Monday, March 22, 2004

Beginning With O ~ Olga Broumas

I met Olga Broumas in Emma Donoghue's novel Hood, which opens with a quote from Broumas' poem "Little Red Riding Hood":

I kept to the road, kept
the hood secret, kept what it sheathed more
secret still. I opened
it only at night, and with other women
who might be walking the same road to their own
grandma's house, each with her basket of gifts

It was love at first sight, and finally I was able, through inter-library loan ([insert deity of choice] bless whoever thought that up), to track down some of her work. Beginning with O was Broumas' first published book of poetry, and she didn't disappoint.
I've been sitting here thinking, or trying to anyway, about what to say and write about Olga Broumas. I could write reams of essays and theses about her work, it's so rich and steeped in ideas and themes that interest me. My life is so wrapped up in my identity as a student that I have a hard time being anything else. I'm the only person I know who reads poetry for pleasure, in her spare time. I always have, ever since I was a kid clutching my copy of Shel Silverstein. I don't mention it much though; it feels pretentious and snobby, to say you read poetry voluntarily. I keep thinking of Captain Benwick in Persuasion. I read poetry mainly for the pleasure of language, the way words sound, how they fit together, the images and rhythm they create, for the feeling Emily Dickinson describes, as if your head has lifted off your shoulders. I tend to like more traditional forms--I love sonnets--I have difficulty with free verse. But Broumas' work is so wonderful and challenging, sensuous and vivid, I'm starting to warm up to the space and difficulty that free verse offers. Since Broumas is lesbian poet from Greece, the presence of Sappho is (of course) everywhere in her writing. I love these lines from "Caritas," a poem that seems to describe lesbian desire as a kind of mysticism:

Her handsome hands. Each
one a duchess in her splendid gardens

Isn't that wonderful? It's just the most lovely image I've ever read. And this too:

Here the remnants of
an indefatigable anger, the jubilant
birth yell, here the indelible
covens of pleasure, a web
of murmurs, a lace
mantilla of sighs.

I wish I was up on my Greek mythology, since the first part of Beginning With O, "Twelve Aspects of God," is all about Greek female deities. She never refers to them as "goddesses" though, always using the "male" term, which is interesting--she makes "god" a woman (again, some would say). Exploring the spirit of ancient goddesses in the modern world, how they manifest themselves in women. Spirituality, sex, desire, anger are all woven in her meandering, elliptical free verse. Her metaphors twist and turn, her imagery unexpected and sharp. In "Circe," I love how Broumas turns what's usually regarded as a negative experience into an expression of power.

By the time
I get to the corner

bar, corner store, corner construction
site, I become divine. I turn

men into swine. Leave
them behind me whistling, grunting, wild.

In "Maenad" she takes a clever twist on an old adage.

Hell has no rage like this

women's rage.

IIRC the Maenads were female worshippers of Dionysus who would tear men to pieces. Broumas' poem is about the fury of women scorned at every turn, by sons who use them, daughters who reject them, mothers who control them, and by other women as well. In "Artemis" and "Demeter" she addresses female language, a feminine literary tradition:

...a curviform alphabet
that defies

decoding, appears
to consist of vowels, beginning with O...

What tiny fragments
survive, mangled into our language.
I am a woman committed to
a politics
of transliteration

In "Demeter" she names a literary lineage of women writers:

Anne. Sylvia. Virginia.
Adrienne the last, magnificent last.

Modern Demeters/Persephones maybe?

Broumas ends Beginning With O with poems based on fairy tales. I loved what she did with "Cinderella":

Apart from my sisters, estranged
from my mother, I am a woman alone
in a house of men
who secretly
call themselves princes, alone
with me usually, under cover of dark. I am the one allowed in

to the royal chambers, whose small foot convienently
fills the slipper of glass. The woman writer, the lady
umpire, the madam chairman, anyone's wife.
I know what I know.

Cinderella as the Token Woman! How cool is that? Her "success" only reinforces oppressive structures and isolates her.

The princes spoke
in their fathers' language, were eager to praise me
my nimble tongue. I am a woman in a state of siege, alone

In "Sleeping Beauty", she is awakened by a kiss from Princess Charming:

...your red
lips suspect, unspeakable
liberties as
we cross the street, kissing
against the light, singing,
is the woman I woke
from sleep, the woman that woke
me sleeping.

"Little Red Riding Hood" is my favorite poem in the book. She manages to put a fresh perspective on the sexual overtones of the story, and focuses on the relationship between mother, daughter, and grandmother. I love the last image the poem ends on:, alone
in your house and waiting, across this improbable forest
peopled with wolves and our lost, flower-gathering
sisters they feed on.


At 8:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I heard Broumas read (actually, she closed her eyes and chanted) in Charlottesville, in the late 1970's. She was part of a celebration of Stanley Kunitz, who also read, as did many of his other former students, including Louise Gluck. I still get chills whenever I remember Broumas reciting her poems.

At 3:34 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Broumas was a guest poet at the University of Arizona in 88 or 89, which was when I first heard her present her work. Her exquisite timing and melodic recitation is itself poetry within a poem. I've followed her career ever since. Fortunately, Beginning With O had been recorded so I could enjoy it often.


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