Karen Brodine | Woman Sitting at the Machine, Thinking



Karen Brodine: Feminist Poet and Revolutionary

KAREN BRODINE was barely 40 years old when she died of cancer on October 18, 1987. Her death was a shock, a misery, an abrupt and unwarranted end to an exceptionally dynamic and productive life.

The horrible thing is that Karen’s death was unnecessary. Cancer killed her because the medical profession was too profit-motivated, too sexist, to catch it in time, when they could and should have. And she was mad as hell at the medical automatons who prescribed the massive doses of poison known as chemotherapy when an ounce of prevention could have saved her.

Still, Karen was no martyr. She didn’t waste a minute bemoaning her fate. She continued to the end to illuminate the aspirations, agonies, ironies, and triumphs of working people. She continued to share her vast artistic and political gifts with her comrades, co-workers, friends, and reading public, riveting audiences with her powerful words and her passionate and intensely earnest or wickedly witty presentation.

She left a rich and unforgettable legacy. Work, personal life, art, entertainment, organizing and ideas merged for her into one interrelated and total commitment to a future where everyone would live a full and integrated existence. She prescribed and brilliantly achieved “a balance and a strong connection between dreaming, working, political action, loving. All ought to be recognized and woven together into a tough, resistant fabric” (“Politics of Women Writing,” The Second Wave, Vol. 5, no. 3 (Summer/Fall 1979): 7).

Hers was a cleanly congruent personality without a trace of neurotic inner conflicts, despite the vast diversity of her interests and variegated facets of her character. With a mind tough as leather and a tongue to match, and a gentle sensitivity that opened to the world, she synthesized, exemplified the best of modern woman. She was something else—a paragon.


A multi-dimensional artist

Karen’s original dream was to be a dancer.

She studied ballet and modern dance from the age of five and majored in dance at the University of California at Berkeley, graduating in 1972. She was a dance instructor for the Richmond and Berkeley school districts and performed with the Movable Feast Dance Group in the San Francisco Bay Area until, in her 20s, a congenital knee problem ended her career.

Poetry then became her major artistic outlet.

And being Karen—the outgoing introvert—she felt compelled to share her gift, to inspire others to tap their own talents. She had first bloomed as a teacher in the mid-’60s. Fresh out of high school, she tutored reading and writing as a volunteer for VISTA in Harlem, New York. Then, after receiving an M.A. in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University in 1974, she lovingly taught writing there, part-time, for six years.

For students gripped by the inability to express themselves, she labored to impart the understanding of imagery and how to release it. In her poem “Fireweed” (included in this collection), she informs us that images “live and breathe.”

.. .livewire sparks
between opposites, a bridge that smokes between people.
And that those most pushed down have the most to say
in images, shouts, actions, all just under the smooth
velour of the manufactured stories. Images leap out
of contradiction, blasting the true story into breath.

Images, shouts, actions. Karen was an activist par excellence.

She co-founded the Women Writers Union in San Francisco in the early ’70s. She was founding co-editor of the Kelsey Street Press and an editor at the Berkeley Poets Co-op. She was a proud and energetic member of the National Women Studies Association and the National Writers Union.

But how did she support herself? She turned to typesetting for her livelihood, a skill she loved for its integration of language, design and technology. A worker in the trade from 1975 to 1986, her intense and vivid experiences at work were central to her colorful poetry. All the craftsmanship, the mechanics and the nerve-endings of her profession come alive in her great poem, “Woman Sitting at the Machine, Thinking.


The art of politics

Karen was raised in a home environment of radical politics in rural Woodinville, Washington. She was especially proud of the intransigence of her grandmother, Harriet Pierce, a socialist postal worker who was identified as a subversive during the McCarthy period and was hounded by the FBI and forced to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1955. She refused to testify and was blacklisted for her defiance, her union work and her strong, “premature” feminist beliefs.

Her mother, Mary, and father, Val, were also radicals, who supported themselves as music teachers. Their conflicts, ending in divorce, instilled Karen’s iron-willed commitment to women’s emancipation.

Karen moved to the Bay Area in the mid-’60s and weathered her own marriage and divorce, documented in her first book, Slow Juggling (Berkeley, CA: Berkeley Poets Cooperative, 1975)She got involved in the feminist and lesbian/gay movements, became a socialist feminist and a union organizer, and was soon a national leader of Radical Women and the Freedom Socialist Party , revolutionary feminist and multi-racial organizations. These experiences are reflected in the content of her second and third books of poetry, Workweek (Berkeley, CA: Kelsey St. Press, 1977) and Illegal Assembly (Brooklyn, NY: Hanging Loose Press, 1980). She was San Francisco organizer for Radical Women from 1979-81, and FSP organizer from 1981-83. From 1982 she served energetically on the FSP’s National Committee.

Another major achievement was her coordination of the Merle Woo Defense Committee (1982-84). Her brilliant organizing skills, articulate advocacy talents, and fabled persistence were decisive in winning Woo’s landmark suit against the University of California at Berkeley. Woo had charged discrimination on the basis of race, sex, sexual orientation, and political ideology, and was totally vindicated after long legal battles.

Karen returned to the Pacific Northwest in 1984 in order to edit, design and publish Gloria Martin’s Socialist Feminism: The First Decade, 1966-76a lively history of the early years of the Freedom Socialist Party.

Amid her publishing activity, Karen leapt into the political fray. The Seattle branch of the FSP was immersed in a legal battle known as the Freeway Hall Case, marked by the party’s refusal to turn over membership lists and minutes of its meetings to the courts. The case began when a disgruntled male ex-FSP member, in a redbaiting frenzy, launched an incredible suit to recover a donation he made years earlier toward replacing the party’s old headquarters at Freeway Hall, from which the party had been evicted. (For more information, see the Red Letter Press booklet, They Refused to Name Names.)

Karen plunged into this fight for elemental civil liberties. She was struck by the parallel between the struggles of grandmother Harriet Pierce and the current FSP conflict. This catalyst engendered her poem “Drawing the Line” (published in this volume).

Far from seeking the rarefied isolation aspired to by many pompous writers, Karen invariably found daily political life to be a rich source of inspiration for vaulting poetry rooted in reality.


A wonderful life beautifully lived

Karen underwent surgery in 1986 for breast cancer and then had to endure a harrowing course of chemotherapy, conveyed in the powerful series of poems, “By Fire or By Water.” But in spring 1987 she discovered that the cancer had metastisized. She was terminally ill. She fought heroically to overcome or stabilize her condition. She hated the idea of dying and was determined to live. She kept on writing, and she shared her poetry at public readings.

But when the pain and the struggle grew overwhelming, she knew the end was in sight, and she calmly, oh-so-efficiently, arranged her legal, artistic, financial, political and personal affairs, and bid her adieus. She hated to leave but she calmly called to say goodbye. Meanwhile, she had honed, planned, and directed this final collection of her work, entrusting her comrade Helen Gilbert with the awesome task of publishing it.

Until the day she died, in that memorable October of 1987, Karen never stopped being keenly concerned with current events, feminist issues, leftwing ideological debates, cultural developments, and the welfare of her comrades and family. She found solace in the companionship of loved ones, in the beauty of nature, in a Las Vegas gambling spree, in good cuisine (she relished Pacific Northwest seafood), and when she was confined to her bed, in the best of TV and Hollywood. She’d get so excited by good TV programs! She wanted to squeeze everything into her rapidly shortening life.

Throughout her valiant battle against the ravages of cancer, and through her final days, she transmitted an incredible persona. Dignity, courage, honesty, high awareness, and a fierce anger superceded by a practical acceptance of fate. She taught her friends and comrades well—about how to live and how to die, about the incredible human powers of resistance, strength, self-awareness and acceptance up to the finish line.

Oh, hell. She shouldn’t have been taken from us. She was so strong, so vital, so needed, so loved and respected. So much fun to be around.

She was a radical poet and a poetic radical. . .a revolutionary artist and an artistic revolutionary. . .a feminist thinker and a thinking woman. . .an ultimate person for all seasons and all stages of the game. Her loss was incalculable, inconsolable. But her heritage is eternal and universal. In her the dancer and the dance coalesced; she was all of a piece, all together.

Janet Sutherland
Seattle, Washington January 1988
Red Letter Press




Moyra Davey | Dédicace II, 2013


Karen Brodine | Woman Sitting at the Machine, Thinking


she thinks about everything at once without making a mistake.
no one has figured out how to keep her from doing 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 through lights like hot, red eyes.
the noise of the machine they all sometimes wig out to, giddy,
zinging through the shut-in space, blithering atoms;
everyone’s hands paused mid-air above the keys
while Neil or Barbara solo, wrists telling every little thing,
feet blipping along, shoulders raggly.

she had always thought of money as solid, stopped.
but seeing it as moving labor, human hours, why that means
it comes back down to her hands on the keys, shoulder aching,
brain pushing words through fingers through keys, trooping
out crisp black ants on the galleys. work compressed into
instruments, slim computers, thin as mirrors, how could
numbers multiply or disappear, squeezed in sideways like that
but they could, they did, obedient and elegant, how amazing.
the woman whips out a compact, computes the cost,
her face shining back from the silver case
her fingers, sharp tacks, calling up the digits.

when she sits at the machine, rays from the cathode stream
directly into her chest. when she worked as a clerk, the rays
from the xerox angled upward, striking her under the chin.
when she waited tables the micro oven sat at stomach level.
when she typeset for Safeway, dipping her hands in processor
chemicals, her hands burned and peeled and her chest ached
from the fumes.

well we know who makes everything we use or can’t use.
as the world piles itself up on the bones of the years,
so our labor gathers.

while we sell ourselves in fractions. they don’t want us all
at once, but hour by hour, piece by piece. our hands mainly
and our backs. and chunks of our brains. and veiled expressions
on our faces, they buy. though they can’t know what actual
thoughts stand behind our eyes.

then they toss the body out on the sidewalk at noon and at five.
then they spit the body out the door at sixty-five.




each morning:

fresh thermos of coffee at hand; for the slowing down, shift
gears, unscrew the lid of the orange thermos, pour out a whiff
of home, morning paper, early light.  a tangible pleasure
against the unlively words.

funny, though. this set of codes slips through my hands, a
loose grid of shadows with big gaps my own thoughts sneak
through. . .

Call format o five. Reports, Disc 2,  quad left
return.  name of town, address, zip.  quad left
return.  rollalong and there you are.
done with this one.  start the next.

call format o five.  my day so silent yet taken up with words.
floating through the currents and words of my wrists
into the screen and drifting to land, beached pollywogs.
all this language handled yet the room is so silent.
everyone absorbed in feeding words through the machines.

enter file execute.

Call file Oceana.  name of town, Pacifica.  name of street, Arbor.
thinking about lovemaking last night, how it’s another land.
another set of sounds, the surface of the water, submerged,
then floating free, the delicate fabric of motion and touch
knit with listening and humming and soaring.
never a clear separation of power because it is both our power
at once.  hers to speak deep in her body and voice to her own
rhythms.  mine to ride those rhythms out and my own,
and call them out even more.  a speaking together from body
to mouth to voice.

replace file Oceana.
call file Island.

Scroll up. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .scroll down.
What is there to justify?

the words gliding on the screen like the seal at the aquarium,
funny whiskers, old man seal, zooming by upside down
smirking at the crowd, mocking us
and his friends the dolphins, each sharp black and cream marking
streamlined as the water

huh.  ugh, they want this over and over:
MAY1    MAY1   MAY 1   MAY 1   MAY 1  enough?
MAY 1   MAY 1




once I have typeset all the pages, I run the job out on tape
and clip it to the videosetter to be punched out.
then I swing out the door to get another job.

down the stairs into the cramped room where Mary and Rosie
and Agnes sit in the limb draft of one fan.
“must be 95 in here.”  “yeah, and freezing in the other room.”
“got to keep the computers cool, you know.”

back up the stairs past management barricaded
behind their big desks on the way to everything.
on the way to the candy machine.
on the way to the bathroom.
on the way to lunch.
I pretend they are invisible.
I pretend they have great big elephant ears.

and because they must think we are stupid in order
to push us around, they become stupid.
knowing “something’s going on,” peering like moles.
how can they know the quirk of an eyebrow behind their back?
they suspect we hate them because they know
what they are doing to us—but we are only
stupid Blacks or crazy Puerto Ricans, or dumb blonds.

we are their allergy, their bad dream.
they need us too much, with their talk of
“carrying us” on the payroll.
we carry them, loads of heavy, dull metal,
outmoded and dusty.
they try to control us, building partitions,
and taking the faces off the phones.
they talk to us slow and loud,
As if it were a gift.

we say—even if they stretched tape
across our mouths
we could still speak to one another
with our eyebrows.




hours staring me in the face
miles of straight copy
singlespaced, shut in.

when I called my mother
her words were all
turned but not quite is that
every perfect thing isn’t sense,
I can’t, she says, can’t talk about it.
when I call her, the floor drops inches
and I am trying to be cheer.
wh-whts the matter? she says.

mother wears a dress all of blue
fabric of tiny wires and messages
veins knotted together, snagging,
and the hem gaping down
where the stitching ripped out.

don’t care if things are hard
just want a whole cloth
not all theses unravelled scraps and me
a rough thread trying to gut them
together, in and out.

When I see the boss, I hold
my face clear and solemn, thinking
pig.   pig.   it’s true, too.
not rhetorical.

“if we stick you in the little room
with the heat on, you’ll be happy.
that’s what you wanted.”

“you’re an electronic technician,
not a typesetter.   you’re lucky
to be shut out of the union.”

I know that typesetters
grow more capillaries
in our fingertips
from all that use.

here’s a test:   cut my fingers
and see if I bleed more.




knowledge this power owned, not shared
owned and hoarded
to white men, lock stock dollar
skill passed down from manager
to steal, wrench it back
knowledge is something we have
this is the bitters column
around the chair, toe stubbing the floor
and I am here, legs twisted
on our time the words clarify
with all we are not taught
I will know it and use it burning
I sneak it home and copy it
the Puerto Rican janitor, the older
woman, the Black women, our heads
held over  stolen  not granted
in my stomach for all the access
I have to sneak
language is something
get my hands on the machine
he takes it all as his right
eating lunch for granted his whole life
get my hands on the book
he’s being taught what I am not
angry words swallowing my throat

to take    to take it back                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            and open   and ribbon out   and share

The Bitters Column.





2 hours till lunch.
1 hour till lunch.
43 minutes till lunch.
13 minutes till lunch.

they write you up if you’re three minutes late.
three write-ups and you’re out.

I rush back from lunch, short-cut.
through the hall to the door
locked like the face of a boss.

I tug at the door, definitely locked.
peer in through the glass, watery and dark,
see two supervisors standing 25 yards in,
talking, faces turned away.
oh good, I think, they’ll let me in.
I knock on the glass, cold to my fist.
not too loud, just enough to let them know.
they glance at me, continue talking.
I knock again, louder.
one man looks right at me, turns his back.
I am furious, let me in!
and knock again, my fist white where it is
clenched. BAM BAM BAM  pause
they don’t even look up.
I knock harder and harder, the glass
shaking in its frame.
I imagine my hand smashing through the pane,
shaking their collars, bloody but triumphant.




Sleepy afternoon. . .halfway through typing a long page
about building specifications, lost, wandering
through strange buildings, wide deep fields at dusk,
trying to find the way home

I reach a deserted building, a warehouse, fenced off.
people hurry to work, not stopping to talk.
a low-level murmur hovers below the surface, like the
slight draft that makes the hair on your arm lift.
birds clot on the aerials, the light out of whack.

we notice a tightness right below the hollow of the neck
gathering to a deep chestpain, slowmoving and thick.
we notice it like smog, waking up each morning
short-breathed and headachy.  the officials say nothing’s wrong,
and slippage is small, no measurable effects gather.

none of us talk outloud about this to anyone.

now though, crowds begin to pool, huddling together.
I hurry to a circle of women, where a girl dodges cops.
she is agile, darting back and forth, panting,
slippery as soap, her hair damp and glistening.
they lunge, she skips, twists, breaks from the circle
and runs.  we race after her in a tumbling crowd,
she is at my ear, whispering, “money. . .burning. . .tell. . .
say. . .shout.”

we are afraid, locked in a windowless building, guarded.
the pain is still here the way summer heat insists.
I repeat the words which are about the phony soap
the guards have handed us, sickly sweet,
“will it wash it will it wash it away” and another
woman joins me, “soap fake soap,” and another
and now all of us are chanting and the ones guarding us
look uncertain, scared, as if they too wonder
and we are all chanting and shouting now,
“fake soap, will it wash it won’t it won’t it wash it away.”




half-empty streets, the calm of the warehouse district
oversize buildings like airplane hangars, expect to see
halfbuilt skeletons of planes or ships gliding the wide
rivers of the streets.  nothing bustling here.
like early morning walks at home in the woods.
licorice plants flourish.  the noises are big here,
not the tiny picky noises of downtown streets.

signs scrawl one wall, “US Out of El Salvador” next to a
shiny long car, must be the boss’s Cadillac, next to that,
an old chev, the cadillac of onions, paint peeling, settling
into its flat tire, looks tired, looks permanent.

ha, remember that dream now, Rose and me in a great circle
of people straggling over scraped bare dirt, no green plants
and we’re walking, and I realize this is a musicians’ union
and we are singing the Internationale in jazz rhythm.
“let each stand in their place, we shall be all.”
the buildings around us are plastered with hundreds of
red stickers that shout STRIKE STRIKE STRIKE
a woman begins to sing of all the people that work here
and the song is a list of their names and their deeds.




Line corrections
Interview with Leola S.
Typesetter:  Karen B.

B o r n in S h r e v e p o r t,  Leola
independence   is important,  she
one    of  fourteen   children ,  her
housecleaning     in    San    Mateo
divorced  now, she  lives  alone in
serving dinner from 4-5 pm every
s t a r t l i n g    p a y    1 . 5 3   p e r
h  o  u  r

s h e   a n d  s o m e  c o – workers
today   more   than   ever  in   U.S.
h   i   s   t   o    r   y

posed  to  discrimination  by  sex,
race,  color,  religious  or national
o   r   i   g   i   n

more    women   go   to   work    in

enter the labor
70  percent  of  the  average  wage
Black    women   lowest    paid   of
to  organize  the  continuing  fight
d e t e r m in e d   t o   b e  h e a r d
plaints    against    unfair   policies
something    worth    fighting    for
s e c t o r  o f   t h e  working   class
w   o   m   e   n




Rivera’s mural, the women, rows of them
similar, yet each unique, their hands
the focus of the art
bodies solid, leaning forward, these women,
facing the voices, knowledge running through them

language the most basic of industry
to gather our food
to record exchange
to give warning and call for help
to praise courage
it flows through our hands and into metal
they think it doesn’t touch us

a typesetter changes man to person
will they catch her?
She files one job under union,
another under lagoon,
another under cash

what if you could send anything in and call it out again?
I file jobs under words I like—red, buzz, fury
search for tiger, execute
the words stream up the screen till tiger trips the halt
search for seal   search for strike
search for the names of women

we could circle our words around the world
like dolphins streaking through water their radar
if the screens were really in the hands of experts:   us.
think of it—our ideas whipping through the air
everything stored in an eyeflash
our whole history, ready and waiting.




at night switching off the machines one by one
each degree of quiet a growing pleasure
we swallow the silence after hours of steady noise
the last machine harrumphs off and it is so visibly quiet
switch off the fluorescent lights and it is so quietly dark

I say, goodby, see you tomorrow, and relax down the stairs
into the cavernous shop where the paper is stored
near the presses, huge cardboard cylinders of newsprint
stacked up ceiling high.

I curve toward the door in the shadows
smells sweet like a big barn
calm snowbanks these spools, or tree trunks
in the light sifting through the glazed windows

walking tired through the resting plant
past huge breathing rolls of paper
waiting to be used




some buildings never sleep
round the clock
three eight hour shifts
seven days a week
centrifugal force irons us flat
to the blank walls, speeding,
whirling, intent as astronauts,
eyes toward the clock,
hands on the keys,
shoulders pressed against the chair.

some buildings never sleep
never shut down
roaring and roaring and we shout,

continuous paper streams form the room
words ratatat through our brains
trains and earthquakes shudder the walls
the long whistle of wind under the door
all we know of outside

remember that fish
that lives so deep
it has grown its own light
energy glaring out the bulbs
of its eyes
remember that fish formed flat
under fathoms of water
bones streamlined as ribs of steel
precise and efficient, formed in duress,
reaching, spinning the tough wire
of its own life, and long before Edison
volting out through its own demands.






Karen Brodine | Journal Entries: Always the Ideas Carry Themselves Forward


Karen Brodine died from cancer at the age of 40, while working — in anticipation of her death — on what would become this final collection of her poetry. 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 most 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’, like Bartleby at his copydesk).

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 ideas about Bay Area poetry (as well as feminist poetry) and, even if it did not directly change 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, political, 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-economic 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.

when I see my boss, I hold

my face clear and solemn, thinking

pig. pig. it’s true, too.

not rhetorical.

In 1999 or so, Yedda & I reprinted an excerpt from the title poem in the Work issue of Tripwire 4. But find the book, read it alongside the Marxist-feminist and antiwork theory and history being rediscovered by the radical left. Read it alongside the work poems of the 30s and 2nd gen feminist poets of the 70s. Compare the cover to the cover of Haraway’s Simians, Cyborgs, and Women. Read it and remember the radical potential of content as a mode of risk and political work in poetry. And let’s remember the thankless work of small presses such as Red Letter for being committed to such risks, such politics, such poetry.

David Buuck
Small Press Traffic



Sussex Research Online




One Comment

  1. […] Source: Karen Brodine | Woman Sitting at the Machine, Thinking – BLACKOUT ((poetry & politics)) […]


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