Sunday, September 27, 2009
Olga Broumas: Beginning With O
"O"-pression is no longer Over me, Oh
(Alix Dobkin-- Amazon ABC)
To begin with "O" we must rearrange the alphabet and change the convention of language that we are used to. To surpass "A" and all that follows means to take a different route, one that is unfamiliar, one that starts in the middle of something. This "middle of something" in Olga Broumas' first collection of poetry is a series of walking in on "O" and her lover in bed. Luckily we are readers and not a mother or sister or better an awkward stranger getting assigned to the wrong hotel room. Stapled as a "Sapphic" collection we can expect that personal matters are going on in the pages ( but really all poetry does this-- it leads us into a door that was left unlocked; we come to expect it).
Broumas' Beginning with O swells with personal affairs made universal. The poet presents a collection that starts at a central location: at the Greek sea. Readers are led into her heritage by traveling into her past from the get-go with the opening/ epilogue poem Sometimes, as a child, "when the Greek sea/ was unexceptionally calm/ the sun not so much a pinnacle." (I) The street that leads into Greek history starts here (funny enough, the word "street" comes from the Latin, "getting laid." Funny because Broumas is constantly exploring with the notion of language and its roots in this collection, and the poet certainly visits "getting laid" in these poems, but it goes further than that).
The poet chain links female fairytale characters and Greek goddesses to deconstruction. We are told to reconsider the man-made architecture of language. Broumas first pushes the idea of freedom of language as a vehicle for freedom of sexuality in Demeter. "Dependence... the male/ poet said, that touchstone/ of happiness." (21) She mocks, just a little. But the poem gets heavier when the shutters, drawers, and cupboard doors remind her of open graves. These domestic images are both gateways and ways of surrendering to death. Sexton, Plath, Woolf, and Rich are also referred to in this poem as having the "tears of a mother grieving/ a mortal child." (21) An agonizing theme that propels this collection is the call for motherhood and the inability to pro-create as a lesbian; birth and re-birth (of all things) are constant going-on in this collection.
The following exert of Artemis asks readers to think of giving birth to a new sense of language: as social and political voice.
I am a woman
the necessity of an impulse whose goal or origin
still lie beyond me. I keep the goat.
for more than pastoral reasons. I work
in silver the tongue-like forms
that curve round a throat
an arm-pit, the upper
thigh, whose significance stirs in me
like a curviform alphabet
to consist of vowels, beginning with O, the O-
mega, horseshoe, the cave of sound. (23)
What Broumas tells me to consider: language does not have to be a patriarchal trap. Language can be converted into a portal for whatever world asks to be imagined or had. For this collection language is passion and "we must find words/ or burn." (24) Meaning that if women do not use a revision of a male-centered construction, we may as well go down with the institution.
Beginning with O is a collection that doesn't allow readers to go down with anything: Broumas' use of fluid and ethereal language and landscape keeps us floating. The danger in floating for too long, however, is losing track of the space between the ground and your feet.
Reviewer, Sue Russell, makes a good point in her critique of the collection "A Yale Younger, Now Older," she writes, "As with any artist with such a propensity for experiment, there is a risk that readers may not always appreciate the more esoteric elements, that the poems may not be as much fun for us to read as they were for the poet to create with her friends."
The poet does risk using "bedroom gossip," and the reader can feel left behind in certain ways, elements of the story can appear muffled at times. Especially in Beauty and the Beast during which I couldn't stop wondering if the reference to the fairytale was simply used as a platform for what the poet really wanted to say: a platform that read literary reference, but did not attest to the same passion of the original story. I was left with an unsettled feeling from this one, unlike the other fairy tale poems which made me feel like, "hey, this is an interesting new version that questions more than I would have ever thought to question."
Beginning with O asks readers to maneuver around streets to reach bedposts; to open doors that have moaning behind them; to think desire; to shift in time. This collection, so appropriately titled, makes readers sigh, "Oh" over and over, sometimes in reaction to passion, sometimes from repetitive imagery. Whatever the "O" it comes from the mouth (or, well... you know where).