Beginning with O

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

Olga Broumas begins her first book of poems in Greece, her homeplace, in a poem which describes a dive into the Greek sea, or any dive into any body of water, any descent into any receptive medium, “so startled/it held the shape of your plunge.” Broumas takes water as matrix, as that womb from which all originates; she turns water into die, that which holds a shape for casting; she implies a juxtaposition of the two—of the presence and absence of source, of the now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t nature of the meditations poets make of the questions which ask where have I come from, where am I going? She is journeying after essence, after center, after force, “the mineral-bright pith.” Early and swiftly she introduces the ancient, exemplified by the Greek sea, and the modern, represented by Oregon. Broumas links aspects of the living and of the dead in complex textural patterns which issue from her interest in word derivations, that series of little bridges which metaphorically, if not literally, epitomizes the horizontal appreciation of our perpetual human condition. Perpendicularly, her concern for puns, connotation, paradox, irony, and ambiguity offers a context in which the finite, the beginning and the end, the alpha and the omega, accomplishes the neat trick of suggesting the infinite, “something immaculate, a chance/crucial junction: time, light, water/had occurred, you feel your bones.”

Onomastics is at the heart of her poetic method; her specialized field is alphabet; her substratum, the poet’s ritual of naming. In “Artemis” the narrator says, “significance stirs in me/like a curviform alphabet/that defies/decoding, appears/to consist of vowels, beginning with O, the O-/mega, horseshoe, the cave of sound.” It is a large cave, and perhaps am ambiguously promising one, for tradition has it that unless the horseshoe be turned so that its shape suggests a cup, all its luck is in jeopardy of spilling away. According to all of the signs, without luck we will never be able to “cross into each other’s language,” to that place “where braille/is a tongue for lovers, where tongue/fingers, lips/share a lidless eye.”

Follow for a moment the kind of lesson Broumas affords. She gives us O. Quickly we know to think of oval, ovum, oculos, other; we may begin to play with omega or omicron, osmosis or orifice. The Sanskrit mandala is circle, o. The mandala, the Hindu or Buddhist symbol of the universe. The universe, O! The ecstatic, O! The registration, O. The disappointment, O. The moon. Robert Graves’s invented word, mandalot, from the Greek mandalós, the bolt you put in the socket, the tongue-kiss, something to be reserved for those you truly love. Where Broumas can guide us by means of this kind of process is everywhere, but if we refuse to participate, it gets us nowhere. She is mindful of the possibility of failed communication, or of failure’s root in saying too much or too little, saying it right or wrong. Words have such powers. In “Rumplestiltskin” she writes, “The words we need are extinct.” So, in order to save us, in order to save her poems, in order to save herself, the narrator becomes an archaeologist, a trader in relics, remains, and signs. Clues from the past are evident as gods and goddesses and events of the narrator’s past life which appear “like fossils: something/that did exist.

Often these poems look back, turn to see what part of their journey they’ve passed, return to survey their source, turn about to celebrate or reprimand their cause. The narrator’s reflection proceeds from this rearview mirror and serves a meditation which is finally fixed on the future, though a future of measurable uncertainty:

I am a woman commited toa politicsof transliteration, the methodologyof a mindstunned at the suddenlypossible shifts of meaning—for which

(The entire section is 1683 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

Atlantic. CCXL, October, 1977, p. 102.

Book Forum. III, Spring, 1977, p. 322.

Booklist. LXXIII, July 15, 1977, p. 1698.

Choice. XIV, October, 1977, p. 1045.

Hudson Review. XXX, Summer, 1977, p. 459.

Village Voice. XXII, August 29, 1977, p. 41.

Yale Review. LXVII, October, 1977, p. 72.