The Common Women Poems 

These are vivid and inspiring portraits of women, gritty and short. I wondered how well the poet knew these women and/or if they were largely brief observations. I think they are a unique window in how to present characters in poetry or prose form. And then, who is the common woman? (There are more poems than these three and yes, I pulled them from different internet sources.)

 

The Common Women Poems              Judy Grahn

I. Ella, in a square apron, along highway 80                             

She’s a copperheaded 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 to scrape.
The common woman is as common
as a rattlesnake.

III. Nadine, resting on her neighbor’s stoop                     

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.

IV: CAROL, IN THE PARK, CHEWING ON STRAWS    

She has taken a woman lover
whatever shall we do
she has taken a woman lover
how lucky it wasn’t 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.

Judy Rae Grahn was born in 1940 in Chicago, Illinois. Her father was a cook and her mother was a photographer’s assistant. Grahn described her childhood as taking place in “an economically poor and spiritually depressed late 1950s New Mexico desert town near the hellish border of West Texas.” When she was eighteen, she eloped with a student named Yvonne at a nearby college. Grahn credits Yvonne with opening her eyes to gay culture. Soon thereafter she would join the United States Air Force. At twenty-one she was discharged (in a “less than honorable,” manner, she stated) for being a lesbian.

At the age of 25, Grahn suffered from Inoculation lymphoreticulosis, or Cat Scratch Fever, which led to her being in a coma. After overcoming her illness, she realized that she wanted to become a poet. This realization was partially due to the abuse and mistreatment Grahn faced for being an open lesbian. Of the incident, Grahn stated “I realized that if I was going to do what I had set out to do in my life, I would have to go all the way with it and take every single risk you could take…. I decided I would not do anything I didn’t want to do that would keep me from my art.”

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