I had a whole post written, with pics, ready to upload.
And then I made vanilla butter cookies with rosewater and listened to the decades-gone UK band Free play the song Fire and Water … which put paid to that.
I was finishing the washing up after the cookies were baked and just felt that ache in centre of my chest, the one you get having read or listened to or seen or done something that just speaks to your being. And somehow I’d managed to conglomerate those at one go. The smell of the cookies and the aching pain of the lyrics but beauty of the melody sent me looking for what is one of my favourite poems.
I expect most readers know Michael Ondaatje for the film of The English Patient. And I think – it is such a long time ago – that after seeing the film I read the book and then I read everything else of Ondaatje’s I could get my hands on.
At some point within that period of gorging myself on his stuff I read his poetry, including “The Cinnamon Peeler”.
As an aside, The English Patient isn’t my favourite novel of his. That goes to In the Skin of a Lion, and I have to say his later novels don’t stack up to that or The English Patient.
But back to The Cinnamon Peeler. Why did it come into my head along with the cookies and Fire and Water? I can’t parse that – I don’t know why sometimes various experiences aggregate to point to needing to include yet another very specific one. Maybe listen to Fire and Water on YouTube and it will make some sort of sense.
I love the idea of smelling of spices but have encountered only a handful of fragrances that I think remain perfumes even though you can delineate certain spice notes – rather than smelling like a spice cabinet. Serge Lutens Arabie (2000; main notes cedar, sandalwood, candied mardarine, date, fig, nutmeg, cumin, clove, etc) is one and it remains among my favourite cooler weather choices. I think the dried/stewed fruit aspect balances the spices and it is not sweet. Another fragrance is the more recent Etat Libre d’Orange Spice Must Flow (2019; main notes rose, ginger, saffron, cardamon, cinnamon and saffron) which leans more towards spice cabinet but doesn’t fall over that cliff, probably due to the rose. A fragrance in this genre that doesn’t work, IMHO, is Diptyque’s l’Autre (1973; cardamon, pepper, carnation, caraway, nutmeg, coriander, patchouli). It’s too peppery and dry which does push it into spice cabinet rather than perfume.
The poem is non-rhyming. I don’t know enough about the structure of poetry to discuss its metre here, but I’ve seen this labelled as a lyric poem.
My original reading of this many years ago (the copyright for the book in which it appears is 1989) resulted in an intake of breath and an increase in heart rate. I finished it and went straight back and read it again (I had a similar experience with Auden’s The Shield of Achilles). I would make the point here that I don’t think of myself as an intellectual – I read for a living but I also read voraciously, but I sometimes think I do it simply to fill my head so I can relax (what I read for work can be disturbing). I can’t recall most of the books I’ve read and I only return to poems or books when they’ve had a real impact.
Anyway, while the poem clearly includes fragrance at its heart, the more abstract idea of association seems to me more important. And I think that is what spoke to me so explosively when I originally read it. I won’t quote the whole thing, just this:
“… what good is it
to be the lime burner’s daughter
left with no trace
as if not spoken to in the act of love
as if wounded without the pleasure of a scar
your belly to my hands
in the dry air and said
I am the cinnamon
peeler’s wife. Smell me”
So. I ended up spraying on Arabie once I’d found the book but before I re-read the poem while writing this. I expect it still doesn’t make sense as to how I got from baking and a blues rock song from 1970 to this poem but the brain and the heart will do what they will.
Does this happen to you? If so, where does it tend to lead? (And no, my nom de parfum has nothing to do with this poem. I use cinnamon in many screen names but usually as cinnamon toast.)
(Featured pic from Pexels. Book pic me.)