Perfume and poetry – “Ancient Resins (for Leonard Cohen)”

Leonard Cohen at home in Los Angeles in September, 2016.
Photo: Graeme Mitchell for The New Yorker.
Remembering his muse, Marianne Ihlen: “There would be a gardenia on my desk perfuming the whole room,” he said. “There would be a little sandwich at noon. Sweetness, sweetness everywhere.” (From: The New Yorker)

The world of perfume is full of happy coincidences and synergies, such as between Leonard Cohen and old-world resins and oils. Leonard Cohen started his career in music by writing poetry. He started turning his poems into songs and writing music because he couldn’t make a living as a writer. So he did not launch a music career until 1967, at the age of 33. But he never stopped writing poetry – his poem Steer Your Way was published in The New Yorker magazine in June 2016, when he was 82, just a few months before his death. While many of Cohen’s poems and songs are about death and sadness (his work has been called “death-haunted”), they cover the entire range of the human experience – love, death, the sacred, the profane, the mundane, beauty, boredom, ugliness, joy, all the human senses, you name it.

Many people would not know though, that Cohen not only wrote poems and songs about fragrances, but had a fragranced body oil designed for him by Aftelier Perfumes, in 2012, to match his music. Called Ancient Resins (for Leonard Cohen), the design of the fragrance pays homage to the tone, themes, and lyrics of Cohen’s music.

Ancient Resins is a bespoke fragranced body oil made by natural perfumer Mandy Aftel for Leonard Cohen, and he [Cohen] is said to wear it now every day. I find the idea of Mr Cohen (”a lazy bastard living in a suit” as he refers to himself on one of his new songs) wearing this dignified, but tender, perfume under his shirts, very beautiful – a perfume made for a famous person that for once makes sense.

“She used to wear her hair like you except when she was sleeping.
And then she’d weave it on a loom, of smoke and gold and breathing….”
(“Winter Lady”, by Leonard Cohen, 1967)

If Leonard Cohen were ever going to be made a perfume (the words ‘celebrity fragrance’ seem so cheap and crass in the context of this review I am tempted to go back and erase them), you can be sure it was not going to be a pink, fruity floral. But neither could it have been some crass, acrid masculine, despite the old seducer’s reputation. No: it would have to speak, have soul and an air of wisdom, and so Aftel has gone for a blend of Biblical essences that manage to be spiritually reflective without the undue po-faced austerity of many recent incense fragrances; a sensual composition of balms and base notes of resins with a singular heart of organic frankincense. I imagine you could wear Ancient Resins either as a subtle body perfume, or else use it to soften and augment other scents, to add a gentler haze to the dark, otherworldy invocations that certain incense perfumes can bring.

In ‘The Calculus Of Fixation’ [chapter from Essence and Alchemy, by Mandy Aftel, publisher: Gibbs M. Smith Inc., 24 Dec. 2004] Aftel writes that “base notes are the deepest, most mysterious, and oldest, of all perfume ingredients. Every ancient culture used them – indeed, for centuries they were the essence of perfume, so when you work with them, you literally have ancient history in your hands”.

She also describes these base notes as “thorny and difficult”, words that I can imagine could also be attributed to Leonard Cohen….“Thick, unformed, gunky, base notes are a reminder of the unconscious – of all that is shadowed, thick, obscure, but fixed and defining about us – and the inertia and resistance that guard it”……. a perfume then, formed of notes that perhaps attempt to capture the unyielding nature of [Leonard Cohen’s song] The Bird On A Wire, who, may have tried, in his own many ways ‘to be free’ but who, like the rest of us, is ultimately tied to the limitations of his own being.

Ancient Resins is a very uncomplicated scent. But it is soothing, and it is warming. While the frankincense works as a light, protecting veil over the deeper resins, the principal note for me in this perfume is not that mystical oil, but rather benzoin, an essential oil I am very drawn to with its balsamic, vanillic smell and its drying, healing properties. It is linked here to an essence I have never smelled before, Balm Of Gilead, a ‘miracle cure’ mentioned in the Old Testament and in various medical texts over the centuries, an essential oil extracted from poplar trees, and seemingly quite a medicinal smell that gives Ancient Resins a hint of bronchial expectorant – a linctus sanctus, if you like, that, for this writer, with his vulnerable lungs that are susceptible to pneumonia and the like, is very comforting.”

(Above, extract from the beautiful write-up on “Ancient Resins”, by perfume writer, The Black Narcissus, a.k.a Neil Chapman. rtrvd. 2017-04-30)

Banner image source:; Photo by CHRISTIAN ST CLAIR; CC licence – use, do not modify, credit



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