Smelling for Images

Screen Shot 2014-10-08 at 11.07.44 AMTaylor Brorby is a writer, environmentalist, and GLBT rights activist. He received his M.A. in Liberal Studies from Hamline University in 2013, and is currently pursuing his MFA in Creative Writing and Environment at Iowa State University. Taylor’s work has appeared in Orion MagazineRock, Paper, ScissorsThe Englewood Review of Books, on Minnesota Public Radio, North Dakota Public Radio, numerous newspapers, Augsburg Fortress, On Second Thought, the Northern Plains Ethics JournalChelsea StationThe EcoTheo Review,Sleet MagazineHigh Country News, The Loft’s Writer’s Block, and is forthcoming from the anthology Kissing in the Chapel, Praying in the Frat House: Wrestling with Faith and College.

Initially in the essay, Johnston turns his gaze upon Chester’s refinement of smell, calling his dog an expert in “traces of urine and old turds,” eliciting a slight cringe from the reader, knowing too well the smell of ammonia and must lining any neighborhood walkway. Johnston doesn’t, though, simply catalogue a range of smells lost on humans and noticed by dogs, he shifts his gaze to a comparison between himself and Chester, remarking, “Although I may catch a whiff of ammonia and lilac in cat piss, or yeast and jasmine in dog feces, expressive variety is lost on me.” Johnston’s wit spreads throughout this sentence, begging the reader to ask if he has ever noticed the smell of yeast or jasmine in dog feces. Normally, on peripatetic adventures, dog excrement smells just like that: excrement.

But Johnston delves deeper in his olfactory exploration, remarking that, “Beyond where and when, the trace [of excrement or urine] may carry somatic information of infection, unhappiness, or a fully belly.” In a single line Johnston revels the marveling world of canines and their subtlety of smell. In this way, through his writing of rich and varied sentences, Johnston is able to both bring the reader along and encourage him to stop and question is own assertions: Can you smell love in a trace of urine? Anger in a moment of excretion? While walking, is fear smelled in the aroma of ammonia on dogwood branches? Johnston’s writing reveals a world foreign to the everyday human experience.

Further into the paragraph, Johnston presses the matter further, stating that, “When Chester inhales, or touches his tongue to a dried droplet on a violet leaf, the outside is in again.” In one short sentence, Johnston uses image, anecdote, and idea–rooted in sensual details–to drive home the meaning of taste and smell. The reader can picture chester inhaling, gentling touching his tongue–and what a great image!–to a “dried droplet” on a very specific violet leaf. Perhaps the brilliancy of Johnston’s thinking comes through in his last five words: “the outside is in again.” Through this reversal, Johnston complicates matters and the readers’ thinking by showing the continuous process of smell, evaluation, and taste, showing how rooted to reality a sense that many people who are more dependent on sight and hearing omit–smell.

These two short paragraphs in Devin Johnston’s “Creaturely” reveal a tapestry of rich imagery and smell rooted through the world of Johnston’s dog, Chester. Perhaps Johnston is at his best when describing the images involved in his walk with Chester, but it seems to me that his subtle delivery of his real message–that, “the outside is in again”–of taste and smell, reveals the depth and perception of this great essayist’s thinking.

Editor’s Note: for more on writing the olfactory, check out Advisory Editor Joy Castro’s “The Fragrance of Fiction” and Jill McCabe Johnson’s Brevity craft essay, “The Art of Literary Olfaction, or Do You Smell That?

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