Feminist Poet on the Job

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WORKWEEK by Karen Brodine. Berkeley, California: Kelsey St. Press, 1977. Paperback, $2.50

Neither the male literary establishment nor most women writers regard the workplace as a particularly compelling subject for poetry.

To the artist insulated by academia, the experience of a boring, oppressive job is foreign, and the vast majority of writers who work for wages to support themselves and their art regard a job as a numbing routine, dismissed from mind as soon as their “real” work begins.

In Workweek, Karen Brodine illuminates her life as a wage earner with a grasp of struggle and resistance that is as refreshing as it is inspiring.

These poems, made from her own life as a typesetter, union organizer, and lesbian, are neither abstract nor romantic, unlike the works of some proletarian writers who praise the masses without the slightest idea of what workers think or feel.

Brodine’s poems are real and true, speaking for working men and women who have never had the chance to write about themselves.

In “The Receptionist Is By Definition,” Brodine writes:

remember the receptionist with the lovely smile, with the green eyes, the cropped hair, big feet, small knees, with the wrinkled hands, the large breasts. with the husky voice, the strong chin?

The receptionist is no longer “just a secretary” or a typing pool drone. She has become a person, an individual-we can identify with her and take the first steps toward solidarity with her.

“Quota” is a stinging indictment of the deadly regimentation of office work. Again, the sense of identification with other workers lends the poem its cutting edge.

they accuse you of talking or eating or thinking on the job you are allowed one spit per hour if you spit less than eight times per day you receive an Evaluation. at lunch you read in the paper about the women’s prisons where a memo says: do not snap your fingers do not sing along with the radio do not dance.

This is good poetry. It is also fine agitation. The psychology of Workweek is collective, nurturant. In “Please Sketch The Woman Holding A Power Drill, Her Head In The Shape Of A Bell,” the poet dreams:

the telephones have blank ears. we’re on the top floor, locked in …
The boss will starve us, a man tries to jump to the next building,
blurs downward. I go to find help, leading a young girl with me.
we pass the man’s crumpled body …
I go back and climb to a rooftop near the office, yelling to my friends, ‘here, here are bundles of food, catch these bundles of food!’

This theme of survival through solidarity is repeated in the allegorical “The Wolves Were Silver.”

… some people had frozen and we took these dead ones
in our arms and
tossed them up into the air they landed under the bare trees and the wolves minnowed toward them, belly-flat to the snow we drew into a close safe pack we had to keep touching.

Male critics traditionally regard women’s poetry as inward and confessional because they cannot understand the female experience or are threatened by the resistance expressed. Brodine’s poetry reflects a new confidence among women writers who have found their voices in the feminist movement and consider their lives as women to be a source of strength and revolt. Brodine contradicts both the male-imposed definition of women poets and the alienated artist pose popular among white males who have the option of simply avoiding whatever they find oppressive.

In “More,” Brodine rejects art-for-art’s-sake:

more than pocket myself in some enclosure
and paint pictures of the walls …
now we will open the world
with our hands, no handful, we will open the body
of the world and see it, imagine it, for what it is.

The many themes in Workweek cross over and intersect: “Gardening At Night” is a fierce and tender four-part love poem; “I Had A Screaming Kicking Fight” is the defiant shout of the lesbian poet to her mother:

‘it is the most natural, the most natural the most natural act there is!’

Workweek is beautifully designed; the back cover features a photograph of the time card the poet fills out at work each day. Brodine herself did the typesetting, design and layout for the entire book.

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