‘Small Murders’ by Aimee Nezhukumatathil​

— Nix Thérèse

I’m glad I’m not alone in being distracted or made dizzy by smell. The beauty of ‘Small Murders’ lies in how we’re moved through a chronicle of scent seduction where the fragrance makes the woman distinct & always calls her to memory. Yet fragrance really relies on the blood-pulse, movement that thrums under it until the warmth makes it speak. When we fall for someone’s fragrance, we’re really loving their vitality, how their body sings under any adornment.

The rituals around scent in Cleopatra’s bedroom make her feel impressive. Boatliving isn’t the most appealing idea, yet the mention of cedarwood implies her snugly tucked inside, safe from the sometimes reckless elements. When I consider bed canopies, I often recall the heavy scent of OFF! on the skin, another measure against mosquitoes as I rolled helplessly sticky in summer heat. Yet she doesn’t appear overpowered by her own sweat or smells. The diffusion of the “nets sagging with rosehips and crocus” above her bed feels lovely: its ability to impact without actually touching is a godsend. The sails similarly communicate across air by wafting perfume towards the nose instead of sticking. Even when she’s dipped her extremities in warm liquid scent (almond oil, cinnamon, henna), the space remains cool enough that she’s not suffocated by her own luxury.

Similarly, the speaker’s former lover indulges in scent; they even buy a small vial of their parfume where a drop is so intensely concentrated that it stays intact all day. This old lover wanted to retain, wanted their skin to steep in remembrance. When the speaker references Napoleon possessing a crushed powder of violets around his neck at all times, a recollection of his wife’s essence plucked from her grave, it appears that even the greatest of us can be entranced and brought to heel by smell. Yet violets will never bloom in a locket as they did on Josephine’s skin. The parfume in/on the lover’s hand will never match the speaker’s. There’s grief to wanting a scent: you know it’s so bodily-tied that it can never fully replicate. At best, you’re linked to glass, plastic, or whatever can hold it for months at a time, instead of the fleeting tie you experienced with them.

The turn of the poem—the new boy kissing away the scent the former lover handpicked—feels so fresh because even though the lover doesn’t lure by scent, they still make an impact. Though the perfume is so informed by the speaker’s own body, the connection is brought forth by the you. Imagine having to cut yourself off from yourself. The relief in the new boy stealing this piece of them, which is really an extension of the lover, comes through so strongly: “your mark on me washed / away with each kiss, the last one so cold, so filled with mist / and tiny daggers, I already smelled blood on my hands.” Scent is a web that’s always ensnaring, always adding a new story to its tightly coiled thread. How can you not get tied up?

From the Fishhouse