Scent Poems

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Penning Perfumes



“The road weaves upward accompanied by a drum and a flute,

Round and round the bends, where the scent is more and more honeyed.

Plaited beehives, their straw shines like brass,

Sunflowers in rows, thyme.

And there, four turrets: facing East, West, North and South.

Where you enter the gate it’s as if they were waiting for you.

Complete silence in a rose garden,

Around it, an expanse of green hills,

Of blue-green, up to the very clouds.”


from ‘The Accuser’ by Czeslaw Milosz


It’s almost like a formula for a perfume, this magical bit of poetry.  I’d love to smell it.


Inspired by Ericka Duffy’s mention of the scent of carnivals I thought I’d put up my circus poem, which draws on smell as one of its means of communicating the idea of the circus.





Dum da ladadada dum da lada

Ha ha la la the horses are made of sugar their heads have pink feathers get out of the car car car car car car car car car car car clown clown clown clown clown clown clown clown clown clown clown you clown you ha ha la la

My uncle ran away with the circus to be a clown.  He fell in love with the lady on the trapeze.  I met her once when I was a little child.  She taught me how to melt bits of glass into a twist of metal to make a red apple.  I remember her eyes not her face.

I remember her eyes not her face.
I remember her eyes not her face.

Ha ha la la the horses shit in a sack they lick their own fetlocks the horses are made of sugar when they dance the white sugar rises like dust and the lions ROAR get out of the cage cage cage cage cage and run run run run run run run run run run you clown you ha ha la la

This is the heart of the clown; it is a balloon.  Inside, the last of the burning gas – and glitter all over the floor.  Old violet perfume, Russian fag smoke, buttered popcorn and salt (doesn’t have a smell), manure and the hay and the oats and the rum (the strong man sailed) and the tears (don’t have a smell) and the fire-eater’s farts and the cats and the ground-up greasepaint and camellia soap the bearded lady used to shave (just her breasts) and the clean, sad lick of snow coming down from the mountain; here, have it, here.

No wonder he cries.  No wonder his lips hang down like a saggy hot dog.  Mi amor, sings the gypsy, mi amor, mi amor, mi amor, mi amor, mi amor.


The tents were always striped, smaller than you’d think.
Hot in there.
The hay soaked up most of the piss but the smell,
O that delicious, disgusting smell…

Some nights the lions would draw real blood.
I never let on.

There’s only one way I’ll die; feast.
How else, after all the years?

They watch me, ragged, wondering

Who will go first?
I whisper, me.


She fell.  He watched her, couldn’t believe – everything
In slow motion as you’d expect.

She fell.

No one even tried to catch her.

It was too,
Too beautiful.

He stood with his black top hat raised in one white-gloved hand.


Silk, brocade, jacquard,
Wool, felt, tweed,
Taffeta, tulle,
Sackcloth, ribbons, rags.



Dum da ladadada dum da lada

There was a man with an accordion and a boy with a fiddle.
The girl sang with the voice of a virgin queen.

Sometimes when I am drifting to sleep, I can hear it…

Dum da ladadada dum da lada

Like a piece of dust caught on the skin of my eye;
If you rub it, it hurts more.
So you have to let it play itself out.

If there was a way to go back, I would.

I would.

The first snow on the peak of the mountain
But still petals on the trees and
Everyone laughing,
Even the saddest clown.

Pitch fires burning beside each caravan.

Tiny Chinese gymnasts
Making a necklace of their bodies
And an elephant spraying water at the stars.

(c) 2011 JL Williams


A friend just passed on news about this exquisite sounding new fragrance of the night.

It has a poem that goes along with it:

I wanted to write one in response…


Night Flower



My heart whose petals keep fading, lover can you smell

the pall of death on me?


I’m the white star come morning.

Remember my scent in the night,

what joys we had?

The light of darkness a violet

cloak for our tears?


And now this crumpled stain,

my heart, my voice,

an echo through the empty house

as sun rises.


JL Williams   2011


This all feels just right somehow with Halloween around the corner!  Proper gothique.

I wrote this poem as part of a project for Lush’s new Gorilla Perfumes.  It was quite wonderful as Ericka Duffy, an officially titled ‘Top Banana’ at Gorilla or, as we like to call her, Goddess of Scent, sent myself and my friend the amazing poet and more Elspeth Murray each a box of perfumes from the new line to smell, wear, be inspired by and write poems about.  We then got to share what we’d written on Radio Scotland and at the splendid Scottish Poetry Library, at a joyous, perfume-filled scent event/poetry reading.  Have a look at my poetry website,, for a link to a recording of the radio programme where you can hear a couple of the poems being read, including this one.

for EM

I smell her first,
and this is what I see:
a still life with a copper bowl of bergamot,
a wooden bowl of shiny apples, a pile of cloves.
And then there is her silver hair in the wind,
her leather boots,
her red cape smelling of wool and rain;
bitter, rich and sweet,
and this is her, coming from weather
to the fire in the library,
the spines of leather books whispering
her, her, as if it’s Christmas and she’s arrived
to take them down from their shelves, and rub them,
and read them to children sliding cloves into orange peel.

I smell her first, then I see her, then I see her again
as she will be someday, in a memory
that doesn’t even exist.

JL Williams   2011

Photos (c) Chris Scott   2011

Poem submissions welcome – I’d like to start up a publishing stream of scent-inspired poems and flash fictions so do send them in to