Tag Archives: women’s lives

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.


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.”

Bra Shopping

This poem addresses an experience many women had when department stores and ritual reigned larger in our lives. We all approach puberty with a natural lack of experience which leaves us open us to all the good and bad of growing up. It is a fun poem in a lot of ways, but my favorite connection to it is the underlying theme of confinement. What woman cannot relate to that?

Bra Shopping                                                  Parneshia Jones


Saturday afternoon, Marshall Fields, 2nd floor, women’s lingerie please.


At sixteen I am a jeans and t-shirt wearing tomboy who can think of

a few million more places to be instead of in the department store

with my mother bra shopping.


Still growing accustomed to these two new welts

lashed on to me by puberty, getting bigger by the moment,

my mother looks at me and says:

While we’re here, we’ll get some new (larger) shirts for you too.

I resent her for taking me away from baseball fields,

horse play, and riding my bike.


We enter into no man’s, and I mean no man in sight land

where women fuss and shop all day for undergarments;

the lingerie department is a world of frilly lace, night gowns,

grandma panties, and support everything.


Mama takes me over to a wall covered with hundreds of white bras,

some with lace and little frills or doilies like party favors,

as if undergarments were a cause for celebration.


A few have these dainty ditsy bows in the middle.

That’s a nice accent don’t you think? Mama would say. Isn’t that cute?

Like this miniature bow in the middle will take

some of the attention away from what is really going on.


When Mama and I go brassiere shopping it never fails:

a short woman with an accent and glasses

attached to a chain around her neck who cares

way too much about undergarments comes up to us.

May I help you, dearies?


The bra woman assists my mother in finding the perfect bra

to, as my mother put it, hold me in the proper way. No bouncing please.


Working as a team plotting to ruin my entire day

with the bra fitting marathon, they conspire up about ten bras

in each hand which equal forty. Who’s making all these bras I want to ask.


What size is she? The bra woman asks.

You want something that will support them honey, looking at me with a wink.

My mother looks straight at my chest. Oh she’s good size. She’s out of that

training bra phase. I want her to have something that will hold them up proper.


Them, them, them they say.

Like they’re two midgets I keep strapped to my chest.

The whole time I stand there while these two women, one my own kin,

discuss the maintenance and storage of my two dependents.


The worst is yet to come, the dressing room.

I hate that damn dressing room, the mirrors waiting to laugh at me,

women running in and out half-naked with things showing

that I didn’t even see on my own body.


I stand there half-naked and pissed. Mama on one side,

the bra woman on the other, I feel like a rag doll under interrogation

as they begin fixing straps, poking me, raising me up, snapping the back,

underwire digging my breasts a grave.


The bras clamp down onto me, shaping my breasts out to pristine bullets,

with no movement, no pulse, no life, just sitting fix up

like my mother wanted real proper.


I will never forgive my mother for this, I keep thinking to myself.

Looking blank face at my reflection I start thinking about how my brothers

never have to shop for undergarments; why couldn’t I have been born a boy?

I hate undergarments.


Mama looks at my face. Don’t you like any of them?

No, I say. Mama I hate this, please can we go?

Then she goes into her lecture on becoming a woman

and being responsible for woman upkeep.


After we are halfway through the inventory

Mama looks at me wasting away in a sea of bras and takes pity on me.

All right, I think we have enough to last you for a while. Let’s check out.


I don’t get happy too quick ’cause I know that bra woman

still lurks about and if she senses my excitement that we are leaving

she will come with more white bras.


We make our way to the check out counter

and the bra woman rings us up.

Oh honey you picked out some beautiful bras, she says.

Just remember hand wash. How about bury, I want to ask.


She and my mother talk about how they are just right

and will do the trick for me with no bouncing at all.

My mother thanks her for torturing me and signals me

to thank her as well. I thank her all right, but I also add her to my secret hit list

of people who have made my life miserable in some way.


We walk out of the department as if walking out of hell.

My mother turns and looks at me. Now really, was that so bad?



The Menstrual Lodge

It has taken me awhile to post this poem because of the potentially upsetting content. But it contains some truths and may help someone write about their experiences and thoughts. A poem like this can gift the writer with new entry into material that has been waiting to be expressed. What happens to an individual may seem like something that has been happening to women throughout the ages, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be expressed. It keeps happening  and does not become old news and writing your story may show someone the way through it.


The Menstrual Lodge                                                Ursula K. Le Guin


Accepting the heavy destiny of power,

I went to the small house when the time came.

I ate no meat, looked no one in the eye,

and scratched my fleabites with a stick:

to touch myself would close the circle

that must be open so a man can enter.

After five days I came home,

having washed myself and all I touched and wore

in Bear Creek, washed away the sign,

the color, and the smell of power.


It was no use. Nothing,

no ritual or servitude or shame,

unmade my power, or your fear.


You waited in the thickets in the winter rain

as I went alone from the small house.

You beat my head and face and raped me

and went to boast. When my womb swelled,

your friends made a small circle with you:

We all fucked that one.

Who knows who’s the father?


By Bear Creek I gave birth, in Bear Creek

I drowned it. Who knows who’s the mother?

Its father was your fear of me.


I am the dirt beneath your feet.

What are you frightened of? Go fight your wars,

be great in club and lodge and politics.

When you find out what power is, come back.


I am the dirt, and the raincloud, and the rain.

The walls of my house are the steps I walk

from the day of birth around the work I work,

from giving birth to day of death.

The roof of my house is thunder,

the doorway is the wind.

I keep this house, this great house.


When will you come in?

Divorced Men and Divorced Women: two poems by Debra Bruce

I don’t typically think of poems as being great resources for character profiles and exploration, but these are just that.  Bruce also uses great hard consonant sounds in both poems, you’ll enjoy reading them out loud.  If you’re a writer, but not a poet, consider trying a poem form to illuminate a character or use yourself as subject.  Otherwise, just enjoy the possibilities and lives these two individuals could fit into.

Divorced Men                                                                                    Debra Bruce

She was the best one

on the beach, but what a bitch

she was later. Summer after summer

she tossed, she twisted the sheets

on her side, she burnt the edges

of everything to spite you. The small

kitchen sweated grease, babies stuck

to her hip until they finally slipped

away from her and dropped, one

by one, into your arms in the backyard.

Like other fathers you knew, you

played ball with your boys

on a homemade diamond. You played

until your trick knee gave, until she

called through the screen for you

to bring them in. But it was just dusk,

you slapped your catcher’s mitt

and shouted. You could still see the perfect

arc of your son’s pitch, you thought

you could see everything.

Divorced Women                                                                              Debra Bruce

The bedroom mirrors reflect

from all angles that you’ve

trimmed down since him to the slim

size you used to be. Turning again,

you turn to yourself. The hip-hugging

fit fits, and dusky blue is the right

shadow for tonight.

Cosmetic kit, car keys, and the quarter moon

like a key-ring trinket. Your whole life

you’ve known only one man. Now

you will know how all men

are one, when their muscles melt

in motion, hips curve into waves.

But you won’t drown. Just dry

your thighs and drive home, alone,

alive, with time for the first time

to notice how the September crepe myrtle

strips off its bark. Its petals

are so pink, too pink, and a late

summer storm has torn them up

and smeared them on the lawn

of your apartment complex.

On Being Ill Virginia Woolf

It’s hard to write about the body.  Even when that is the intention setting out.  Even though we live in a time that the boundaries of “too much disclosure” have once again been stretched. If I air an complaint or talk about pain it quickly sounds whiny or hysterical.  Or I’m exposing my weak mind and lack of character and control.  In writing and in living, how do I find a heroic model of endurance to follow?  Another hindrance leaps up:  the body is riddled with negative messages about shape and size, the ego’s lack of well being and freedom from the chronic pain I’m currently stuffing.  The body has secrets.  It has it’s own room which we call the bathroom.  Perhaps we should call it the bodyroom!  Incorporating the body into writing, noticing when we use its metaphors, and honoring it’s own wisdom is a great start for the practices of living in 2015.  Below are some thoughts on it from Virginia Woolf and Leslie Jamison.

From Virginia Woolf’s On Being Ill”:

“…strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature. Novels, one would have thought, would have been devoted to influenza; epic poems to typhoid; odes to pneumonia; lyrics to toothache. But no, with a few exceptions … literature does its best to maintain that its concern is with the mind; that the body is a sheet of plain glass through which the soul looks straight and clear, and, save for one or two passions such as desire and greed, is null, and negligible and non-existent. On the contrary, the very opposite is true. All day, all night the body intervenes; blunts or sharpens, colours or discolours, turns to wax in the warmth of June, hardens to tallow in the murk of February. The creature within can only gaze through the pane—smudged or rosy; it cannot separate off from the body like the sheath of a knife or the pod of a pea for a single instant; it must go through the whole unending procession of changes, heat and cold, comfort and discomfort, hunger and satisfaction, health and illness, until there comes the inevitable catastrophe; the body smashes itself to smithereens, and the soul (it is said) escapes. But of all this daily drama of the body there is no record.”

Leslie Jamison: “On Being Ill” isn’t just making a case for illness as a literary subject, but for the brute, bare fact of the body itself. By insisting we acknowledge that we sweat and crave and itch all day (“all day, all night”), Woolf reminds us we have the right to speak about these things—to make them lyric and epic—and that we should seek a language that honors them. The man who suffers a migraine, she writes, is “forced to coin words himself, taking his pain in one hand and a lump of pure sound in the other.” What does it sound like, this strange, unholy language of nerves and excretions? How do we articulate the kind of pain that refuses language? We throw up our hands, or we hurl our charts: one through ten, bad to worse, from the smiley face to its wretched, frowning cousin.

an interesting resource:  http://www.bookslut.com/nonfiction/2012_12_019693.php

Apprentice to the Flower Poet Z

Writers spend a great deal of time tinkering with first sentences, first paragraphs, and  the first previews of content shared with readers.  Much importance is placed upon presenting the reader with writing that will compel them to read on and on.  I think that as humans we also want something settled about beginnings, as that sets all that comes afterwards.  This can be self defining and grounding for us as an individuals and authors.  I presented the excerpt below to my classes with a question in mind.  After reading these opening words  which begin a novel, would they read on?  They surprised me!

Apprentice to the Flower Poet Z                                                         Debra Weinstein

This is the story of how I came to momentary prominence in the world of poetry and, through a series of misunderstandings, destroyed my good name and became a nobody.

It was fall, my junior year.

Because I was eager and on scholarship, I was the student chosen to type the poems of the visiting professors. Because I was young, and maybe too hungry, they loved me the way my parents loved me.

What is poetry, I would ask myself, over and over, typing,

the sudden, half-chirped, pecked-hem of morning


my arthritic half-moon, far-reaching thought (?), spine (?)

And then in the margin, this note to me from the visiting professor, asking for advice on his poem: “Annabelle, which sounds better?” And I would think to myself, hmm, “far-reaching thought” or “far-reaching spine? Hard to know.

I want to say that my own poetry suffered from being exposed to so much bad writing, but my own poetry was free of chirping, hems, thoughts, and spines. It would be more accurate to say that I suffered. I felt like the lowest member of the poetry food chain, the one who sits at the foot of the goddess simply because it’s the natural order of things.


Trouble with the Soul at Morning Calisthenics

The soul is hard to pin down and now I know why.  “Soul” is a very rich writing prompt.  Set a timer for 7 minutes and try it.

Troubles with the Soul at Morning Calisthenics                                     Anna Swir


Lying down I left my legs,

my soul by mistake jumps into my legs.

This is not convenient for her,

besides, she must branch,

for the legs are two.


When I stand on my head

my soul sinks down to my head.

She is then in her place.


But how long can you stand on your head,

especially if you do not know

how to stand on your head.

Conversation with a Fireman from Brooklyn

I have, over time, offered poems in class that will, I hope, create discussion on woman’s lives and gender issues.  Often that didn’t work out, but this poem was great.  Don’t miss the poignant line on lost hope.  As far as the last five lines:  Who do you think the speaker is?

Conversation with a Fireman from Brooklyn
                                                Tess Gallagher

He offers, between planes,

to buy me a drink. I’ve never talked

to a fireman before, not one from Brooklyn

anyway. Okay. Fine, I say. Somehow

the subject is bound to come up, women

firefighters, and since I’m

a woman and he’s a fireman, between

the two of us, we know something

about this subject. Already

he’s telling me he doesn’t mind

women firefighters, but what

they look like

after fighting a fire, well

they lose all respect. He’s sorry, but

he looks at them

covered with the cinders of someone’s

lost hope, and he feels disgust, he just

wants to turn the hose on them, they

are that sweaty and stinking, just like

him, of course, but not the woman he

wants, you get me? and to come to that—

isn’t it too bad, to be despised

for what you do to prove yourself

among men

who want to love you, to love you,

love you.