The word “mapping” usually gets my attention, so I was intrigued to read Laurence Fearnley’s Corpus post, Scent mapping, Signal Hill. I imagined that she would have created a depiction of Signal Hill with delineated areas where certain scents predominated, probably colour-coded and overlapping syllogistically in places. In other words, scents experienced in real life would be mapped to defined areas on a small scale pictorial representation of real life. Captions would be along the lines of “Here be lavender,” and “Bracken, with the bouquet of gorse in season”. This was a map that I really wanted to see, and to sniff at. But Laurence’s article and a subsequent email disabused me. She saw her map as “dynamic rather than static, with ‘map’ being more of a verb than a noun.” More along the lines of what Alfred Gell refers to as a “mental map”: a process, not a picture. The Signal Hill scent map existed in Laurence’s brain, not on paper.
Readers could in effect hack into Laurence’s headspace via the written descriptions in her Corpus post. Although her words were written as prose, arguably they went some way toward being poetry. In very broad terms, I see poetry as words carefully chosen and arranged, according to a whole toolkit of literary devices, so as to frame and direct attention to aspects of our existence that we may have seen but not really SEEN. For the arrangement to qualify as poetry, it also needs to have the power to propel our consciousness from the mundane to a higher level, like the quantum shift of an electron in an atom to a different energy level in nanoseconds. Hard to describe, but easy to recognise for anyone who has read or listened to great poetry and experienced that shift. That kind of “attention-directing-plus” is common to all of the arts; it is just that poetry, and outstanding prose, do it with words.
So why did Laurence’s article very nearly tick the poetry box? I believe because its subject was scents. Scents, like poetry, are sometimes perception-altering. For example, we might catch a whiff of something and exclaim that it has transported us back in time – even as far back as childhood – or has retrieved some forgotten memory from our mental stack rooms. Laurence’s article was a synthesis of words and scents, a potent combination that I last remember identifying when I read Edward Thomas’ poem, Digging, which begins “Today I think only with scents”.
In London, Edward Thomas flatted with Arthur Ransome, which is another mapping connection. Thomas made a living through unremarkable hack-writing, with thirty prose books and thousands of articles and reviews to his name But although he had huge experience in assembling words, Edward Thomas published no poetry until encouraged to do so by his friend Robert Frost, and his poetry was all written in the last two years before his death, at the age of 39. We know that Thomas wrote his first poem in December 1914, and followed this with 6 more in 6 days. He then wrote at least 80 poems in 6 months, two thirds of his entire poetry oeuvre. When he was killed in action on the 9th of April, 1917 (a century ago, within the month), he had written twelve dozen poems, an exact gross. The world is the richer for them.
Laurence reports that she recently picked the first of the wild blackberries under Flagstaff, signalling the beginning of autumn in Dunedin. Surely there can be no better time to read Edward Thomas’ poem, against the backdrop of Laurence’s scent map.
Today I think
Only with scents – scents dead leaves yield,
And bracken, and wild carrot’s seed,
And the square mustard field;
Odours that rise
When the spade wounds the roots of tree,
Rose, currant, raspberry, or goutweed,
Rhubarb or celery;
The smoke’s smell, too,
Flowing from where a bonfire burns
The dead, the waste, the dangerous,
And all to sweetness turns.
It is enough
To smell, to crumble the dark earth,
While the robin sings over again
Sad songs of Autumn mirth.
David Goodwin is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Surveying at the University of Otago, with research interests in transitional communal tenure, archaeoastronomy, historical position finding and literary cartography. His poetry has been published in New Zealand, England and Southern Africa.
Sources: Gell, Alfred. “How to read a Map: Remarks on the practical logic of navigation” in Man 20.2, 1985. Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland.
Thomas, Edward. The Works of Edward Thomas. San Diego: Wordsworth Poetry Library, 1999.
Photo credits: ‘Bee on Lavender’ by Beth Goodwin; ‘Wild thyme’ by Laura Goodwin.