Tuesday, February 12, 2008


Judy Grahn

Amigas, I have other demands on me at the moment and have a "gap" to fill in on Ginny Bates before I can go on posting that, so, in lieu of giving you a self-generated post, here are the famous Common Woman poems by Judy Grahn. These inspired a poster, a bookstore, and the minds of a generation. Here's what Judy had to say about them in the preface to her 1969 book The Common Woman:

"The Common Woman Poems have more than fulfilled my idealistic expectations of art as a useful subject -- of art as a doer, rather than a passive object to be admired. All by themselves they went around the country. Spurred by the enthusiasm of women hungry for realistic pictures, they were reprinted hundreds of thousands of times, were put to music, danced, used to name various women's projects, quoted and then misquoted in a watered-down fashion for use on posters and T-shirts.

"Their origin was completely practical: I wanted, in 1969, to read something which described regular, everyday women without making us look either superhuman or pathetic. The closest I could come to finding such an image was a Leonard Cohen song about a whimsical woman named Suzanne, who takes you down to her place by the river. This was on an album of Nina Simone's, and I played that song numberless times during the night I wrote the seven portraits. Oddly, although the song is not a waltz, the poems are. (Try reading them while someone else hums a waltz.) I conceived of them as flexible, self-defining sonnets, seeing that each woman would let me know how many lines were needed to portray her in one long, informative thought.

"I paid particular attention to ways of linking them together, and of connecting the facts of their lives with images which called up various natural powers, hoping that these combinations would help break current stereotypes about women and the word we do. I wanted to accentuate the strengths of their persons without being false about the facts of their lives. To admire them for what they are, already. I still do."

I've already posted one of these poems, Number II, ELLA, IN A SQUARE APRON, ALONG HIGHWAY 80, at my post on 19 November 2007. For more information about Judy Grahn, check out her current website at Metaformia.

Poems are after the fold.

I. HELEN, AT 9 A.M., AT NOON, AT 5:15

Her ambition is to be more shiny
and metallic, black and purple as
a thief at midday; trying to make it
in a male form, she's become as
stiff as possible.
Wearing trim suits and spike heels,
she says "bust" instead of breast;
somewhere underneath she
misses love and trust, but she feels
that spite and malice are the
prices of success. She doesn't realize
yet, that she's missed success, also,
so her smile is sometimes still
genuine. After a while she'll be a real
killer, bitter and more wily, better at
pitting the men against each other
and getting the other women fired.
She constantly conspires.
Her grief expresses itself in fits of fury
over details, details take the place of meaning,
money takes the place of life.
She believes that people are lice
who eat her, so she bites first; her
thirst increases year by year and by the time
the sheen has disappeared from her black hair,
and tension makes her features unmistakably
ugly, she'll go mad. No one in particular
will care. As anyone who's had her for a boss
will know
the common woman is as common
as the common crow.


She holds things together, collects bail,
makes the landlord patch the largest holes.
At the Sunday social she would spike
every drink, and offer you half of what she knows,
which is plenty. She pokes at the ruins of the city
like an armored tank; but she thinks
of herself as a ripsaw cutting through
knots in wood. Her sentences come out
like thick pine shanks
and her big hands fill the air like smoke.
She's a mud-chinked cabin in the slums,
sitting on the doorstep counting
rats and raising 15 children,
half of them her own. The neighborhood
would burn itself out without her;
one of these days she'll strike the spark herself.
She's made of grease
and metal, with a hard head
that makes the men around her seem frail.
The common woman is as common as
a nail.

(Three Graces, photo by Tee Corinne)


She has taken a woman lover
whatever shall we do
she has taken a woman lover
how lucky it wasnt you
And all the day through she smiles and lies
and grits her teeth and pretends to be shy,
or weak, or busy. Then she goes home
and pounds her own nails, makes her own
bets, and fixes her own car, with her friend.
She goes as far
as women can go without protection
from men.
On weekends, she dreams of becoming a tree;
a tree that dreams it is ground up
and sent to the paper factory, where it
lies helpless in sheets, until it dreams
of becoming a paper airplane, and rises
on its own current; where it turns into a
bird, a great coasting bird that dreams of becoming
more free, even, than that -- a feather, finally, or
a piece of air with lightning in it.
she has taken a woman lover
whatever can we say
She walks around all day
quietly, but underneath it
she's electric;
angry energy inside a passive form.
The common woman is as common
as a thunderstorm.


Her words pour out as if her throat were a broken
artery and her mind were cut-glass, carelessly handled.
You imagine her in a huge velvet hat with a great
dangling black feather,
but she shaves her head instead
and goes for three-day midnight walks.
Sometimes she goes down to the dock and dances
off the end of it, simply to prove her belief
that people who cannot walk on water
are phonies, or dead.
When she is cruel, she is very, very
cool and when she is kind she is lavish.
Fishermen think perhaps she's a fish, but they're all
fools. She figured out that the only way
to keep from being frozen was to
stay in motion, and long ago converted
most of her flesh into liquid. Now when she
smells danger, she spills herself all over,
like gasoline, and lights it.
She leaves the taste of salt and iron
under your tongue, but you dont mind
The common woman is as common
as the reddest wine.


After she finished her first abortion
she stood for hours and watched it spinning in the
toilet, like a pale stool.
Some distortion of the rubber
doctor with their simple tubes and
complicated prices
still makes her feel guilty.
White and yeasty.
All her broken bubbles push her down
into a shifting tide, where her own face
floats above her like the whle globe.
She lets her life go off and on
in a slow stroe.
At her last job she was fired for making
strikes, and talking out of turn;
now she stays home, a little blue around the edges.
Counting calories and staring at the empty
magazine pages, she hates her shape
and calls herself overweight.
Her husband calls her a big baboon.
Lusting for changes, she laughs through her
teeth, and wanders from room to room.
The common woman is as solemn as a monkey
or a new moon.

(Woman workers on B-17 bomber at Douglas Aircraft factory, Long Beach, California, October 1942, photo by Alfred T. Palmer)


Solemnly swearing, to swear as an oath to you
who have somehow gotten to be a pale old woman;
swearing, as if an oath could be wrapped around
your shoulders
like a new coat:
For your 28 dollars a week and the bastard boss
you never let yourself hate;
and the work, all the work you did at home
where you never got paid;
For your mouth that got thinner and thinner
until it disappeared as if you had choked on it,
watching the hard liquor break your fine husband down
into a dead joke.
For the strange mole, like a third eye
right in the middle of your forehead;
for your religion which insisted that people
are beautiful golden birds and must be preserved;
for your persistent nerve
and plain white talk --
the common woman is as common
as good bread
as common as when you couldnt go on
but did.
For all the world we didnt know we held in common
all along
the common woman is as common as the best of bread
and will rise
and will become strong -- I swear it to you
I swear it to you on my own head
I swear it to you on my common


letsdance said...

Thank you, Maggie. You introduced me to Judy Grahn. Now I'm half in love with her.

Hope you are well.

Connecticut Man1 said...

Thanks for adding me to your Blogroll! I have added your Blog to my Blogroll. Your brand new shiny link should show up as soon as I update my Blog and ping Technorati. And, again, thanks!

Stephen Herron
(AKA: Connecticut Man1)
Drinking Liberally in New Milford