Everyone’s last chance to soak up the end of summer, Labor Day is also, of course, a day recognizing workers. Take a break from the sun to read these great poems about women working—in the fields, in the home, in the office and beyond.
Woman Work – Maya Angelou
I’ve got the children to tend
The clothes to mend
The floor to mop
The food to shop
Then the chicken to fry
The baby to dry
I got company to feed
The garden to weed
I’ve got shirts to press
The tots to dress
The can to be cut
I gotta clean up this hut
Then see about the sick
And the cotton to pick.
Shine on me, sunshine
Rain on me, rain
Fall softly, dewdrops
And cool my brow again.
Storm, blow me from here
With your fiercest wind
Let me float across the sky
‘Til I can rest again.
Fall gently, snowflakes
Cover me with white
Cold icy kisses and
Let me rest tonight.
Sun, rain, curving sky
Mountain, oceans, leaf and stone
Star shine, moon glow
You’re all that I can call my own.
(And Still I Rise. Random House in 1978)
as a rattlesnake.
(New & Selected Poems (1966-2006). Red Hen Press, 2008)
Woman Sitting at the Machine, Thinking – Karen Brodine [excerpt]
From Woman Sitting at the Machine, Thinking. Red Letter Press, 1990.
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.
(Woman Sitting at the Machine, Thinking. Red Letter Press, 1990)
The Secretary Chant – Marge Piercy
My hips are a desk,
From my ears hang
chains of paper clips.
Rubber bands form my hair.
My breasts are quills of
My feet bear casters,
My head is a badly organized file.
My head is a switchboard
where crossed lines crackle.
Press my fingers
and in my eyes appear
credit and debit.
My navel is a reject button.
From my mouth issue canceled reams.
Swollen, heavy, rectangular
I am about to be delivered
of a baby
File me under W
because I wonce
(Circles on the Water: Selected Poems of Marge Piercy, Knopf, 1982)
Dragging the Recycling out of the Whorehouse – Michelle Tea [excerpt]
dragging the recycling out of the
whorehouse because i am a
big strong lesbian whore with
boots on my feet. this girl
let me borrow them but my foot
pressed into the sole and made
them their own so she had to let
me keep them and i tried
to make a similar imprint
on the girl a kind of spiritual
footprint but i failed and now
i’ve got these boots that i wear to
drag the recycling out of the whorehouse
thinking i must look like such a freak the
green marin landscape behind me the wind
blowing my wig into lipstick this
flashy danceclub dress and hose slipping
down my leg like catholic school knee
socks and i am such an unhealthy
prostitute sitting around drinking mountain
dew and smoking all the other whore’s
cigarettes i burnt my wig lighting them
on the gas stove i wish i could bring
my friends to work we could read tarot
cards and write and chat on the
sunny country patio of the quaint
northern california whorehouse and
i would say excuse me and totter off
to the bedroom to tend to men who
think it’s their privilege to rent
women because they are all such
big king jesus superheroes. do
i sound bitter about my job?
i am but
no more than ever so i
dragged the recycling out of the
(The Beautiful. Manic D Press, 2004)
Women’s Work – Julia Alvarez
Who says a woman’s work isn’t high art?
She’d challenge as she scrubbed the bathroom tiles.
Keep house as if the address were your heart.
We’d clean the whole upstairs before we’d start
downstairs, I’d sigh, hearing my friends outside.
Doing her woman’s work was a hard art
to practice when the summer sun would bar
the floor I swept till she was satisfied.
She kept me prisoner in her housebound heart.
She’d shine the tines of forks, the wheels of carts,
cut lacy lattices for all her pies.
Her woman’s work was nothing less than art.
And I, her masterpiece since I was smart,
was primed, praised, polished, scolded and advised
to keep a house much better than my heart.
I did not want to be her counterpart!
I struck out…but became my mother’s child:
a woman working at home on her art,
housekeeping paper as if it were her heart.
(Rebel Angels: 25 Poets of the New Formalism. Story Line Press, 1996)
The Expert – Arielle Greenberg
I eat salt when I am thirsty. Until my nose runs salt and then I cry. Until my lips go numb and then I drink a grain of something which dehydrates straight from the heart, the lung, an array of bluish organs.
I know thirst very well because I once belonged to that organization. It was a long time ago — I was in college and it was part-time, mostly mornings. Thirst loved me and recently, in fact, sent me a $250 check out of nowhere. Just for completing the census. Just for existing in a time of great pain. It’s difficult to accept such a generous gift, but thirst is an affluent and guilty employer.
Thirst looks like a pool, an indoor swimming pool you install in the bathroom, a pool with a strong current. A lap-swimmer’s pool for city dwellers. Thirst comes in the back of The New York Times Magazine.
In a crowd of women poets, eating, as often not eating, I am lonely. I eat from the bottom of the mines up, as if I can devour my way out, as if my throat is an open shaft, as if the white does not burn, as if the language has that fine sting, and I am working, a salaried Girl Friday to the salt.
(Given. Verse Press, 2002)
Half-Breed – Cherrie Moraga
is as I bent
over strangers’ toilet bowls,
the face that glared back at me
in those sedentary waters
was not my own, but my mother’s
brown head floating in a pool
of crystalline whitenessshe taught me how to clean
to get down on my hands and knees
and scrub, not beg
she taught me how to clean,
not live in this bodymy reflection has always been
You Can’t Get Good Help These Daze – Chrystos
Hey Hey Mrs. Robinson I’m keeping
your toenails & hair
I’ve got plans for you
as I scrub your French Blue bathroom floor hands & knees
stinking of Parson’s sudsy ammonia empty your wastebaskets
Iron your daughter’s overalls & t-shirts
Polish your silver trays tea sets compotes spoons
& furniture Listen I want a trust fund too
I’m as intimate as your daughter don’t I know
your husband’s pubic hair his piss outside the bowl
Mrs. Robinson I’m as close
to you as anybody gets to anyone else
Ironing your hand-embroidered cherry sprig slips
amber linen breakfast napkins emptying pink tampon tubes
Mrs. Robinson I know about you Your whole life
sits in green flowered easy chairs I dust
I have an interest in some
of the money you’ve got in yellow page bank books
I plan to get more out of you than $21.50 a week
Mrs. Robinson I’m already amusing myself
studying your schedule figuring the locks watching
for burglar alarm wires as I vacuum so intently your doe
velvet carpets I don’t want your little trinkets
things you’re afraid I might steal No you can trust me
you’re glad feel safe
I’ve no desire to take your collections home
where I’d still be polishing them Mrs. Robinson
I’m scheming busy with your toenails making
plans for you & for me I think
I’ll be willing to settle
for 300 thousand
(Not Vanishing. Press Gang Publishers, 1988)
Financial Planning – June Jordan
A poem commissioned by Forbes magazine
Fifty cents more an hour would get me
a house in the country
hilarious friends calling
an Airedale that wakes me up only for brunch
a lover lusting insatiate
liberation from my own daily routines
10,000 more a year would get me
in debt for the house in the country
part of the car that will slide up the driveway
tennis lessons in the neighborhood
installment plan travel out of that
an A-1 recommended kennel for my dog
50,000 beyond that would get me
a whole lotta trouble
I would have to revise this poem
and I don’t know
(Directed by Desire: The Collected Poems of June Jordan. Copper Canyon Press, 2007)
What are your other favorite poems about women working? Let us know in the comments!
Marisa Crawford is the Editor-in-Chief of Weird Sister. Her latest book is a collection of work poems called Big Brown Bag.