throughsmoke: an essay in notes
We are wooed by perfume. It vexes us. The fleeting habits of fragrance charm and irritate.
Continuing the work of The Book of Scented Things: 100 Contemporary Poems about Perfume, Jehanne’s first book of creative nonfiction, throughsmoke: an essay in notes, explores the connections between perfume and poetry, between smell and speech. Working in the tradition of Maggie Nelson’s Bluets and Elaine Scary’s On Beauty and Being Just, texts that are intimate and compressed but are also rooted in the language of scholarship, throughsmoke weaves together meditations on perfume with memories of Jehanne’s nomadic childhood as the daughter of American diplomats, close readings of poems by Baudelaire, and reflections on the transmission of trauma. throughsmoke frequently looks to classical and contemporary literature, philosophy, and pop culture for answers to the questions: How do we become obsessed with something as seemingly frivolous as perfume? And why might a love of the frivolous be necessary in dark times such as these?
There are many ways I might describe Jehanne Dubrow’s riveting new project, throughsmoke: “a capacious lyric essay that distills many voices into on” (true!), or “a stirring meditation on the olfactory sensibility’ (yes!), or even ‘a remarkable compendium of facts about perfume” (indeed!). But throughsmoke is also an elegantly braided exploration of what fragrance opens up in us—a haunting and ephemeral guide, as the finest fragrances are, to memory, obsession, grief, and desire. “Perhaps, it was inevitable that I love these things,” Dubrow’s speaker muses at one point. It seems likewise inevitable that I would love this book.
—Julie Marie Wade
Fragrance is nothing without the skin that bears it, the mind that weaves it into stories. We are the performers of our perfumes, and so what goes through the nose can only be expressed by an “I.” Rising in short, fragrant whiffs from the page, Jehanne Dubrow’s memories and insights on smells and smelling compose what she calls “a book of distillations.” But also the outlines of a body, corpus as well as breathing flesh. Perfume “remains always right now,” she writes; always in the present tense, always a present. As I read throughsmoke, Dubrow is here, now, with her gift: a fellow perfume lover, a sister in scent.
Our words for perfume are also our words for memory: intoxicating, heady, evocative, haunting. throughsmoke, Jehanne Dubrow’s book-length essay in lyrical notes, tries to uncover the mystery behind evocation and haunt, the desire that indelibly marks us. ‘We are each locations of interest. We are tripwire and spark,” she writes. This is a book about the tripwire art of perfumery, but it is also an investigation into the uses of beauty, and how we can understand the human spark to transform. “But the ordinary, natural scents of our actions may unmask us,” Dubrow writes, seeking to analyze the ways we mask, and finding a way to uncover and reveal. And what is found here is a critique of power, of life and death. Dubrow proposes a “new nomenclature”— “throughsmoke,” she calls it—in which “nothing would be dominated or made to kneel. There would only be the body asking permission to reach for the autonomous grace of fragrance.” This is, after all, a book about grace. Grace, and survival.
—James Allen Hall