|Marsden Hartley, Cleophas, Master of the Gilda Gray, 1938-39, oil on board, 28 x 22 inches|
Memory of Fragrance
Cleophas is the fisherman's name; he is seventy and like a great actor who has set aside his roles. His diction is flawless and might have set a Booth to praising. We were speaking of hummingbirds, and of their amazing flight to Mexico each season's end, from no matter what north -- I remaking of the recent skillful photography of the hummingbird's wing movement -- sixty beats to the second.
We talked of honey, the pronunciation of the word lichen as he noticed I had used the lich form instead of the other or 'liken' use -- all this because I had been describing the incredible workmanship in the nest of the hummingbird, and then we turned to the pot of honey on the table and it came to me then to tell him of all the kinds of honey in the Alpine country each with its own Alpine flavor. You may find these in the [freight?] shops just as you find so many cheeses in some.
"What does it smell like" said Cleophas pointing to the honey-pot in front of us.
"O Cleophas," I said, "it smells like all the flowers rolled into one," and the conversation placed itself on other things.
With a kind of sharp poignancy which is the essence of some degrees of memory, my mind dwelt upon the word fragrance, and as I was lying in bed, from the union of the words fragrance & memory I was suddenly perched up on a high cliff on the valley of the Car in the medieval town of Gattieres -- this in the Alpes Maritimes of course.
It was harvest time & the harvest was the most precious I have ever encountered for the harvest was of orange flowers.
On every slope in these regions you see tailor-made orchards, terraces really of button like orange tress, set in rows as on a faded military uniform of past wars, and the fruit is not of the edible sort -- it is converted if allowed to develop, for use in the making of liqueurs, but the real harvest is of the flowers.
It is evening there in the harvest time of the orange flowers, and as you walk along the high road above the river bed of the Var quite dry but for a trickle at the side, and in the distance the snowcapped peaks of the mountains of Italy.
You have had your supper and you must have a walk before night comes down.
In harvest time a heavy fragrance overtakes you and gives you the imagined sense that it doesn't matter where you are, and you may call it if you like the Vale of Cashmere or the groves behind the Taj Mahal.
Wagons come into view at the turn of the road and they are piled high with sacks and the peasants are piled upon them.
The sun is down, the snow peaks have gone into an ultra violet condition, the river bed is in the blues of shadow -- the little ancient hill towns perched on rocks seem to melt back into their original rock state -- all the world is enveloped in fragrance and the end of the evening.
You follow the wagons of course into the central plaza of the town where the cooperative takes charge -- bags weighed in, credit slips given & the the ghostly streams of fragrant white from out of the bags upon the plaza floor.
The moon is up over the hills now and it begins to make traceries everywhere. The balconies above the plaza begin to be peopled with dark figures, and the staircases that lead down to it are studded with hypnotized figures.
No one says anything above a whisper, everyone is looking down without a word at the singular white carpet below, a foot thick surely of orange flowers & from them an almost stifling fragrance arises. You think of nothing that does not partake of dream - nature -- worlds forgot & the ways of men.
The moon is high and the blanket of flowers consequently whiter and still more ghost - like in its appearance; no one seems to want to do anything -- the leaners out of windows and the standers on the staircase -- lean over the respective balustrades in a state of hypnosis. The now peaks have gone to bed for the night, a cloud clings here & there as if to have its sleep as well. The night grows older -- older people meander to their beds and new young lovers cling to each other as if the scene were the unimagined epitome of the plain emotions...
It was Cleophus of the north that set me on the trail of this memory of fragrance, asking as he did what the pot of northern honey smelled like. "Like all the flowers of the world" could be the only answer.
excerpted from Marsden Hartley's Journal Entries, Nova Scotia, 1936.