Scent evokes memory. Such strong associations with smell have prompted perfumes, the pinnacle of scent, to be banned or discouraged in mass gatherings as well as in small spaces. Elizabeth A. I. Powell’s poetry collection Atomizer, its namesake those decorative glass bottles that house expensive perfumes and permit a small amount to be released in the air or on the body, adopts perfumer vocabulary to relate an intricate narrative of love, family, and loss. Powell’s work transforms the past through this scented funnel, dispersing memory in poems that are shaped by scents that can be just as devastating as they are pleasing.
As a preface to the collection, the title poem, “Atomizer,” acts as its dominant scent by guiding the reader through its tightly woven prose divided by the categories that compose a perfume: top notes, heart notes, and base notes. In the opening section, “Top Notes,” named after the immediate but most volatile scents in a perfume, the speaker contemplates the atomizer, which “sprays the world out atom by atom” and how “Fragrance summons angels. I desire Proustian angels, different from Episcopalian ones.” These angels continue to be summoned throughout the poem, serving as scented divine emissaries that make the quotidian and holy inextricable from each other. Maintaining these otherworldly presences, synesthesia arises when the speaker confesses, “When I smell roses I see hues of blue. Citrus—only yellow. Each petit mal is a different Rothko painting. Who knew color could smell like rain and the smell of rain was apple green?” This personal history of the speaker with perfume shows how scent transgresses boundaries, moving from the concrete to the abstract and back again.
Like the speaker’s complex relationship with scent, men enter the picture through a refrain in “Atomizer:” “Love has many scents. He used scent to confound, to throw me off the trail of who he really was, which may be just another word for emptiness. How he found the scent that described my memory to my desire and it smelled so good I had no choice but to love him when his cheek slipped next to mine.” This repetition sets precedence for how men, and ideas of love, will become controlling and fraught forces in the collection, presences constantly retreaded. The atomizer itself serves as a vehicle for the narrative—“Let the atomizer release the top notes of my story, that which evaporates most quickly. Let the atomizer do what it does best: release the distance between autobiography and critical analysis.” And Atomizer does just this in complicating intimacies.
These fraught relationships are explored in the familial roles of scents. The cascading stanzas of “Lying Perfume Bottle of Chanel Pour Monsieur” personifies the scent as a man. “How oakmossy the world is, / how odor is identity’s first ardor,” the speaker observes while in the thrall of the scent figure. “Tell me everything,” the man repeats, even as the speaker acknowledges how this smell can only be an illusion. “Fantasy is what we create when we have nothing // left to say about a world that has left us trendy, / fetishized, and empty,” the speaker concludes as the poem ends with the reality of the father “wearing this scent, tightening his tie, / his capitalist’s noose, thinking he’s 007, slapping / himself in the face, no woman can know him.” The gulf widens between speaker and parents, including the mother, who is juxtaposed with her own scents, namely bars of rose and lavender soap in “Ars Poetica.” As the speaker remembers her mouth being washed out with soap, “The lavender tallow, glycerin atoms ascended / from my lips into silencing / my words to God […].” Amidst the punishment, the speaker admits, “I try to make it pretty” even while exposing the non-moral of the story: “She just liked the scent / of lavender and submission, / hated the words fuck and suck and no.” Further remembering the mother in “Escape,” the speaker confesses to hidden fears, asking “How can I make this a feminist text? The oppressed Lesbian mother should be the hero.” In her efforts to be like her mother, an impossible task, the speaker observes, “We were living in a reticence made of angel/monster / Dichotomy. I became the mad one.” Unable to please and connect with family, the speaker moves on to other desires.
This manufacturing of desire permeates Atomizer. In “Spritz,” the speaker tries to use the attraction of scent to find a dating match yet returns to “[…] the idea: Perfume is the feeling of flowers, a prayer burning / like brandy down the gullet.” By the poem’s ending lines, the speaker admits, “Forcing yourself to love a perfume / is like forcing yourself to love someone you don’t.” Perfume serves as the central metaphor for genuine attraction and connection. Even from the air in “Letter from American Airspace,” this thesis on desire is revealed in how “Yearning / is a kind of loss, a desire that’s never filled.” And this desire is repeated and made more dangerous in how “Chasing yearning, I have discerned, is like chasing a kind of poison.”
Atomizer’s concluding epistolary poem, “Guerlain: Imperiale (Bedroom), 1853,” revisits the themes of the opening poem. In long, varied, prose-like lines and stanzas, the speaker addresses the reader directly, reaching out across the history of the poem and its associated destructive relationship. “I am writing a spell to undo the alchemy / of his smells. Dear Reader, I’m foolish in my Cristalle, my No. 19, / my Estee Lauder mascara, my skinny jeans, my thwarted desires,” the speaker confesses to artifice and its empty promises, how luxury cannot provide satisfaction. But amidst this superficiality is something more, as these poems find something true among the manufactured. For Powell, it is impossible to not return to the first moment of inhaling a perfume, or someone’s best moment, and how the speaker returns to that place, despite its potentially false promises. The speaker observes, “The darkness, Dear Reader, is that everyone, / everyone is so beautiful once.” And it is that moment of beauty this collection clings to, preserving it inside its own cut glass bottle.
About the Reviewer
Alyse Bensel is the author of Rare Wondrous Things: A Poetic Biography of Maria Sibylla Merian (Green Writers Press, 2020) and three chapbooks. Her work has appeared in AGNI, Blackbird, Gulf Coast, Southern Indiana Review, and West Branch. She serves as poetry editor for Cherry Tree and teaches at Brevard College, where she directs the Looking Glass Rock Writers’ Conference.