Judy Grahn is a lesbian feminist poet and activist whose work is very much concerned with speaking back to power. Her project is one of radical redefinition rooted in a centering of the lives of ordinary women. The Work of a Common Woman brings together poems published between 1964 and 1977, a period when feminists were fighting to break free of patriarchal modes of representation and wrestle back control of the narratives through which women’s experiences had been mediated by culture. This was a time when one of the top feminist priorities was to get women’s voices out there, which obviously meant finding ways to bypass the gatekeepers of publishing and the media. Grahn was an important figure in this effort, co-founding the Gay Woman’s Liberation Movement and The Women’s Press Collective, as well as making her own work available in an accessible pamphlet form that could be easily circulated by women’s groups.
Each group of poems in the collection is presented with a helpful contextual introduction by Grahn and wonderful illustrations by Karen Sjoholm and Wendy Cadden, feminist artists who shared Grahn’s desire to reshape our images of women.
The opening poem in the first group, taken from ‘Edward the Dyke and Other Poems’ (1964 – 1970) is a very apt one with which to begin this collection, introducing such recurring themes in Grahn’s work as the rejection of patriarchal definitions of womanhood, the importance of self-definition for women, and the insistence on the complexity of womens’ lives:
I’m not a girl
I’m a hatchet
I’m not a hole
I’m a whole mountain
I’m not a fool
I’m a survivor
I’m not a pearl
I’m the Atlantic Ocean
I’m not a good lay
I’m a straight razor
look at me as if you had never seen a woman before
I have red, red hands and much bitterness
Grahn’s poems often use unsettling shifts in perspective to reveal the constructed nature of gendered discourses that have been taken for granted as “natural”. The poem ‘A History of Lesbianism’, for example, proposes that the “problem” of lesbianism is not lesbianism, but rather male domination. Some people might say that’s rather an obvious point to make nowadays, but it certainly wasn’t in the 1960s when lesbians were being admitted to mental institutions for treatment. Lesbianism is still constructed as, at worst, a problem for society and, at best, a niche, specialist subject, but as Grahn points out, the history of lesbianism is very ordinary. It only becomes exotic and weird if you think of history as being about men. If women are central to history, then so is lesbianism.
Grahn persistently draws attention to the construction of women’s experiences through patriarchal discourses. The poem ‘The Big Horse Woman’ begins, ‘the big horse woman/walked out to the mountain/it was early in the morning/nobody was around”. It continues, “red was above the mountain / and red was in her eyes / and red the water running / on the big horse woman’s thighs”. It ends with, “this poem is called / how Naomi gets her period”. It’s effective because this is clearly not how we usually talk about girls getting their periods, but why not? Why do we talk about girls getting their periods in the way that we do? Who does the discourse serve? These questions are as crucial now as they were in the 1960s and 1970s. .
‘The Common Woman’ (1969) poems, based on Grahn’s experiences in a feminist consciousness raising group, are some of her most famous and were widely circulated by feminists in the 70s and 80s. She writes:
I wanted, in 1969, to read something which described regular, everyday women without making us look either superhuman or pathetic – to accentuate the strengths of the person without being fake about the facts of their lives (p. 60)
The problem persists, as is evident in the ongoing feminist discussions about the representation of “strong women characters” in literature and popular culture. The representation of women continues to be shaped by sexist stereotypes, myths and tropes. How do we get beyond this problem? How do we represent women as fully human with all the complexities of their lives? How do we give the lives of women value and meaning in and of themselves and not only in terms of their relations to men?
II: Ella in a Square Apron, along Highway 80
She’s a copper headed waitress,
tired and sharp-worded, she hides
her bad brown tooth behind a wicked
smile, and flicks her ass
out of habit, to fend off the pass
that passes for affection.
She keeps her mind the way men
keep a knife—keen to strip the game
down to her size. She has a thin spine,
swallows her eggs cold, and tells lies.
She slaps a wet rag at the truck drivers
if they should complain. She understands
the necessity for pain, turns away
the smaller tips, out of pride, and
keeps a flask under the counter. Once,
she shot a lover who misused her child.
Before she got out of jail, the courts had pounced
and given the child away. Like some isolated lake,
her flat blue eyes take care of their own stark
bottoms. Her hands are nervous, curled, ready
The common woman is as common
as a rattlesnake.
The ‘She Who’ poems (1971 – 1972) are some of the most difficult in the collection. I love them, even though they make me feel like I’m getting my head cracked open. Grahn says of these poems that each one only passed her critical judgement when it was able to set her teeth on edge. You can really see the influence of Gertrude Stein in the stripping back of language to basics and the intense use of repetition. The first poem in the group consists only of the words “she” and “who”, while ‘The Woman in Three Pieces’ tells the same story from three different perspectives.
I am the wall at the lip of the water
I am the rock that refused to be battered
I am the dyke in the matter, the other
I am the wall with the womanly swagger
And I have been many a wicked grandmother
and I shall be many a wicked daughter.
One of the most powerful poems in the ‘She Who’ group is the ‘funeral plainsong from a younger woman to an older woman’, which Grahn wrote on the death of her first lover. It’s beautiful and heartbreaking and, like many of Grahn’s poems, reminds us of the absence of women’s voices, this time from the rituals and narratives of death. Who gets to speak at funerals? Who gets to tell the stories? What gets silenced?
‘A Woman is Talking to Death’ (1973) is one of Grahn greatest poems and, I would say, one of the great poems of the 20th century. It is a poem about the nature of oppression itself and what oppression does to people. As Grahn notes, ‘The particular challenges of this poem for me were how to discuss the criss-cross oppressions which people use against each other and which continually divide us’. It’s deeply personal and requires Grahn to be radically honest about the ways in which her life connects with the lives of other oppressed people. The poem begins with two white lesbians abandoning a black man to the police, refusing to be witnesses for him because they are themselves afraid of the police. Later, they find out that that the innocent man was beaten by the police and jailed.
I had a woman waiting for me,
in her car and in the middle of the bridge,
I’m frightened, I said.
I’m afraid, he said, stay with me,
please don’t go, stay with me, be
my witness—”No,” I said, “I’ll be your
witness—later,” and I took his name
and number, “but I can’t stay with you,
I’m too frightened of the bridge, besides
I have a woman waiting
and no license—
and no tail lights—”
So I left—
The part of the poem based on Grahn’s own experiences of being dishonourably discharged from the military considers the way fear causes oppressed people to turn on one another.
When I was arrested and being thrown out
of the military, the order went out: dont anybody
speak to this woman, and for those three
long months, almost nobody did; the dayroom, when
I entered it, fell silent till I had gone; they
were afraid, they knew the wind would blow
them over the rail, the cops would come,
the water would run into their lungs.
Everything I touched
was spoiled. They were my lovers, those
women, but nobody had taught us to swim.
I drowned, I took 3 or 4 others down
when I signed the confession of what we
had done together.
No one will ever speak to me again.
Part four of the poem titled, ‘A Mock Interrogation’, is just incredible. It’s structured as a series of responses to questions that are based, I assume, on questions that used to be asked of suspected lesbians in the military, questions such as ‘Have you ever held hands with a woman?’
The one that really gets to me is the answer to the question, ‘Have you ever committed any indecent acts with women?’
“Yes, many. I am guilty of allowing suicidal women to die
before my eyes or in my ears or under my hands because I
thought I could do nothing, I am guilty of leaving a prosti-
tute who held a knife to my friend’s throat to keep us from
leaving, because we would not sleep with her, we thought
she was old and fat and ugly; I am guilty of not loving her
who needed me; I regret all the women I have not slept with
or comforted, who pulled themselves away from me for lack
of something I had not the courage to fight for, for us, our
life, our planet, our city, our meat and potatoes, our love.
These are indecent acts, lacking courage, lacking a certain
fire behind the eyes, which is the symbol, the raised fist, the
sharing of resources, the resistance that tells death he will
starve for lack of the fat of us, our extra. Yes I have com-
mitted acts of indecency with women and most of them were
acts of omission. I regret them bitterly.”
In a characteristic act of redefinition, Grahn turns the concept of “indecency” on its head. Love between women has been defined by patriarchy as indecency, but what Grahn proposes here is that the only real acts of indecency we commit are those based on a lack of love and courage.
‘A Woman is Talking to Death’ was a major influence on Pat Parker’s also incredible poem about the murder of her sister, ‘Womanslaughter’. (You can listen to it on You Tube here).
The final group of poems, ‘Confrontations with the Devil in the Form of Love’ (1977) is made up of elusive, unfinished fragments and is inspired by the poetry of Ntozake Shange. These poems present love as a character in development, a character with an idea of revolution that’s also a work in progress. It is perhaps deliberately fragmentary, left for us to finish.
Love rode 1500 miles on a grey
Hound bus & climbed in my window
One night to surprise
Both of us.
The pleasure of that sleepy
Shock has lasted a decade
Now or more because she is
Always still doing it and I am
Always still pleased. I do indeed like
who come half a continent
just for me; I’m not saying that patience
is virtuous, Love
Like anybody else, comes to those who
and leave their windows open
The poems in The Work of a Common Woman remind us of how far we’ve come and how far we’ve got to go. They center the lives of ordinary women in a way that patriarchal culture doesn’t generally allow and show us that once you do put women at the center, other interesting things begin to happen.
These poems are a beginning, an invitation to us all to open the windows.
Here, the sea strains to climb up on the land
and the wind blows dust in a single direction.
The trees bend themselves all one way
and volcanoes explode often
Why is this? Many years back
a woman of strong purpose
passed through this section
and everything else tried to follow