Descriptors found in “Nadine, resting on her neighbor’s stoop”, from Judy Grahn’s Work of a Common Woman, use urban language to portray a queer woman named Nadine. Metaphor and simile peppered throughout this poem indicate that Nadine is both a structure built into and a constructor of her environment. For example, the metaphor “she is made of grease, and metal, with a hard head” could be describing Nadine as a greasy, metallic machine or a construction worker, if “hard head” is meant to connote a construction worker’s hard hat. This is crucial to notice because both interpretations juxtapose one another– while machines are man-made structures that mindlessly work until they break down, a construction worker is an independent person who actively chooses to build. Nadine is soundly built into her society, yet she has influence over how she is built in.
This duality continues to appear later in the poem when Grahn writes “She is a mud-chinked cabin in the slums, sitting on a doorstep counting rats and raising 15 children, half of them her own”. Once again, we see Nadine as a structural part of society. Using “cabin” as metaphor expresses Nadine as an essential element to this community, as no person could survive without shelter. Yet this sentence also depicts Nadine’s personal contribution to the community when Grahn reveals half of the children Nadine cares for are her own. And even more importantly, half the children are not Nadine’s. Whether or not the children are biologically hers, Nadine spends her time constructing childhoods for 15 future adults. Again, there is the trope of construction and constructor.
After sifting through other queer portraits, I found that Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself greatly contrasts Grahn’s portrayal of Nadine. Whitman uses natural imagery to represent defiance of societal constructs. When he writes of animals he announces “I see them and myself in the same old law.” (Whitman 11). By associating himself to the animal kingdom, he frees himself of a rule-abiding city. Additionally, as Nadine is built into an urban setting, Whitman places himself in a land hardly colonized by urban society and cisgender, heteronormative ideology. As a result Whitman is not woven into any societal construction; he solely constructs.
Perhaps Grahn was reworking Whitman’s portrayal of a queer life through Nadine’s portrait, as Song of Myself is not realistic for the commoner. Whitman had the privilege to venture west and construct his own norms in a largely uncolonized space. Freeing and joyous as that sounds, opportunities such as that do not appear frequently. Like Grahn writes, “the common woman is as common as a nail”: meaning queer people are systematically and deeply built into colonized structures. However, it is important to recognize that queer people are then also what keeps society held together. They are essential. Grahn writes portraits of queer women that are built into societal structure, yet drawing simile to a nail both recognizes and thanks the work queer women do to strengthen and construct our society.