Karen Brodine

Karen Brodine was a poet—a poet not only of words but of her own life. A radical activist and theorist, an editor, a typesetter, a teacher—these disparate appearances came out of a coherent center: an analysis, she would have said.

The title poem of her last book, Woman Sitting at the Machine, Thinking  (Red Letter Press, 1990), embodies that multiplicity and that wholeness.

The musings of a woman while she works as a typesetter, the poem is radical in its every impulse. That the typesetter thinks challenges her job description, but “no one has figured out how to keep her from doing this thinking,” Brodine writes. In her reflections is political theory: “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, shoulders aching…”

In her thinking is the rage of the worker, knowing she will be used up: “…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…”

The typesetter thinks of lovemaking, “…how it’s another land, / another set of sounds, the surface of the water, submerged…”  She thinks of her coffee, of her dreams, of her mother, of the history of workers–and woven through her thoughts are the tools of work: “…huge breathing rolls of paper / waiting to be used.” Not only the tools but the termss of work, turned to poetic uses: “scroll up………….scroll down. / What is there to justify?”

Brodine’s multi-dimensional writing comes directly out of the texture of her life. She both worked and organized at her workplaces, developing a union, challenging unjust conditions. At the same time, she taught poetry workshops at San Francisco State.

Merle Woo, a fellow writer and activist, remembers that Brodine taught night classes, where she proposed to working people that they consider their own work experiences subjects for poetry. Woo says that Brodine saw work as essential not only for economic independence but to the forming of identity: “It’s the standards you require of yourself in your work that give you your self-respect; it’s not your boss, because your boss is never going to give that to you,” explains Woo.

Not on top of, but interwoven with her work, her writing, and her teaching were her politics.  She provided inspiration to other lesbians, especially those isolated from a lesbian community. As Woo says, “Karen always talked about the importance of being able to put words to things,” so she understood how much it mattered to identify herself as a lesbian.

Brodine joined the Freedom Socialist Party (FSP) and Radical Women in 1979.  Woo describes the FSP as a Trotskyist-feminist vanguard party whose members’ commitment to building a socialist revolution takes top priority in their lives. Radical Women, she says, is a broad-based women’s organization devoted to developing political leadership among women and people of color, essential in any revolution.

Brodine served as a coordinator of the Merle Woo Defence Committee from 1982 to 1984 (Woo’s case centered on issues of free-speech and discrimination), and was on the elected national committee of the FSP from 1984-1987.

What this biography does not capture is her humor and her grace. In her twenties her hair was that quality of blond that shone silver in certain light; she wore it cut short, abrupt as the bones that framed her face. Her physical grace was not fluttery or mothy but sure and strong; when she read her poems, they set sail from her voice. As Frances Phillips said at a book party for Woman Sitting at the Machine, Thinking, “Karen had been a dancer, and while that life was behind her there was a physicality in her work that grounded it for me: an awareness of how one holds the body, a balance, a sensuality.”

Brodine was not a saint. She had a kind of infuriating certainty—but it was part of the same piece: neither her poems nor her politics ever faltered in ambivalence. As Phillips said, “She was one of those friends who changes those around her. If you were close to her you felt her incredible warmth, but you also were up for her judgement. I was…someone to whom meetings and organizing were very difficult. She was critical to helping me understand what kind of political meaning this ‘non-meaning’ had.”

When I consider Brodine’s life or reread her work, I cannot believe she is dead. I expect to find her at the next meeting I go to, spitting clarity. I expect to see her at the next reading, her chin insisting on its opinion.  Every time I look for her, I am stricken again with surprise.

Karen Brodine died October 18, 1987, of breast cancer. An unnecessary death: a doctor, she told me, reassured her about the lump that worried her, telling her she just needed to stop drinking coffee. Two years later, the cancer was finally diagnosed, and she had a mastectomy and wrenching chemotherapy. “…the chemo that drains your energy out your / feet till you can’t move.” But the cancer had metastasized.

Brodine understood her death, like she understood her life, politically. She understood that women’s health takes a low priority in this country, and that the working class is seen as expendable. “…then they toss the body out on the sidewalk at noon and at five. / they spit the body out the door at sixty five.”  She understood it was no coincidence that she had been betrayed by the group health insurance most available to working people.

Brodine was encouraged by the work of militant breast cancer activists who, following the example set by AIDS activists, demand the revision of research priorities and the investigation of environmental causes of cancer.

Always a poet, always an organizer, Brodine crafted her own death. She put her papers in order, Merle Woo (her executor) tells me, approved the cover of her book, checked off names and addresses of people to be invited to the memorial service, even paid her Visa bill in advance. She retained her sense of humor—in her notes to Woo were little jokes, ironic and apt, written while she was in great pain. (On the instructions for the scattering of her ashes over the Pacific, she wrote, “How neat—to be buried with a porpoise.”) Two weeks before she died, she gave a last reading of her work.




Woman Sitting at the Machine, Thinking can be ordered from Red Letter Press:  http://www.redletterpress.org/womansitting.html, and from Amazon.com. Her other books, Illegal Assembly (Hanging Loose Press, 1980), Work Week (Kelsey Street Press, 1977), and Slow Juggling (Berkeley Poets’ Cooperative, 1975) are also available via Amazon and sometimes through Powells.  More detail about Karen is available at: http://www.redletterpress.org/about_karen_brodine.html


Published in the Santa Cruz Magazine, October 1991.