Olga Broumas: Leda and Her Swan

You have red toenails, chestnut
hair on your calves, oh let
me love you, the fathers
are lingering in the background
nodding assent.

I dream of you
shedding calico from
slow-motion breasts, I dream
of you leaving with
skinny women, I dream you know.

The fathers are nodding like
overdosed lechers, the fathers approve
with authority: Persian emperors, ordering
that the sun shall rise every dawn, set
each dusk. I dream.

White bathroom surfaces
rounded basins you
stand among
loosening
hair, arms, my senses.

The fathers are Dresden figurines
vestigial, anecdotal
small sculptures shaped
by the hands of nuns. Yours

crimson tipped, take no part in that
crude abnegation. Scarlet
liturgies shake our room, amaryllis blooms
in your upper thighs, water lily
on mine, fervent delta

the bed afloat, sheer
linen billowing
on the wind: Nile, Amazon, Mississippi.

— Olga Broumas, from Beginning with O (Yale Series of Younger Poets). Yale University Press, 1977

This poem was posted on the WOM-PO list recently, and reminded me of a few different things in quick succession:

  • Sappho’s Gymnasium, a volume that Olga Broumas wrote with T Begley in the early 1990s (when lesbianism was chic and feminism didn’t involve DIY cocktails, ruffled aprons, or Sarah Palin), and which my fellow Helicon editor Tony Lauren gave to me as a graduation present.
  • Re-appropriation: it worked for the Christians who told and re-told the ancient pagan myths, and it worked for the second-wave feminists who told and re-told the canon of their forefathers. Stories always change, even when the same person tells them. We forgot the plastic nature of storytelling when we started writing things down. And now that we’re moving from print back to digital space, the stories — and the histories — are becoming plastic, relativist, even biased again. The New York Times is making way for blogs and twitter.
  • I’m never going to win the Yale Younger Poets series. Two days ago, as we walked around the Fresh Pond Reservoir, a fellow poet and I discussed the whys and wherefores of writing. Writing as refuge. How can I make writing my refuge and still have ambitions to see my poems in print? Am I willing to do the work? Is it the work I was really put here to do? I guess not, or I’d be doing it right now. And still I harbor the ambition.

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