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Responses to American Poetry

The aim of this online space is to host the research work of  university students or young scholars  as this emerges from larger projects focusing on the American poetry scene. The objective of this initiative is to bring this kind of research activity to the attention of the general public in an attempt to further promote the exchange of ideas with regard to the process of reading, understanding and appreciating poetry writing.

Tatiani Rapatzikou
(Advisor and initiative co-ordinator)

Department of American Literature
School of English
Aristotle University of Thessaloniki.



Princesses Saving Princesses:
Olga Broumas’s subversive re-visions of “Cinderella,” “Sleeping Beauty” and “Rumplestiltskin”


Beginning with O is Olga Broumas’s first collection published in 1977, consisting of a series of poems that constitute an exploration of female identity and sexuality. Following the tradition initiated by her contemporary female feminist authors, Broumas includes in her collection her own re-tellings of some of the most well-known fairy tales in an effort to articulate female desire by bringing to the fore what has been silenced, overlooked or suppressed throughout time. Through their overt, yet extremely lyrical female homoeroticism and provocatively liberal and innovative language, Broumas’s subversive female characters manage to challenge some of the most widely-held stereotypes as to women’s identity and role in a male-dominated society. It is eventually the actual re-telling of the “Cinderella,” “Sleeping Beauty” and “Rumplestiltskin” myths that dares to suggest an alternative happy ending that does not include a prince to the one brought forth by the conventional fairy tales.

Although the precise definition of fairy tales as a literary genre is still a matter of dispute, it is widely accepted that what most fairy tales share in common is the presence of the supernatural element or what can be described as the “fantastic.” As Cristina Bacchilenga explains, what makes fairy tales so popular even today is the fact that, unlike our everyday reality, they “offer symbolically powerful scenarios and options” carried out by heroes who are “seemingly unpromising” but eventually manage to succeed (5). It is only natural then that this alternative universe where anything is possible is so captivating, since it does not only reflect the inner aspirations of both children and adults but it also offers an escape from the physical as well as social restrictions of every day reality. However, it is exactly because of this supernatural, fantasy-like nature of fairy tales that an extremely significant fact has remained largely obscured and overlooked for years: the fact that, like any other literary genre, fairy tales themselves are a product of culture and, as such, they inevitably convey and reflect the conventions, (mis)perceptions and stereotypes of their contemporary era and society.

Although fairy tales are usually considered the offspring of male authors, such as Perrault, the Grimm Brothers or Hans Christian Andersen, Christa Mastrangelo Joyce points out that some of the very early fairy tales have been actually composed by women authors (31). In particular, almost two-thirds of the fairy tales composed during the seventeenth century can be attributed to a group of aristocratic women authors, known as the Conteuses, or the Story-tellers (Joyce 31-32). These early fairy tales, which essentially emerged during the gatherings hosted by the Conteuses in the French salons, were in fact quite daring and subversive in both their content and their form. As Terri Windling explains, during these gatherings the salonnières were challenged to re-tell old tales in an innovative and creative way, not only to demonstrate their verbal agility, but also to slyly express through their re-tellings their comments upon the conditions of aristocratic life. Thus, through these re-tellings, which turned themselves into new versions of fairy tales, female authors were able to criticise contemporary issues related to their gender, such as “the intellectual compatibility between the sexes,” or “the system of arranged marriages in which, at its worst, women of their class were basically sold off to the highest bidder” or their right to exercise their intelligence and talents (Windling), making at the same time self-conscious commentaries on themselves and on the genre they [were] part of” (Harries 32). However, during the eighteenth and nineteenth century the purpose and, consequently, the content of fairy tales shifted dramatically. According to Elizabeth Wanning Harries, “[s]tories suitable to be read in girls’ schools or about girls were thought at the time to be particularly moral” and as a result “the fairy tale [became] a civilizing instrument, designed to produce women who conformed to a restrictive set of gender norms” (87). It is this shift in both the purpose and content of the fairy tales that marks the beginning of a long tradition that reaches the contemporary era; from then on, fairy tales have not only transformed into a conservative genre by reflecting the patriarchic or even misogynistic social conventions, but by re-generating and transmitting them from generation to generation they have to a great degree contributed to their perpetuation. However, the feminist movement as well as the postmodern condition has led to yet another shift in the tradition of fairy tales. Seen now from a postmodern point of view fairy tales constitute themselves a form of what Jean-François Lyotard calls “Grand Narratives” in his work The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, and as any other “Grand Narrative” they need to be challenged and demystified. Thus, similarly to the Conteuses of the seventeenth century, a series of female feminist authors, including among others Anne Sexton with her Transformations (1971), Sylvia Plath in the posthumous collection Ariel (1965), and of course Olga Broumas herself, have introduced a whole new tradition of re-tellings and re-visions in their attempt to dissolve the misogynistic stereotypes as well as raise community awareness as to the challenges and dilemmas females face.

Broumas’s re-telling of “Cinderella” is perhaps the most characteristic example of her attempt to demystify and subvert one of the most prevalent cultural stereotypes encountered in fairy tales until today, namely: the “Prince” fantasy. Although Broumas’s “Cinderella” clearly draws upon the basic ideas of this classic fairy tale, her re-telling is quite innovative, literally constituting a reversion and, eventually, subversion of the traditional story. Similarly to the classic version, the protagonist in Broumas’s “Cinderella” is a female figure living in a domestic “state of siege” (16) and longing to fulfill her ultimate fantasy in the hope of escaping this life of misery. Nevertheless, this is where the similarities between the two versions end. In the classic fairy tale version, Cinderella’s misery results from her slave-like treatment by her evil stepmother and stepsisters, while her ultimate fantasy is none other than the fantasy of every single young female in the Kingdom: to marry the Prince. Eventually and thanks to the invaluable intervention of magic, her ultimate fantasy is fulfilled and the newly-married couple is assumed to live happily ever after. However, picking up the story where the classic fairy tale leaves off, Broumas challenges this exact happily-ever-after fallacy through her own “Cinderella” poem in an attempt not only to demystify the “Prince” fantasy but also to stress the great value and significance of “sisterhood” and female solidarity.

Broumas’s “Cinderella” essentially constitutes a monologue through which the female protagonist reflects upon her current life in the prince’s household and away from her sisters, realizing that what she has dreamt of as an ideal life and future has turned out to be a fallacy. It is not, therefore, a coincidence that Cinderella initiates her monologue with the word “Apart” (1), a word that does not only create an intense emotional effect, but also epitomizes the content and tone of the lines to come. Hence, although Cinderella has already “fulfilled” what in the classic fairy tale is perceived as the ultimate fantasy, that of already living with the prince and being “the one allowed in / to the royal chambers” (6-7), in reality she is a “woman alone” (2), forced to live separated from her mother and sisters.

The protagonist’s feeling of isolation and entrapment is further highlighted through the figurative language she employs in her monologue. Hence, when the heroine reveals that in this “house of men” (3) she is usually “alone… / under cover of dark” (5-6), she insinuates that she is practically invisible and her presence in the house is disregarded. Despite her intelligence and competence that her success in “cracking / the royal code” (13-14) implies, Cinderella remains underestimated and unappreciated. As she admits, even when the princes are “eager to praise” her (15), what they actually praise is her “nimble tongue” (16). This ingenious use of the metonymy “nimble tongue” (16) is itself a proof of Cinderella’s and, by extension, Broumas’s linguistic dexterity. Through its deliberate ambiguity, since a “nimble tongue” can either imply her eloquence and hence intelligence, or have sexual connotations, Cinderella highlights the irony in the princes’ attitude towards her. Instead of appreciating her intelligence and mental skills, as the deliberately ambiguous use of the metonymy attests, they focus on her sexual competence perceiving her as nothing else than a sexual object. Accordingly, her use of the quite graphic simile “alone // as one piece of laundry” (16-17) to describe herself, further emphasized through the hyperbole and the auditory image created by the phrase “strung on a windy clothesline a / mile long” (17-18), certifies how unbearably alone and objectified she feels. The subversion of the Prince fantasy is further enhanced through her statement, “What sweet bread I make // for myself in this prosperous house is dirty” (24-25), revealing the protagonist’s failure to enjoy the comforts of her life with the princes not only as a result of her loneliness away from her sisters, but also as a result of her own regret and guilt for having abandoned and competed against her “own kind” (21). Finally, having already revealed that her life in this “house of men” (3) is  a trap she has been lured into rather than the desirable outcome of her dream coming true, and that what she is merely appreciated for is her sexual competence, she succeeds in enhancing the ironic tone of the poem. By ironically describing the women that have had the same fate as her as “favored” (31) and stating that the reason they have been “hand-picked” (31) was their “joyful heart” (32), the protagonist only highlights how utterly deceiving this alleged success and fulfillment that women fantasize of actually is.

The contradiction between the persona’s initial imaginary expectations and the reality she now confronts and is forced to live in is further highlighted through the contradiction created between the images of the poem. Hence, while the images of the “princes” (5), the “royal chambers” (7), the “slipper of glass” (8) and the “castle” (13) create the illusion of a dreamy, romantic, fairytale-like world, at the same time this world is overturned by the pedestrian images of the words “laundry” (17), “clothesline” (17) and “mud” (27), which reveal the realistic conditions of her life with the princes. At the same time, however, through the following contrasting pairs, “princes” (5)-“sisters” (1, 29), “royal chambers” (7)-“sisters’ hut” (29), and “slipper of glass” (8)-“wet / canvas shoes” (28-29), the protagonist juxtaposes her current reality to the reality she now truly desires to return to. This time, it is not the fantasy-like life she initially wanted to escape to but the quite harsh and realistic life with her sisters. The extreme feeling of discomfort evoked by the tactile images of the “cold stove” (28), the “cinder-block pillow” (28) and the “wet / canvas shoes” (28-29) emphasizes her level of awareness and the maturity she has gained due to her current condition. The great value of her re-union with her sisters is thus further emphasized since Cinderella is consciously willing to undergo these hardships just to be with them rather than remain in the comfortable, yet suffocating and superficial life with the princes.

At the same time, the form and the rhythm of the poem play an equally significant role in the fulfillment of the poem’s subversive purpose. “Cinderella” is an open form poem, as it has no rhyme and no regular pattern as regards its stanzas and rhythm, and through this unconventional form it reflects its own intention to challenge conventions. Additionally, the run-on lines between two stanzas, as in “alone // as one piece of laundry” (16-17), highlight the persona’s separation from her sisters and her feeling of estrangement. Accordingly, the irregularity of the rhythm and the alternation of sentences of various lengths create a feeling of anxiety and frustration, and reflect the persona’s delirious state. Finally, the repetition of particular words and phrases, as with “alone” (2, 5, 12, 16), “I know what I know” (10, 23), “my sisters’, my sisters’ hut” (29), create a sense of rhythm, and more importantly, convey a melancholic tone which emphasizes the persona’s emotions, while the position of the word “alone” (2, 5, 12, 16) in the end of the line maximizes this sense of loneliness and melancholy.

The real significance of the poem, however, rests on the fact that it works on a figurative level as a whole, reflecting the feminist context of the poem’s era. Thus, Cinderella herself functions as a symbol for every single woman, while her “sisters” (1) symbolize the female community. Similarly, the “princes” symbolize all men who dominate a woman’s domestic, social or professional environment, being the ones that a woman’s fulfillment and success depends upon and is determined by, while the “royal chambers” (7) symbolize every such male-dominated sphere, and by extension, the whole society. By revealing what life with the “princes” actually entails, thus demystifying the “Prince” fantasy, the poem manages to challenge the social conception that a woman’s ultimate life goal should be restricted to finding the ideal male mate and getting married, as imposed by the predominant patriarchal and heteronormative model. Furthermore, by pointing out that it is actually the “princes” (5) who allow a woman to enter their world as long as she fits their preferences, symbolically represented in the poem through the “slipper of glass” (9), the poem challenges the idealized male-centered standards which are imposed by the society and which women are forced to struggle to meet in order to achieve both their personal as well as their social and professional success. On a deeper level, however, the poem criticizes the under-representation or complete erasure of women both as a solid community and as individuals. As the social conventions dictate, when a woman gets married she is expected to part from her mother and sisters and devote herself to her role as a house-wife instead. More importantly, she ceases to be perceived as an autonomous individual and is hetero-determined through her relationship with a man, being merely perceived as “anyone’s wife” (9) as the poem notes. The worst part is that in order to become the “favored” (31) ones in the first place, women are forced to compete against their “own kind” (21) in the “lure / of a job” (18-19), instead of actually forming a solid community and standing up for their rights. This under-representation of women in society is further reflected through their under-representation in the symbolic space. The phrases in the poem “The woman writer, the lady / umpire, the madam chairman” (8-9) imply that unless a noun denoting a profession is accompanied by a modifier that clarifies the female gender, it automatically evokes the image of a male figure, since most professions are perceived as male-oriented. Thus, in the male-dominated society where the public sphere is perceived as a man’s territory while women are restricted to the domestic sphere, a female professional is taken to be an exception to the norm.[1]

Thus, the significance of Broumas’s “Cinderella” rests on the fact that it manages to challenge cultural values by actually utilizing all three aspects of language: its optical image, its sound and, most importantly, its meaning. On the one hand, the irregular distribution of words along the poem’s lines lead to unconventional forms and rhythms that reflect the persona’s unconventional ideas, and hence the poem’s subversive power. On the other hand, it is through “Cinderella’s” figurative language and meaning that the “Prince Charming” fantasy is demystified and, consequently, the ideology of a male-dominated society is challenged, since it is the importance of a solid female community that prevails turning the whole poem into a universal feminist wake-up call.

Similarly to the character of Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty is another popular fairy tale heroine who incarnates one of the most stereotypical female images and roles promoted by fairy tales: a young princess who gets cursed by an evil witch to prick her finger on a spinning wheel and thus fall into deep sleep until a prince awakens her with a kiss. It is, of course, not accidental that Joyce describes the fairy tale heroines as “female characters who sleep through their lives: vain representations of real women who are cloistered and trapped, they are commonly flat, one-dimensional characters who come to life only through the actions of a male character” (31). The “sleeping” female characters in fairy tales, however, are nothing more than real-life female reflections. In our society and culture women are not only expected to be passive and fragile, waiting for the man who will give meaning to their lives, but they have been so much drawn into this stereotypical role that they have actually come to aspire it for themselves, being convinced that this is the only way for them to fulfill the romantic fantasy they have been reading in their favorite fairy tales.

As is the case of “Cinderella,” Broumas utilizes the basic elements of the traditional version of “Sleeping Beauty” in order to subvert this misogynistic male-centered perception of women from within. However, while in “Cinderella” Broumas achieves this subversion by focusing on her protagonist’s desire to be liberated from the princes so as to be re-united with her sisters, pointing out in this way the invaluable significance of “sisterhood,” in the re-vision of the “Sleeping Beauty” myth in her synonymous poem she concentrates on the sexual awakening of her female protagonist as effected through her relationship with another woman.

“Sleeping Beauty” begins with the protagonist acknowledging her own lethargy-like state, as her declaration “I sleep, I sleep / too long” (1-2) suggests. The structure of the lines that follow, however, creates two alternative interpretations as to the nature of this lethargy-like state. Since the lines can be distributed either as “sheer hours / hound me, out / of bed and into clothes” (2-4) or as “out / of bed and into clothes, I wake / still later” (3-5), this deliberately ambiguous structure implies the ongoing entrapment of the protagonist even when she is out of bed, which further suggests that the sleep-like state described here is not to be interpreted in a literal way. The only thing that is certain is that her “sleep” has been extremely intense since she admits that it has left her “breathless” and made her “heart racing” (5-6). When, however, the “[c]old water shocks [her] back from the dream” (9-10) it eventually becomes clear that what she calls a “dream” is not actually a dream in its conventional sense; it is in fact a real-life experience, which, nevertheless, feels so “dreamlike” (14) that the only “evidence” (19) that can confirm its factuality are the visible marks on her own body she can now witness in the mirror. The “lovebites” that linger on her neck “like fossils: something / that did exist” (12-13), italics in original), testify the passionate moments she has shared with her lover. With this realization, the protagonist focuses on those moments in a raving delirium, emphasizing the physicality of the experience. Thus, their passionate moments together include “blood” (24) and “tears” (24), which, although associated with a painful or even violent experience, they are “vital” (24) for the two lovers as they enhance the physicality of their bonding. This is also emphasized through the protagonist’s words, as with “the taste of you / sharpens my tongue… / bitter, metallic” (27-29). However, despite the extreme “tangibility” of their mutual experiences, these still remain elusive as if lived in the protagonist’s mind.

After the description of the two lovers’ unbridled passion, the setting of the story transforms completely, as in a dream: from their private and intimate space the two female lovers are now transferred into the middle of the crowded city center. The main female persona in the poem reveals that it is only now in the middle of the crowded street that her actual awakening takes place, triggered by her lover’s “public kiss” (36). This echoes the Sleeping Beauty myth in which the female protagonist is eventually awakened by a kiss. However in Broumas’ poetic version it is not a Prince’s kiss that awakens her, but the kiss she receives by her female lover’s “red lips” (46-47). This public kiss utterly shocks the pedestrians who interpret it as “a sign of betrayal” (46), since it defies the “Sacred Law” of the male-dominated society that dictates a woman’s happiness and fulfillment to emerge only through her union with a man. The great significance of this public kiss becomes further emphasized through its juxtaposition with the red traffic light implied through the protagonist’s narration. These two constitute two forms of “signs,” which however represent two different code systems, two different “languages,” and consequently two different sub-realms highlighted by the female characters in the poems and their enveloping society and culture. The contrasting differences between these two sub-realms become apparent in the different connotations that color “red” triggers. Thus, while for the protagonist and her lover “red” is associated with erotic desire and passion, for society it stands for danger or even betrayal of all social norms and conventions.

In Broumas’ version of the Sleeping Beauty myth, the female protagonist is thus awakened not by a male’s but a female’s kiss performed in front of the society’s wide open eyes. Hence, this unexpected public kiss does not only offer the protagonist a taste of the liberating feeling of being her own self and relishing her own sexuality, but by “forcing” her for the first time to confront social restraints and conformities, it allows her to make her first truly conscious choice about her own life.

Seen, then, within the context of the feminist movement, this public kiss between the two female lovers constitutes a political manifesto on its own. The sharing and communication of the “private” has been considered in the context of the feminist movement an imperative presupposition for the raising of women’s self-awareness and the formation of a solid female community. It is only by sharing and communicating their personal feelings of entrapment into the role of the housewife that women will come to realize that what they are facing individually is not simply a private but actually a collective issue. It is in this exact context that the motto “the personal is the political” has emerged: but if the personal is indeed the political for the contemporary women, Bonnie Zimmerman stresses that “[i]n a male-dominated society, the personal is the political for lesbians in a direct and immediate way” (668). Exactly because being a lesbian constitutes an explicit and conscious form of defiance against the patriarchal and heteronormative social conventions, a lesbian’s identity transforms by definition into a political statement and choice. In that sense, Broumas’s own writing transgresses the boundaries of gender binaries so as to explore various manifestations of selfhood by openly articulating what was considered peripheral or secluded. Eventually Broumas’s re-telling of “Sleeping Beauty” functions itself as a wake up call for the female community. By emphasizing Sleeping Beauty’s lethargy-like state and by dexterously blurring the boundaries between reality and dream even for her readers, Broumas’s attempts to raise women’s awareness of their own apathy encouraging them to question the factuality of their own “reality.” Most importantly, Broumas emphasizes the significance of women’s sexual awakening and fulfillment as a form of political statement and thus as a means of challenging the stereotypes imposed on them and re-defining their place in society.

However, this liberating dimension of Broumas’s poetry is itself part of another important issue that she attempts to tackle through her poems, namely: the significance of language as a means of women’s re-presention. In “Cinderella,” for example, the female protagonist refers to the language that the princes utilize as their “father’s language” (15), implying that language is essentially a privilege restricted to men passed on from father to son. Additionally, the protagonist in “Sleeping Beauty” highlights the two different systems of “signs” used by the two lovers on the one hand and the male-dominated society on the other. Finally, referring to the “unspeakable / liberties” (47-48) that the female lover’s public kiss implicates, which can be interpreted in both a metaphorical but also a literal way, she points out that female sexuality has been so repressed that women are not allowed, or even not able, to express it openly.

It is, however, in the re-telling of the Rumplestiltskin myth in her synonymous poem where Broumas addresses the issue of language in a more explicit and profound way. The traditional version of the fairy tale tells the story of a young woman who asks the help of a gnome to perform a task that would be impossible to carry out without the intervention of magic. Although the gnome agrees to offer his magical powers to help the young woman, he demands her child as a reward, unless the heroine discovers and utters his name, which the gnome has been keeping secret all this time. The heroine manages to discover the gnome’s name, which is nothing else but Rumplestiltskin, and when she eventually utters it the gnome loses all power and control over her. Thus, it becomes clear that even the classic version of the Rumplestiltskin fairy tale touches to some degree upon the significance of language, implying the power that “naming” things entails. In this context, language is not only perceived as a means of self-expression and communication but also as a means through which humans acquire control over the material and conceptual world, by naming, categorizing and appropriating its innumerable constituents.

Similarly to the traditional version, the heroine of Broumas’s “Rumplestiltskin” struggles to find a way to express what has been long kept a secret; only in her case, this secret is not someone else’s name, but her very own identity, and in particular, her own body and sexuality. The poem begins with the protagonist describing her first sexual experience with her lover. The protagonist confesses that this “first night” (1) with her lover is not only an extremely intense experience, but one that is so new and unfamiliar that makes her “[f]rightened / with pleasure” (3-4). The paradox is, however, that while such lack of sexual experience is naturally associated with age and would therefore entail that the two lovers are relatively young, the protagonist reveals that they are not at all young but rather “grow /women, well / traveled in [their] time” (21-23). However, she also reveals that this intense new experience has generated the need for her to describe this pleasure and express her emotions through language: “I have to write of these things” (21). Nevertheless, the protagonist soon realizes that language itself, or at least the language she and her lover have known and have been using so far, proves to be extremely inadequate for such a task: “The words that we need are extinct. // Or if not extinct / badly damaged” (62-64). This loss of words highlights the female protagonist’s “years of deprivation” (69-70) which gives rise to the crucial question: what exactly is it that the two lovers have been deprived of all those years? Is it their sexual fulfilment or language?

Broumas’s emphasis on the significance of language and its relation to the female body and sexuality can be better understood in the light of the French feminist structuralism movement that emerged in France in the 1970s, causing, nevertheless, a huge impact on Anglophone feminist thinking and writing. These ideas, as Ann Rosalind Jones explains, are mainly represented by four French feminists: Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray, Hélène Cixous and Monique Wittig, whose theories are summarized and juxtaposed in her article “Wiriting the Body: Toward an Understanding of l’ Écriture Féminine.” As Jones points out, despite their differences, what all these French feminists agree on is that “[w]estern thought has been based on a systematic repression of women’s experience” (247), a repression that has been performed even through language. As Jones further explains, “[s]ymbolic discourse (language, in various contexts) is another means through which man objectifies the world, reduces it to his terms, speaks in place of everything and everyone else-including women” (248). Conversely, summarizing Irigaray’s view, Jones states that “women, because they have been caught in a world structured by male-centered concepts, have had no way of knowing or representing themselves” (250). However, the relationship between identity and language is mutually interactive, leading thus to the perpetuation of the problem: because men hold the privilege of language they preserve their power to structure and appropriate the world according to their masculinist thinking, while women, due to being deprived of any opportunity to express their sexuality, have come to de-familiarize themselves with their own body and the sexual pleasures and fulfilment it can offer them. Consequently these four feminists propose that in order for women to overcome the repression of their self-expression through language, they need to re-discover themselves and regain their female self-consciousness. This can be achieved only if they re-discover and re-experience their own sexuality, or in Irigaray’s view, their own bodies. It is thus the female body and the sexual pleasure -the jouissance- it can offer that will function as the springboard for women’s liberation from their longstanding repression. In a similar context, Amy Cowen points out the particular significance of the body in lesbian narratives. As she explains, for the lesbian authors the body is not only the object of the writing, but also the means; it is the body that gives voice to their experience “challenging traditional narrative constructions” (Cowen 53). Thus, according to Cowen, instead of starting with language as a means to define the female body, in the lesbian narratives it is the body that becomes the starting point for the re-definition of language, which in turn enables the re-definition of the body (54). Moreover, Adrienne Rich examines the significance of the female body from a much broader as well as practical and realistic point of view. By inviting women to “think through the body” (284), as evidenced in her synonymous essay, Rich points out its materiality and consequently its vulnerability, but at the same time its unique ability to give life. In any case, Rich views the female body as a force that unites and bonds all women regardless of their sexual or marital status.

The common ground between these theories and approaches on the relationship between self-expression, female sexuality and the female body is encapsulated in the most graphic way in Broumas’ poem “Rumplestiltskin”:

How to describe
what we didn’t know
exists: a mutant organ, its function to feel
intensely, to heal by immersion, a fluid
element, crucial
as amnion, sweet milk

in the suckling months. (54-60)

In these lines the protagonist reveals how the repression of their sexuality has led her and her lover to become estranged from their own bodies, blocking out completely the sexual functions and potential of their sexual organs. The protagonist emphasizes the significance but also the paradox of this repression and deprivation by pointing out that the sexual organs are not only capable to offer intense pleasure and sexual fulfilment, but they are also as vital and crucial as “amnion” and “milk” (59) are for a foetus or an infant. Through the personification of her sexual organ that she describes as “mutant” (56), the protagonist emphasizes the dual function of the body both as a means of sexual pleasure and as a means of self-expression. Thus, even now that their bodies have been sexually awakened, this experience is so unfamiliar to her and her lover that they find themselves incapable of expressing it through words. Similarly to her “Cinderella” poem, Broumas in “Rumplestiltskin” utilizes once again the ambiguous connotations of the tongue:

sleepwalking in caves. Pink shells. Sturdy
diggers. Archaeologists of the right
the speechless zones of the brain

Here again, the tongue can be interpreted both as a means of linguistic expression and as a source of sexual pleasure. It is exactly through this dual function of the tongue that the protagonist emphasizes once again the inextricable relation between the body and language, and by extension between sexual experience and self-expression. Before anything else, the tongue, and by extension the female body, needs to feel, to experience, to fulfil its potential as a means of sexual pleasure, and it is only by doing so that it will be able to re-discover, like an “archaeologist,” the way to articulate and to express.

Managing, thus, to fulfill their purpose as a means of her own self-expression, Broumas’s re-tellings of “Cinderella,” “Sleeping Beauty” and “Rumplestiltskin” transform into a feminist or even political manifesto addressing every single woman. By fusing the fairy tales with her own readings Broumas manages to challenge and eventually subvert the social stereotypes that the fairy tales promote from within. As Broumas’s language transgresses its conventional and literal use leading further to an unconventional, non-literal, figurative meaning, her female protagonists transform into symbols themselves, allowing each poem to take on a universal and diachronic value. Eventually, through her subversive re-tellings, Broumas manages not only to challenge the misogynistic stereotypes of the male-dominated society, but also to stress the importance for a solid female community inviting women at the same time  to regain control of their lives and achieve self-fulfillment by re-experiencing, re-discovering and re-defining their female identity.

Evgenia Kleidona
BA Student, School of English
Aristotle University of Thessaloniki

Works Cited

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Beauvoir, Simone de. Le Deuxième Sexe. Vols. 2. Paris: Gallimard, 1949. Print.
Broumas, Olga. “Cinderella.” Beginning with O. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977. 57-58. Print.
---.“Rumplestiltskin.” Beginning with O. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977. 61-62. Print.
---.“Sleeping Beauty.” Beginning with O. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977. 63-66. Print.
Cowen, Amy. “Transformations: Writing On/the Lesbian Body.” Canadian Woman Studies 16.2 (1996): 53-57. Web. 6 November 2013.
Harries, Elizabeth Wanning. Twice Upon a Time: Women Writers and the History of the Fairy Tale. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001. Print.
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. . . the joy that isn't shared
I heard, dies young.
— Anne Sexton, 1928-1974

Apart from my sisters, estranged
from my mother, I am a woman alone
in a house of men
who secretly
call themselves princes, alone
with me usually, under cover of dark.  I am the one allowed in

to the royal chambers, whose small foot conveniently
fills the slipper of glass.  The woman writer, the lady
umpire, the madam chairman, anyone's wife.
I know what I know.
And I once was glad
of the chance to use it, even alone
in a strange castle, doing overtime on my own, cracking
the royal code.  The princes spoke
in their fathers' language, were eager to praise me
my nimble tongue.  I am a woman in a state of siege, alone

as one piece of laundry, 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.
What sweet bread I make
for myself in this prosperous house
is dirty, what good soup I boil turns
in my mouth to mud. Give
me my ashes.  A cold stove, a cinder-block pillow, wet
canvas shoes in my sisters', my sisters' hut.  Or I swear

I'll die young
like those favored before me, hand-picked each one
for her joyful heart. 

Sleeping Beauty

I sleep, I sleep
too long, sheer hours
hound me, out
of bed and into clothes, I wake
still later, breathless, heart
racing, sleep
peeling off like a hairless
glutton, momentarily
slaked. Cold

water shocks me
back from the dream. I see
lovebites like fossils: something
that did exist

dreamlike, though
dreams have the perfect alibi, no
fingerprints, evidence
that a mirror could float
back in your own face, gleaming
its silver eye. Lovebites like fossils. Evidence.

round my neck like a ceremonial
necklace, suddenly
snapped apart.


Blood. Tears. The vital
salt of our body. Each
other’s mouth.
the taste of you
sharpens my tongue like a thousand shells,
bitter, metallic. I know

as I sleep
that my blood runs clear
as salt
in your mouth, my eyes.


City-center, mid-
traffic, I
wake to your public kiss. Your name
is Judith, your kiss a sign

to the shocked pedestrians, gathered
beneath the light that means
in our culture
where red is a warning, and men
threaten each other with final violence. I will drink
your blood. Your kiss
is for them

a sign of betrayal, your red
lips suspect, unspeakable
liberties as
we cross the street, kissing
against the light, singing, This
is the woman I woke from sleep, the woman that woke
me sleeping.


First night.
with pleasure as I came.
Into your arms, salt
crusting the aureoles.
Our white breasts.  Tears
and tears.  You
I don’t know
if I’m hurting or loving
you.  I
didn’t either.
We went on
trusting.  Your will to care
for me intense
as a laser. Slowly
my body’s cellblocks
beneath its beam.

I have to write of these things.  We were grown
women, well
traveled in our time.


Did anyone
ever encourage you, you ask
me, casual
in afternoon light.  You blaze
fierce with protective anger as I shake
my head, puzzled remembering, no
no.  You blaze

a beauty you won’t claim.  To name
yourself beautiful makes you as vulnerable
as feeling
pleasure and claiming it
makes me.  I call you lovely.  Over

and over, cradling
your ugly memories as they burst
their banks, tears and tears, I call
you lovely.  Your face
will come to trust that judgement, to bask
In its own clarity like sun. Grown women.  Turning

heliotropes to our own, to our lovers’ eyes.


Laughter. New in my lungs still, awkward
on my face.  Fingernails
growing back
over decades of scar and habit, bottles
of bitter quinine rubbed into them, and chewed
on just the same.  We are not the same.  Two
women, laughing
in the streets, loose-limbed
with other women.  Such things are dangerous.
Nine million

have burned for less.


How to describe
what we didn’t know
exists; a mutant organ, its function to feel
intensely, to heal by immersion, a fluid
element, crucial
as amnion, sweet milk
in the suckling months.

The words we need are extinct.

Or if not extinct
badly damaged: the proud Columbia
her bound feet on her damned
up bed. Helpless with excrement.  Daily

by accident, against
what has become of our will through years
of deprivation, we spawn the fluid
that cradles us, grown
as we are, and at a loss
for words.  Against all currents, upstream
we spawn
in each other’s blood.


sleepwalking in caves.  Pink shells.  Sturdy
diggers.  Archaeologists of the right
the speechless zones
of the brain.

Awake, we lie
if we try to use them, to salvage some part
of the loamy dig.  It’s like
forgiving each other, you said
borrowing from your childhood priest.
Sister, to wipe clean

with a musty cloth
what is clean already
is not forgiveness, the clumsy housework
of a bachelor god.  We both know, well
in our prime, which is cleaner:  the cave-
dwelling womb, or the colonised

the tongue.





[1]In her work Le Deuxième Sexe Simone de Beauvoir explains that, being identified only in relation to men, women have inevitably been perceived throughout time as the exception, the deviation, or, as she puts it, the “Other.”