widely, ending with a delicate analysis of the implications of George Herbert's 'quick-ey'd Love'. Alas, that's all I can remember, and it's not actually a bad idea for a book. The devas are obviously sending me messages again.

I also remember being very surprised as an adolescent when I realised that not everyone experiences hypnagogic voices. This happens to me about once or twice a week, usually when I'm exhausted: as I drop off to sleep, one, then two, then up to six different voices---of different genders, nationalities, and ages, and entirely independent of my mind---start talking intelligibly over one another in my head. I've tried writing down what they say, but the state one needs to be in to hear the voices is spoiled if one comes out of it far enough to move a pen. If I maintain a kind of unfocused attention, I can hear them all at once, but if I try to isolate one strand it collapses into gibberish. You can recreate the effect at home simply by opening several interview videos on YouTube simultaneously. It's all a function, I suspect, of being a highly verbal person who spends all day considering language: interestingly, after I spend a few days speaking Welsh, the inner voices switch into that language.

Rather less often I get a visual equivalent which is a source of much frustration: I 'see' with the inner eye fully-formed canvasses passing in front of me for about half a second each, always sumptuously detailed. There are often over a hundred of them: pallid, mask-like faces scudding against a bone-blue background; gryphons, sulphurously yellow talons rearing and wings caparisoned in delicate beadwork; a woman turning with dark nipples and strands of wet hair by sour candlelight. This has made me a firm believer in the foaming fecundity of the deep mind, which is able to produce beautiful, polished art---clearly it is, I have seen them---just beneath the horizon of conscious grasping. I can't slow the slideshow down to 'fix' the images, but they are there.

Anyway, back to zolpidem. It is indescribably wonderful: I really had not realised how utterly ghastly I felt. I pop one tablet 15 minutes before sleep, and, here's the thing, I actually do go to sleep. No bells, no whistles, booms, or crashes; I don't pick up talk-radio through my fillings, or dream I've been transformed into a copy of the Iliad.* Though I still do in fact dream vividly, I am now remembering one a night rather than the six or seven that were normal before. (My Jungian analyst was faced with an embarrassment of riches. I used to bring more dreams in a week than some clients in a year.) And what's more I sleep for seven hours uninterrupted: it's like a blissful homeopathic dose of death.

*My weirdest ever dream, that.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Terence Malick's The Tree of Life

Any Malick film is a cultural event: readers, I am ashamed to say that I hated it, or at least parts of it. There were too many babies, and not enough dinosaurs.

Having been moved to tears by the first few minutes of Malick's The New World (review here), I was expecting to be rubbled into nothing by all this cosmic-yet-intimate, curling water, wind-through-grasses stuff. Instead, I was simply bored for quite long stretches---the film truly resembles life itself in that regard---and often felt quite guilty in the manner of the sheepish visitor at an ashram.

The whole thing is a mess, to my mind. It could have been a piercing meditation on the Book of Job---and at moments it looks very much like it's heading that way, from the opening quotation to the astounding CGI 'early universe' sequences---but it's grafted onto the unremarkable story of Sean Penn's Everyboy/man, Jack O'Brian. It feels like a splice of two different films: all the cosmic stuff might have ended up as a higherbrow, Blakean version of Ron Fricke's 1992 Baraka. The shots of the creation of the universe and the beginning of life rank as some of the most powerful images I have ever seen in the cinema: amid swirls of gas and igniting stars, galaxies form with peals of soft thunder. At one point, as a female vocal cries out 'Lacrimosa! Lacrimosa!' you see a single spiral galaxy glowing with its one hundred billion suns. At that point, my eyes did prickle with tears of wonder. I could have watched hours of it: pulsing veins, dividing cells, drifting jellyfish and beached plesiosaur, the whole lot. Kudos to Malick for the dinosaur sequence: first for making his CGI dinosaurs look entirely convincing as real animals at home in an ecosystem, with the rightful, organic beauty of living creatures, and second for having the boldness to deal with the issue of religion and deep time. This used to worry me as a child: what could we possibly be to God, as infinitesimal beings that had evolved with the slowness of aeons from water and rock!? I kept thinking of Kathleen Raine's lines:

Who but I
Speaks for the mute stone?
For fragile water feels
With finger and bone?

Malickian sentiments indeed.

The rest of the material---Jack's spiritual Bildungsroman---could have been repackaged as the story of a sensitive man's alienation from nature in Malick's usual Heideggerian way, which would have made a film much more like The Thin Red Line. The young Jack was played with exquisite melancholy; Jessica Chastain as Mrs O'Brien had the unearthly, haloed beauty of a Flemish Madonna, the camera lingering on her long, tapering Holbein fingers. But instead the splicing of the material engenders an awkward pushme-pullyou, a half-arsed theodicy.

There is a lot of God in The Tree of Life. Prone as I am to oceanic, contemplative states, I nevertheless found the film tranquillising rather than inducing excessus mentis, as medieval people termed it---the suspension of the chattering intellect in focused absorption and loss of self-consciousness. It's a measure of Malick's solemnity that I went in hoping for mystical self-naughting, which is quite a horizon of expectation to erect around any director's film.

Further, watching as a theologically-literate individual, I felt alienated by the film's constant rehearsal of the problem of suffering ('Why do bad things happen to good people?') without either the incarnational resolution of the Cross or the cooler emptiness~compassion of Buddhism, both of which were gestured towards. Going back to the problem of 'deep time', it's very hard to make an aesthetic case for Christianity in this kind of cosmic context, though not impossible; a cramped, parochial, made-in-Taiwan feeling tends to steal over the theological landscape. Watch Malick's galaxies coalesce and stars foam in the heart of nebulae, and then try worrying about monothelitism or whether the absence of episcopal oversight in Methodism renders its orders invalid. Go on, try.

Buddhism is perhaps a little better at this sort of thing with its vast timespans---Malick's film deals in kalpas, the unimaginable ages of eastern thought---but the Buddha famously eschewed metaphysical speculation about suffering's causes, preferring instead to preach its cessation. Malick doesn't push this far enough: the film seems to evoke emptiness in the technical, tongpanyid sense---that all things are impermanent and intrinsically empty of a separate self---only to climax with a baffling scene on a beach which seems to be intended to be heaven. (Families reunite while milling around on the strand.) Unfortunately, this section looks like a particularly beautifully-shot scene from a straight-to-DVD Christian movie. The metaphysic here seemed to me to be rather vacuous, if I didn't altogether misunderstand, but then I'm not a Christian. Indeed, there's an especially dodgy moment in this scene where you see some bare feet in the sand and the end of a white robe: my heart sank. Oh no, I thought, please don't tell me Malick's going to bring on Nazareth's gift to the Joy of Nations. But he wisely restrained himself.

Altogether a baffling, disappointing, beautiful, and flawed thing, 'worth seeing' (as Dr Johnson said), 'but not worth going to see.'

Sunday, 3 July 2011


I'm currently more-or-less-fasting, which is an incredibly useful spiritual experience for me and something I now do fairly regularly. It not only lightens the body but clarifies the mind, making it feel incredibly concentrated and oddly gathered. My thoughts increase in speed; I feel more awake; I become more sensitive but at the same time less sentimental.

There's a fine line to be walked between 'eating so little you feel exhausted' and 'eating just enough to feel spare and light.' The latter for me is about 600 calories a day, for up to two months. I know, before anyone starts, that that is very restricted---but I assure you that after three weeks on even less than that last year I not only looked better but felt fantastic. So a few days of fasting/mindful eating will do no harm---no booze helps too, of course.

The other secret is to start the period with a bentonite and psyllium husk internal cleanse. My may be New Age woowoo, but I assure you I have never experienced such a dramatic improvement in my general sense of wellbeing and vitality as after 5 days on that. You can't go more than five feet from the lav, but everything has its price.

Time for my health-giving bowl of air!
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