Nationality: American. Born: Hermoupolis, Greece, 6 May 1949. Immigrated to the United States in 1967. Education: University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, B.A. 1970; University of Oregon, Eugene, M.F.A. 1973. Family: Married Stephen Edward Bangs in 1973 (divorced 1979). Career: Instructor in English and women's studies, University of Oregon, 1972–76; visiting associate professor, University of Idaho, Moscow, 1978; poet-in-residence, Goddard College, Plainfield, Vermont, 1979–81, and Women Writers Center, Cazenovia, New York, 1981–82; founder and associate faculty member, Freehand women writers and photographers community, Provincetown, Massachusetts, 1982–87; visiting associate professor, Boston University, 1988–90. Since 1990 Fanny Hurst poet-in-residence, and since 1992 director of creative writing, Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts. Since 1983 licensed bodywork therapist, Province-town. Awards : Yale Younger Poets award, 1977; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1978; Guggenheim fellowship, 1981–82; Wytter Bynner Translation grant, 1991. Address: 162 Mill Pond Drive, Brewster, Massachusetts 02631, U.S.A.
Restlessness (in Greek). Athens, Greece, Alvin Redman Hellas, 1967.
Caritas. Eugene, Oregon, Jackrabbit Press, 1976.
Soie Sauvage. Port Townsend, Washington, Copper Canyon Press, 1980.
Pastoral Jazz. Port Townsend, Washington, Copper Canyon Press, 1983.
Black Holes, Black Stockings, with Jane Miller. Middletown, Connecticut, Wesleyan University Press, 1985.
Perpetua. Port Townsend, Washington, Copper Canyon Press, 1989.
Sappho's Gymnasium, with T. Begley Port Townsend, Washington, Copper Canyon Press, 1994.
Helen Groves, with T. Begley. Tucson, Arizona, Kore Press, 1994.
Unfolding the Tablecloth of God, with T. Begley. N.p., Red Hydra Press, 1995.
Ithaca, with T. Begley. N.p., Radiolarian Press, 1996.
Rave: Poems, 1975–1999. Port Townsend, Washington, Copper Canyon Press, 1999.
Recording: If I Yes, Watershed, 1980.
Translator, What I Love: Selected Translations of Odysseas Elytis. Port Townsend, Washington, Copper Canyon Press, 1986.
Translator, The Little Mariner. Port Townsend, Washington, Copper Canyon Press, 1988.
Translator, with T. Begley, Open Papers: Selected Essays, by Elytis. Port Townsend, Washington, Copper Canyon Press, 1995.
Translator, Eros, Eros, Eros: Poems, Selected and Last, by Elytis. Port Townsend, Washington, Copper Canyon Press, 1997.*
Critical Studies: By Kathleen Norris, in American Book Review, 12(4), September 1990; by Lolly Ockerstrom, in Sojourner (Cambridge, Massachusetts), 20(6), February 1995; "A New Psychic Geography: Journeying with Olga Broumas and T. Begley" by Deborah L. Repplier, in Sojourner (Cambridge, Massachusetts), 20(6), February 1995.* * *
Olga Broumas's collection Beginning with O sets sail with "marine/eyes, marine/odors" behind the first letter of her given name. Flicking aside patriarchal constraint along with the patronymic, the book takes on as its subject the naming and shaping body, "a curviform alphabet & beginning with O, the O/mega, horseshoe, the cave of sound." In the omen letter the Greek-born Broumas wills a concentration on beginnings and plots reference points for her voluntary exit from the Greek language and her arrival in English. Her O is an open mouth, as the alphabet of the body begins to assemble a language outside the customary configurations of gender, family, and nation.
In her first publications in English Broumas tested a variety of rubrics. The long sequence of poems "Twelve Aspects of God" retrofitted a pantheon of Greek goddesses within feminist and lesbian experience. In homage to Anne Sexton fresh, quirky, and memorable poems replayed fairy tales, reweaving contemporary and mythic events with a keen sense of the painful and radical adjustments of relations to mother, father, sister, and husband that such revision requires. Her Cinderella emerges as a woman
strung on a windy clothesline a
mile long. A woman co-opted by promises: the lure
of a job, the ruse of a choice, a woman forced
to bear witness, falsely
against my kind, as each
other sister was judged inadequate, bitchy, incompetent,
jealous, too thin, too fat. I know what I know.
Other poems bear dedications to specific women. Everywhere Broumas situates herself within communities of women, the instruments of knowing born of women's pleasure, the earth itself richly female. The following is from "Dactyls":
Up the long hill, the earth rut steamed in the strange sun.
We, walking between its labia, loverlike, palm to palm.
Beginning with O invokes Broumas's seaside childhood self. In the birth metaphors that dominate much of her work she emerges from the Greek sea "clean caesarean":
Something immaculate, a chance
crucial junction: time, light, water
had occurred, you could feel your bones
translucent as spinal fins.
Within the body the bones melt into light burning out time. Again and again the body's transformations are the self's road to understanding, and when the self joins other in erotic conjunction, lovers derive their chief knowledge of the sacred. In Perpetua this belief becomes
of sex, word for word and by heart
in the antechamber of the soul so kindly
also provided me, is my guide and prayer.
Drawn to narrative in the 1980s, Broumas wrote terse, pungent stories in which couples turn into trios and quartets and then, split and scattered, reassemble into other couples, trios, and quartets. Families and conventional marriage then and now are largely seen as sources of misery. The speaker of "Landscape with Driver," from Soie Sauvage, has her tubes tied. In "For Every Heart," from Perpetua, the speaker says that "I like it when my friend has lovers, their happy moans,/unrestrained, fill the house with the glee of her prowess." Here and elsewhere awareness lights up the salty microrub of parts against and within parts, while Broumas also acknowledges as part of the lyric's subject a glancing penetration of both the metaphysics and the sociology of the erotic. Both early and late the political invades the personal possibility, and all of her books bear witness to the fierce agonies of modern Greek history.
Later poems continue the thematic preoccupations of the early work, even as Broumas varies her formal interests. In sensitive translations of the poems and essays of Odysseas Elytis she indicates the duality of her life in Greece and America, in a culturally stabilizing act reaching across gender and time to an older Greek poet. In Black Holes, Black Stockings, written in collaboration with the American poet Jane Miller, she affirms her sense of poetry as emanating from a community of working female artists. Both projects lead to different successes. In the earlier work many beautiful poems are simply autobiographical, but later there is a broader range of portraiture, often with a quietly savage observance of the current historical moment.
Early Broumas poems are occasionally rhythmically awkward and unconvincing, and in their phrasing some poems show their debt too baldly to Adrienne Rich's later declarative style. Broumas's poetry from Pastoral Jazz onward experiments more effectively with the timing and pacing of rhythmic units and works with a deliberately varied line length. Developing their own tightly coiled syntax, the later poems unroll their sentences down the page in serene flotillas unimpeded by internal punctuation. Broumas has become increasingly interested in close association with other poets, and the following is a sentence from the prose poetry of Broumas and Miller, its sinuous quick-change virtuosities typical of their work together:
But in the summer she fell back onto the bed where we came over and over to tangle ourselves without mercy, she in my plans for leaving the following autumn, and I in her long legs, white body of summer; and in winter—where having to be clandestine was more difficult—whiter, less floral, except at her lips which were always rose-fair, rose-large, cavernous like the couch she first sat on at the party where we met, in a parlor under the fair shade of her hair.
The aphoristic style of Elytis shows the way to other affinities, other angles of influence, as in this passage from Broumas's translation of The Little Mariner: "Few know the emotional superlative is formed of light, not force. That a caress is needed where a knife is laid. That a dormitory with the secret agreement of bodies follows us everywhere referring us to the holy without condescension." The same knowing hand, in a 1994 coauthorship with the classical scholar T. Begley, shapes the brief lyrics that comprise Sappho's Gymnasium. This nugget suggests the sharp turns and pleasures of the fusion:
Blueprint I have hearing over knife
prime workshop these forests verbed by breezes
Lesbian your cups