Second Acts: A Second Look at Second Books of Poetry: Olga Broumas and Emilia Phillips
By Lisa Russ SpaarJune 30, 2017
Soie Sauvage by Olga Broumas
Groundspeed by Emilia Phillips
Olga Broumas’s second book of poems, Soie Sauvage (“wild silk”), appeared in 1979 in a gorgeous letter-press edition from Copper Canyon Press, just two years after Stanley Kunitz had selected her debut, Beginning with O, for the Yale Younger Poets Series. Cast in heavily enjambed short-ish lines of free verse, Broumas’s work in Beginning with O nonetheless feels fresh, unique in its handling of those then-ubiquitous materials. The sensory and sonic singularity of her voice may in part be due to the fact that Broumas was born in Greece and raised in a multilingual household. English is, for her, a “foreign” tongue, albeit one she speaks with stunning fluency. Adopting and transforming female personae from Greek mythology (Aphrodite, Circe, Demeter, Calypso) and fairy tales (Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Snow White), the poems in Beginning with O explore what would prove to be Broumas’s abiding themes — Eros, sexual identity, girl- and womanhood, body work and work in general, and the seduction of the beautiful — with unabashed forthrightness and exquisite mindfulness.
The 22 poems in Soie Sauvage pursue these same figures and themes. The spine of the collection is a series of “landscapes” through which the pilgrim speaker moves, bearing her erotic desires, complicated familial legacy, the vexations of solitude and community, and ecstatic engagements with the oral: hunger, sex, language. The poems are often charged with a mix of hatha discipline (“Be grateful. Stockpile. / Fastidiously, keep your body clean. Live / like a poet you’ll write / like one,” she says in “Five Interior Landscapes III”) and Sapphic longing. This is reminiscent of what Anne Carson calls, in Eros the Bittersweet, “dēute” — the paradoxical “now then” state of ancient Greek poetry. Broumas’s poems often enact, in their temporal paradoxes, what Carson goes on to say about lovers:
The experience of eros is a study in the ambiguities of time. […] Desire seems to the lover to demolish time in the instant when it happens, and yet to gather all other moments into itself in unimportance. Yet, simultaneously, the lover perceives more sharply than anyone else the difference between the “now” of his desire and all the other moments called “then” that line up before and after it.
The reader feels the slippery temporal crisis of erotic desire in Broumas poems like “Landscape with Leaves and Figure”:
Passionate Love is Temporary
Insanity the Chinese
say that day
I walked nine miles in the bowl
the hill makes coming round
and round avoiding
the road in
sane I realized a whole
week later at the time
I sank my crepe
soles in the spread
of leaves grass needles
bedding down the path
I took […]
The lover the speaker longs for as she circles and circles around is:
cross-country from the snow
packs of Vermont two weeks one half
a honeydew papaya moon
while I rimmed the bowl
the woods make in the penetrating
silence between rains […]
The sexual language the speaker uses on her solitary, nonlinear journey (“coming,” “bedding down,” “penetrating,” “spread,” “a storm / wet / it was wet inside”) creates a powerful sense of “now then,” deploying memory in order to allow the speaker to both have her lover and respect the intensely charged, perhaps even necessary, distance between them. The speaker of “Banner” enters a similar “ecstatic” state of movement and stasis when she spends International Women’s Day alone, transforming an act of personal attention into political preparation and awareness:
[…] I hitch
myself up by the river to the mountains slowly leaving
spring behind and driving into winter
seven hours mist light rain
light snow low light
finally on the windows all
day the sound was either car
or rain or forest then the rustling
metal click and zipper sleeping
bag the tent the quiet then
voice all day I didn’t
speak I hadn’t sung was glad the stars
did not come out again like eyes it grew too cold
for snow to fall the now was all
around soon it took over
my whole attention skin and bones
and brain and blood attendant to its duty
the heart pumped loudly I was so
excited I could feel
deeply again and did feel
For Broumas, pleasure and pain are inextricable, a paradox perhaps only bearable when bodily memory and actual physical experience mesh, as in these lines from “Oregon Landscape with Lost Lover,” in which a bereft speaker rides her bike down to a river and puts her feet into the water:
[…] Pleasure dilates me
open as a trellis
free of its green sharp glossy leaves like tongues
made out of mirrors gossiping
in the sun the wind. By which
free of the self.
In “Namāste,” a long meditation on the prismatic variations of desire, both spiritual and sexual, Broumas confronts her own project with characteristic clarity:
congenital around the hole
in my heart
I cannot afford
the temple My
work is to confine
its size to force the holy back
into the flesh […]
[…] I will
I will stop to live
not only in the mind
but how the muscle swivels
onto bone how heart wills the auricle
floods and its altered rate
Soie Sauvage is a living, breathing entity, whose sonic and somatic intelligence, drawing at once upon the “beauty of the brain” (memory, history, imagination) and the undeniable force of “the senses,” speaks to the vital, revelatory power of “now then.”
Just as Olga Broumas’s second book owes many of its themes and sub-currents to its era and landscape — the 1970s on the West Coast, a time of growing mindfulness, feminism, LGBT awareness, ecology — so too does Emilia Phillips’s second collection, Groundspeed (2016), belong to the early 21st century. But like Soie Sauvage, it is also a book whose contexts extend into the past; some of the book’s epigraphs come from Dante’s Inferno and from Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, the opening poem is titled “Reading Ovid at the Plastic Surgeon’s,” and other poems evoke the pastoral tradition, the Bible, and traditional ballads. In other moments, the poems open into the future, like the “voice // separating from time like ice // broken, washed downstream” of “Pastoral (Future Interstate).”
Like Broumas’s speakers in Soie Sauvage, Phillips’s narrators are also pilgrims, searchers in the realms of memory, loss, doubt, illness, anomie. As the book’s title suggests, there is a lot of motion and travel (by air, by car) in these poems. “Groundspeed” refers to the relative speed of an aircraft to the ground, and the title poem actually takes as its ostensible subject the crash of a small aircraft into a shopping center (“The espresso shots tremble, darkening; the ounces / chatter on the tray as the unceilinged twin- / engine roar scourges the ear of the drive-thru / worker who only made out double tall”). But of course the poem is about much more than an accident. “Whatever crashes downwards, sends praise back up … // A transference of energy,” she writes, and later: “So many histories have their falling Gods. So many Sires put their sons in chariots — / with a bridle of free will, a bit of pride slobbered over.” In “Life Vest Under Your Seat,” another airplane poem, Phillips plays with her own version of “dēute,” conflating details about the aircraft with forays into abortion rights, Monty Python, and what it means to be an American (“We declare / victory before we declare war”), Claes Oldenburg, blood splatters, and the concept of limbo: “An international flight is the closest / we’ll ever know of limbo, from the Latin limbus meaning / hem or border.” Out of this “scatter plot” of recollections crowding into travel’s liminal space, Phillips articulates the paradox of her own personal — as well as our century’s — limbo: “We are,” she writes, buckling her seatbelt for landing, “flying back in time, to the new world.”
The causes for personal grief in Groundspeed are a young brother’s untimely death at age 10, a broken nuclear family, and the narrator’s own bouts with cancer as an adult. One of the book’s most riveting pieces is “Lodge,” a long poem that recounts a welter of road trips, using the “found poetry” of billboards, roadside attractions, motels, gas stations, and other highway-related details to comment on the speaker’s losses. “Lodge,” of course, can refer to a place of rest or sanctuary, but it can also mean to stick or to wedge, as well as to issue a complaint. Here are a few passages from the poem:
Once, a black bag wheeled out of the Budget Inn. Police tape cracked like a whip in the wind. Another time, another day at the red light. I looked through an open door, second from the end; inside, a shirtless man with Mansonesque beard and hair danced in front of the television rabbit-eared to the news.
GET YOUR DAILY EXERCISE
RUN AWAY FROM SATAN
GRAVEYARDS ARE FULL
OF GOOD INTENTIONS
EXAMPLE IS A LANGUAGE
ANYONE CAN READ
(recent favorite church marquees)
My mother’s story:
The father of my first best friend, the preacher at the Grace Reformed Baptist Church, asked me, age four, if I’d died that day, where would I go, Heaven or hell?
I answer again and again in the retelling: My mom doesn’t let me go places like that by myself.
Roadside signs, line breaks original.
OF WAR HIGHWAY
The speaker’s exploration of transient spaces — motels, sick bodies, dysfunctional families — bring the reader to a revelation, which comes later in “Lodge”:
Bachelard: “It is better to live in a state of impermanence than in one of finality.”
Which is why it is better to live in language rather than out of language.
But a word might change us, our landscapes, our movements. As if by traveling on the interstate, we might actually move between states of being.
Like Broumas, Phillips articulates the “now then” state of being, confronting the relationship between time’s inexorable “forward motion, & the body.” In the book’s last poem, “Supine Body in Full-Length Mirror, Hotel Room, Upper West Side,” the speaker, gazes at her “naked & unyielding” body,
if you’ll have it
that the scars know more
about your past
than you choose to remember —
As she takes in the marks left upon her by her cancer surgeries (“what’s there / in the mirror // is what’s you”), she also sees “the doves they released // over your brother’s grave.” Language, both Broumas and Phillips imply, is itself a form of time travel, lodging and dislodging us, bringing together the impossibly disparate, and, if we’re lucky, renewing our broken, searching selves.
Lisa Russ Spaar is a contemporary American poet, professor, and essayist. She is currently a professor of English and creative writing at the University of Virginia and the director of the Area Program in Poetry Writing. She is the author of numerous books of poetry, including Vanitas, Rough: Poems, and Satin Cash: Poems. Her most recent book is Madrigalia: New & Selected Poems (Persea, 2021), and her debut novel, Paradise Close, was published by Persea in May 2022. Her poem “Temple Gaudete,” published in IMAGE Journal, won a 2016 Pushcart Prize.
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