Suzanne's Perfume Journal

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In the first week of April, before Lavender died, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross received a good-luck charm from Martha. It was a simple pebble, an ounce at most. Smooth to the touch, it was a milky white color with flecks of orange and violet, oval-shaped, like a miniature egg. In the accompanying letter, Martha wrote that she had found the pebble on the Jersey shoreline, precisely where the land touched water at high tide, where things came together but also separated. It was this separate-but-together quality, she wrote, that had inspired her to pick up the pebble and to carry it in her breast pocket for several days, where it seemed weightless, and then to send it through the mail, by air, as a token of her truest feelings for him. Lieutenant Cross found this romantic. But he wondered what her truest feelings were, exactly, and what she meant by separate-but-together. He wondered how the tides and waves had come into play on that afternoon along the Jersey shoreline when Martha saw the pebble and bent down to rescue it from geology. He imagined bare feet. Martha was a poet, with the poet's sensibilities, and her feet would be brown and bare, the toenails unpainted, the eyes chilly and somber like the ocean in March, and though it was painful, he wondered who had been with her that afternoon. He imagined a pair of shadows moving along the strip of sand where things came together but also separated. It was phantom jealousy, he knew, but he couldn't help himself. He loved her so much. On the march, through the hot days of early April, he carried the pebble in his mouth, turning it with his tongue, tasting sea salt and moisture. His mind wandered. He had difficulty keeping his attention on the war. On occasion he would yell at his men to spread out the column, to keep their eyes open, but then he would slip away into daydreams, just pretending, walking barefoot along the Jersey shore, with Martha, carrying nothing. He would feel himself rising. Sun and waves and gentle winds, all love and lightness.

Guerlain Angélique Noire: Singular

The above excerpt is from Tim O’Brien’s award-winning book, The Things They Carried, a novel-in-stories about the Vietnam War. I’m not sure any other author has ever written so poignantly about that war, and though all of the stories in the books are mesmerizing, the title story, from which this passage is taken, gets my vote as the most poignant and the most mesmerizing, not only for what it says but by how it is written. The bulk of the story is a series of lists of what the soldiers carried or “humped” across the war-strewn jungle landscape of that country: lists of everyday necessity items like P-38 can openers, mosquito repellent, C-rations and water canteens; lists of the guns and grenades and ammunition, the ponchos and jackets and gear. Lists of the items that kept them occupied in the downtime (tobacco, playing cards, pencils, stationery and stamps for the letters they wrote home), as well as the intangible items they carried too – their “emotional baggage” (fears, superstitions and private shames). O’Brien lists the weight, in pounds, of some of the items they carry, and, by placing that in the reader’s mind, the lists themselves acquire weight. Ticked off in a matter-of-fact style, the lists are both unsentimental and personal (“Henry Dobbins carried his girlfriend’s pantyhose wrapped around his neck as a comforter”), and by some literary sleight-of-hand, achieve two things at once: they function as a shorthand narrative of what an army “grunt,” or infantry man, did during the war, and at the same time, they lend the story its crushing heaviness. The reader feels the stacking effect of these burdens, and the sense that each soldier is carrying them mostly alone, his only community being his small band of army brothers.

Yet for a story to have emotional impact, in addition to dark weightiness it must also have a sense of light – the light that one wants to believe in, that could just as easily slip away. So, in between the lists of the things they carried there is a loosely woven story: a rumination by Lieutenant Jimmy Cross on the college girl he fell in love with, Martha. A girl who sends him letters (and the pebble) but who is too cool and noncommittal to be considered his sweetheart. Because Martha is aloof in person yet poetic in her communiqués – sending him this stone which she carried next to her bosom, which she describes in terms that could lead a young soldier to hope for a future with her, as well as to question that hope – she becomes a distraction. A phantom lover. A burden so infinitely tender it would not seem to be a burden at all, until the day that it is; until the day that Lieutenant Cross feels that it has kept him from performing his duties and decides he can’t carry it anymore.

I have thought about this story, about this stone and the two people who carry it separately yet together, for a long time. Now I can finally put a perfume to it – something I knew I would eventually do. Every time I read or think about The Things They Carried, this pebble has weight to me; I imagine how it felt, tasted and smelled.

Guerlain Angélique Noire is the olfactory version of the pebble (and of the young woman who slipped it into her pocket for several days before slipping it into a letter). Angélique Noire is a vanilla perfume, and yet it is the poet’s vanilla scent: more enigmatic than effusive, more dreamy than direct. Though the name would suggest that it smells primarily of the angelica flower, one only has to sniff the atomizer of whatever vessel is holding this fragrance (the bottle, or, in my case, a sample vial) to know that vanilla is its overriding theme. Sniffing it in such a way (from the atomizer, before applying it on skin), it seems to promise an experience akin to sniffing a pricey bottle of vanilla extract used for baking. What a surprise, then, to spray it on and discover that this vanilla lands on the skin as if surrounded by sea mist, vegetation and suede leather, and that it continues in this vein. For almost the duration of its wear. Angélique Noire is an elegantly-vegetal vanilla perfume that is more cool than warm – or in other words, a vanilla perfume largely informed by the angelica plant: a plant with a juniper-like scent reminiscent of crisp air and the kind of greens that grow densely in the shade. On its own, angelica has a fern-and-pine, mineral water-and-air, gin-like smell. In Angélique Noire, where it is grafted onto a dominant vanilla accord, the melding of the two has a tempering effect on both the angelica and the vanilla. As such, the angelica note is not as brisk and tonic as it appears in other perfumes (like Frederic Malle Angéliques sous la Pluie), but a softer and more amorphous form of cool. It smells like a very pretty form of dill – like the dill and sugar brine that is used for gravlax (minus the actual gravlax, of course). And the vanilla is not the liqueur-like confectioner’s vanilla I expected when sniffing the atomizer, but a vanilla that is more teasing and ambiguous.

The collision of the two accords creates a fragrance that is softly complex – a fragrance that has a true alfresco nature (reminding me of the sea pebble) yet is married to a sweet-and-creamy something that might best be filed under the descriptor of “longing” (reminding me of Martha). It is a fairly linear perfume that doesn’t change much over the duration of its wear, and I am fine with that, intrigued, instead, with the interplay between the two main accords. While the overall effect is cool, the rub between the two produces some warm aspects, too – an inky, iodine-like smell that reminds me of the sea; a hint of rum-like sweetness – and within this mix I find these  facets: a mineral-like air reminiscent of fresh gravel spread on a warm road; suede leather playing hide-and-seek; and the aforementioned chill herbalness that recalls the kind of herbs used in brines (capers and dill, sweetly refreshing and weedy) rather than the savory kind one more commonly finds in a garden. Altogether, they make Angélique Noire a vanilla scent that can’t be pinned down. It’s elegant in the way that perfumes from the Guerlain house always are, but it’s got a restless, outdoor spirit. It’s a perfume for the person who quietly follows the beat of her or his own drum, who seems to enjoy solitude and separateness more than togetherness, yet who is dreamy, rather than prickly, in this regard.


* * *


In The Things They Carried, along with the pebble Martha sent him, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried her letters, that were always signed “Love, Martha” even though her letters never spoke of love or of the war. Without the weight of commitment, she would seem to be an easy thing to carry – a “Gentle on My Mind” kind of girl – but sometimes it’s the softest straw that breaks the camel’s back.

Guerlain Angélique Noire eau de parfum has top notes of bergamot, angelica seeds, pink pepper, and pear; heart notes of sambac jasmine and caraway; and base notes of angelica root, vanilla and cedar wood. It can be purchased from Bergdorfgoodman.com, where a 75-ml bottle is currently $260. My review is based on a sample received from my blogging friend, Undina.

The Things They Carried, copyright © 1990 by Tim O'Brien (Originally published by Houghton Mifflin and reprinted in paperback by Broadway Books, a division of Random House New York, 1998, page 8)

Photo of woman with windswept hair can be found various places on Internet; photographer unknown by me.

May 30, 2015: