On a spring day in Zurich, I walked into a park and was immediately struck by the perfume of the blooming Magnolia trees. A thousand tender pink flowers spread out a delicate smell with an intensity that catapulted me into another dimension, breathing it into my lungs, a cloud of magic magnolia condensing into a cathedral inside me. 

Speaking about that sensation to a friend, he said, with the voice of someone dreaming of producing gold, “For well over 15 years now, I am dreamed of being able to capture perfumes.”

As I had intuitively put the sensations into a poem, I realised that I possessed the magic key to that dream: Poetry! Poetry allowed me to capture the perfume of magnolias. This might sound banal but it is not. 

With this feeling of spring and delight, I brought a peony to my evening poetry course: a voluminous flower of pink and purple petals with shades of yellow. The florist said, “The flower is beautiful, but the smell is so very intense that it stinks.” For us, poets, it was an inspiration to write haikus. 

Talking to the course participants, I searched for words to describe the smell of the peony in a more poetic way. Iris, a participant, smelt at the flower and suddenly said: “This is exactly how the bedroom of my grandparents smelt like.” That was such a powerful way to remind us that smells are not only a carrier of emotions and memories but also that memory can produce a perfect naming of a smell. With the memory of Iris Muoth, we can encyclopaedically, precisely, name the smell of a peony. 

She has formulated it in a Haiku: 

Der Duft der Ahnen                The smell of the ancestor
blüht rosa im Zimmer            Blooms pink in the room
Schlaf gut!                                Sleep well!

Her line, “Sleep well!“, may not only talk about the eternal sleep of her grandparents but also express the temporal beauty of the flower. 

In my own poem, I wondered what happens to the smell once the petals have fallen to the grave:

Klebrig gelb durchtränkter Duft   Sticky yellow soaked perfume
Wo geht’s Du hin?                            Where do you go to?
Wenn die Blütenblätter               When the petals have fallen 
Zu Grabe fallen.                               to the grave? 

Long after the magnolia perfume at the park had been washed away by the rains, I met my friend again. He told me about an AI (artificial intelligence) developing a sense of smell. While the AI mimics the human nose to capture smells, in poetic alchemy we are equipped with words to capture smells and perfumes that have invaded our senses. We make them last. 

Andrea Grieder is a poet and social anthropologist. She is the founder and director of Transpoesis, an organization based in Rwanda with the aim to empower through Poetry. Originally from Switzerland, she has a Ph.D. from the University of Zurich and Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS), Paris. She is a lecturer at the University of Technology and Arts of Byumba (UTAB), Rwanda. Email: info@andreagrieder.com 

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Andrea Grieder
Andrea Grieder is a poet and social anthropologist. She is the founder and director of Transpoesis, an organization based in Rwanda with the aim to empower through Poetry. Originally from Switzerland, she has a Ph.D. from the University of Zurich and Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS), Paris. She is a lecturer at the University of Technology and Arts of Byumba (UTAB), Rwanda. Email: a_grieder@access.uzh.ch