Poetry News

David Buuck on Karen Brodine for Small Press Traffic's New 40x40 Series

By Harriet Staff


Now up for Small Press Traffic's new 40x40 Series, in which, they tell us, "40 writers [will] contribute one short text each celebrating—describing, anatomizing, remembering an encounter with, meditating on, shouting out to—a single book published by a small press between 1974 and 2014," is David Buuck's eloquent writing on poet and activist Karen Brodine, who died of cancer in 1987 at the age of 40. Buuck look's at Brodine's Woman Sitting at the Machine, Thinking
Poems 1978-87
(Red Letter Press 1990), while considering "work poems" and feminist poetry of the 1970s:

In addition to being a poet, Brodine had been a tireless activist and advocate, a union organizer and socialist feminist, national organizer for both Radical Women and the Freedom Socialist Party, and founding co-editor of Kelsey Street Press. A typesetter for the bulk of her adult life, she traced the connections between the alienation of the mechanized workday, as the mediation of gendered labor moved from the messy materiality of type and ink to the equally embodied (despite still being labeled ‘immaterial’ wtf) and industry-wide shift to computerized work (which of course, still requires ‘sitting at the machine’).

she thinks about everything at once without making a mistake.
no one has figured out how to keep her from this thinking
while her hands and nerves also perform every delicate complex
function of the work… this is not automatic or deadening.
try it sometime. make your hands move quickly on the keys
fast as you can, while you are thinking about:

the layers, fossils. the idea that this machine she controls
is simply layers of human workhours frozen in steel, tangled
in tiny circuits, blinking out the lights like hot, red eyes…

The title poem, a ‘series of work poems,’ is the sequence that made me realize I was reading something new and different in my under-formed idea of Bay Area poetry (as well as feminist poetry) and, if it did not effect my own writing, would certainly help me rethink the privileging of poetic form as the locus of political work in the avant-garde (not that I do not continue to sweat out the politics of form!). Of course, Brodine was not alone: from Adrienne Rich to Dodie Bellamy, many Bay Area feminists, queers, and working class poets found new ways to combine autobiographical material with emerging forms of feminist and literary theory to foreground marginalized (and in many contexts, often silenced or erased) experiences of class and gender. For Brodine, ‘work poems’ (in this volume as well as her earlier books Workweek and Illegal Assembly) were not simply vehicles for narrating one’s personal experience in the workplace, but arenas for thinking through how feminized labor was connected to broader modes of capitalist exploitation, embodied entanglements with machines (coming four years before Donna Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto”), as well as the attendant physical risks, from cathode streams to xerox rays to processor chemicals (it is difficult to read such material without thinking about Brodine’s death from cancer), networks of political articulation beyond the more limited (though nonetheless critical) concerns of 70s US feminism about better wages, workplace harassment, etc, or 70s US feminist poetics’ focus on self-expression and celebration of ‘the feminine’. No one would call her an experimental or avant-garde poet — at least if judged by formalist categories — but our capacity for recognizing what risks and new openings can appear in what otherwise might be dismissed as conventional autobiographical poems only requires our own willingness to confront the class and gender politics of the workplace, the picket line, the family and domestic sphere, to rethink how poetry might register the complex articulations of labor in the current conjuncture of capitalism and patriarchy.

Read the rest of it at Small Press Traffic, and keep watch for more 40x40 posts--readable as of press time (press time!) is Alli Warren on Bernadette Mayer, and Carol Mirakove on Heather Fuller.

Originally Published: February 27th, 2014