by NONA BLYTH CLOUD
There are poems that need to be seen on the page because the placement of each word, each punctuation mark, each space is part of the poem.
There are other poems that ride on the tongue, and must be heard, because they have the lithe muscle of the dancer and the breath of the singer in them.
Judy Grahn (1940 – ) writes poems so out loud they will stagger you.
When I first read The Common Woman Poems, and a woman is talking to death, they were in thin smudgy chapbooks of reproduced typewriter manuscript, but they made me get up and move as I spoke them aloud. It was the 1970s, and elegant computer-driven self-publishing wasn’t even a glint on the horizon.
But the long line of ancient poet-singers who predate the written word by centuries would recognize her.
from The Common Women Poems
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.
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.
Judy Grahn’s masterwork is A Woman is Talking to Death, a long series of story-poems and visions, connected to the many aspects of Death, not just of the body, but of the spirit.
This is the opening story:
from A Woman Is Talking to Death
Testimony in trials that never got heard
my lovers teeth are white geese flying above me
my lovers muscles are rope ladders under my hands
we were driving home slow
my lover and I, across the long Bay Bridge,
one February midnight, when midway
over in the far left lane, I saw a strange scene:
one small young man standing by the rail,
and in the lane itself, parked straight across
as if it could stop anything, a large young
man upon a stalled motorcycle, perfectly
relaxed as if he’d stopped at a hamburger stand;
he was wearing a peacoat and levis, and
he had his head back, roaring, you
could almost hear the laugh, it
was so real.
“Look at that fool,” I said, “in the
middle of the bridge like that,” a very
Then we heard the meaning of the noise
of metal on a concrete bridge at 50
miles an hour, and the far left lane
filled up with a big car that had a
motorcycle jammed on its front bumper, like
the whole thing would explode, the friction
sparks shot up bright orange for many feet
into the air, and the racket still sets
my teeth on edge.
When the car stopped we stopped parallel
and Wendy headed for the callbox while I
ducked across those 6 lanes like a mouse
in the bowling alley. “Are you hurt?” I said,
the middle-aged driver had the greyest black face,
“I couldn’t stop, I couldn’t stop, what happened?”
Then I remembered. “Somebody,” I said, “was on
the motorcycle.” I ran back,
one block? two blocks? the space for walking
on the bridge is maybe 18 inches, whoever
engineered this arrogance. in the dark
stiff wind it seemed I would
be pushed over the rail, would fall down
screaming onto the hard surface of
the bay, but I did not. I found the tall young man
who thought he owned the bridge, now lying on
his stomach, head cradled in his broken arm.
He had glasses on, but somewhere he had lost
most of his levis, where were they?
and his shoes. Two short cuts on his buttocks,
and that was the only mark except his thin white
seminal tubes were all strung out behind; no
child left in him; and he looked asleep.
I plucked wildly at his wrist, then put it
down; there were two long haired women
holding back the traffic just behind me
with their bare hands, the machines came
down like mad bulls, I was scared, much
more than usual, I felt easily squished
like the earthworms crawling on a busy
sidewalk after the rain; I wanted to
leave. And met the driver, walking back.
“The guy is dead.” I gripped his hand,
the wind was going to blow us off the bridge.
“Oh my God,” he said, “haven’t I had enough
trouble in my life?” He raised his head,
and for a second was enraged and yelling,
at the top of the bridge—“I was just driving
home!” His head fell down. “My God, and
now I’ve killed somebody.”
I looked down at my own peacoat and levis,
then over at the dead man’s friend, who
was bawling and blubbering, what they would
call hysteria in a woman. “It isn’t possible”
he wailed, but it was possible, it was
indeed, accomplished and unfeeling, snoring
in its peacoat, and without its levis on.
He died laughing: that’s a fact.
I had a woman waiting for me,
in her car and in the middle of the bridge,
I’m frightened, I said.
I’m afraid, he said, stay with me,
please don’t go, stay with me, be
my witness—“No,” I said, “I’ll be your
witness—later,” and I took his name
and number, “but I can’t stay with you,
I’m too frightened of the bridge, besides
I have a woman waiting
and no license—
and no tail lights—“
So I left—
as I have left so many of my lovers.
we drove home
shaking, Wendy’s face greyer
than any white person’s I have ever seen.
maybe he beat his wife, maybe he once
drove taxi, and raped a lover
of mine—how to know these things?
we do each other in, that’s a fact.
who will be my witness?
death wastes our time with drunkenness
death, who keeps us from our
he had a woman waiting for him,
I found out when I called the number
“Where is he” she said, “he’s disappeared.”
“He’ll be all right” I said, “we could
have hit the guy as easy as anybody, it
wasn’t anybody’s fault, they’ll know that,”
women so often say dumb things like that,
they teach us to be sweet and reassuring,
and say ignorant things, because we don’t invent
the crime, the punishment, the bridges
that same week I looked into the mirror
and nobody was there to testify;
how clear, an unemployed queer woman
makes no witness at all,
nobody at all was there for
those two questions: what does
she do, and who is she married to?
I am the woman who stopped on the bridge
and this is the man who was there
our lovers teeth are white geese flying
above us, but we ourselves are
keep the women small and weak
and off the street, and off the
bridges, that’s the way, brother
one day I will leave you there,
as I have left you there before,
working for death.
we found out later
what we left him to.
Six big policemen answered the call,
all white, and no child in them.
they put the driver up against his car
and beat the hell out of him.
What did you kill that poor kid for?
you mutherfucking nigger.
that’s a fact.
Death only uses violence
when there is any kind of resistance,
the rest of the time a slow
weardown will do.
They took him to 4 different hospitals
til they got a drunk test report to fit their
case, and held him five days in jail
without a phone call.
how many lovers have we left.
there are as many contradictions to the game,
as there are players.
a woman is talking to death,
though talk is cheap, and life takes a long time
right. He got a cheesy lawyer
who had him cop a plea, 15 to 20
instead of life
Did I say life?
the arrogant young man who thought he
owned the bridge, and fell asleep on it
died laughing: that’s a fact.
the driver sits out his time
off the street somewhere,
does he have the most vacant of
eyes, will he die laughing?
Poet, activist, and scholar Judy Grahn was born in Chicago, but grew up in New Mexico. After she joined the Air Force, she was discharged at age 21 for being openly gay.
In the 1960s, she moved to San Francisco, and co-founded the Women’s Press Collective in 1969. Grahn was also a founding member of the West Coast New Lesbian Feminist Movement. She is an editor and contributor to Metaformia: A Journal of Menstruation and Culture. Grahn has given thousands of readings and lectures, frequently collaborating on programs with dancer-choreographer Anne Blethenthal, and with singer-songwriter Anne Carol Mitchell.
Grahn’s earliest poetry collections, including The Common Woman Poems and A Woman is Talking to Death, were reissued as The Work of a Common Woman, and her collection of selected and new poems, love belongs to those who do the feeling, won the 2009 Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Poetry. Her prose includes the cultural history Another Mother Tongue; Gay Words, Gay Worlds; and Blood, Bread, and Roses: How Menstruation Created the World. Her collection, The Judy Grahn Reader, includes both prose and poetry.
Judy Grahn has been honored with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, an American Book Review Award, an American Book Award, an American Library Award, and a Founding Foremothers of Women’s Spirituality Award. Since 1997 Triangle Publishers, after honoring her with a Lifetime Achievement Award in Lesbian Letters, have issued an annual Judy Grahn Nonfiction Award.
In 1974, she wrote a funeral: plainsong from a younger woman to an old woman, for her first lover and longtime friend Yvonne Mary Robinson:
“. . . i will be your heart now, to do your loving
love belongs to those who do the feeling . . .
. . . wherever I go to, you will arrive
whatever you have been, I will come back to
wherever I leave off, you will inherit
whatever you resurrect, we shall have it . . .
. . . you have put your very breath upon mine
i shall wrap my entire fist around you
i can touch any woman’s lip to remember
we are together in my motion
you have wished us a bonded life”
In the 1970s and early 80s, I directed a number of theatrical performances of poetry and other writings, the majority from feminist authors. Of all of them, the one combining The Common Woman Poems and A Woman is Talking to Death had the most powerful effect on audiences. There were always several seconds of silence after the closing words of A Woman is Talking to Death:
. . . I want nothing left of me for you, ho death
except some fertilizer
for the next batch of us
who do not hold hands with you
who do not embrace you
who try not to work for you
or sacrifice themselves or trust
or believe you, ho ignorant
death, how do you know
we happened to you?
wherever our meat hangs on our own bones
for our own use
your pot is so empty
death, ho death
you shall be poor
The silence would be broken by a few tentative hand claps, then a storm of applause. And almost always, over half the audience stayed to talk with us, including men who had been dragged there by their wives or girlfriends, but experienced something completely different from the boredom or discomfiture they had expected.
For uncommon woman Judy Grahn, “talking to death” is a fierce affirmation of life, part of the daily struggle to act with courage and integrity.
Note: This is my last look back at some of Word Cloud’s own “women’s history” to honor Women’s History Month. I hope you have enjoyed reading (or rereading!) these remarkable poets as much as I have enjoyed bringing them back.
Next up — April is National Poetry Month
- Poetry Foundation: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/judy-grahn
- Modern American Poetry: http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/g_l/grahn/about.htm
- Los Angeles Review of Books: https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/it-is-an-apple-an-interview-with-judy-grahn/
- Trivia – Voices of Feminism: http://www.triviavoices.com/on-living-with-a-poem-for-20-years-judy-grahns-a-woman-is-talking-to-death.html
A Woman is Talking to Death: https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/woman-talking-death
- Interstate 80 sign
- Slum housing
- San Francisco Bay Bridge late at night
- A motorcycle after an accident
- Finger touching a young woman’s lips
- Close-up of Judy Grahn
Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud