Queer people constructed, Queer people as constructors

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. 

 

4 thoughts on “Queer people constructed, Queer people as constructors”

  1. Hello! I really enjoyed both your analysis of Grahn’s poem and how you put in conversation with Walt Whitman. I really liked how you went about describing queer people’s place in society, specifically, “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.” We live in a society that sees and treats the queer community as an unusual and, for lack of a better word, “rare” group of individuals. But as you point out, they were and always will be here, both as part of society but also holding it together.

  2. Hi! The contrast you found between these two collections is so interesting and I had not thought about how they connect in this way. I did not at first see how the nail was a double meaning in the way you describe, but I appreciate the idea that she is both recognizing and thanking queer women for their work in our society. I also agree that Whitman shows a privilege that is missing within Grahn’s work because of his experience with transcendentalism; I also think that his privilege because of his identity as a white man gives him the space to feel that he can defy society in these ways, and that this was something that many women and people of color were not granted the same space to do so with.

  3. I always love it when people connect a reading as an answer to a well accepted literary masterpiece. Whitman’s work remains an American classic and timeless, but at the same time isn’t the common woman archetype Grahn tackles also timeless? While Grahn tackles an individual’s story (which in your post , is Nadine’s story) there’s also an element of “yes, there are people who might’ve shared experiences with her”, which is why Grahn is sharing her story under the moniker of “common woman”. While Grahn goes out of her way to describe Nadine’s circumstances as specific as possible, such her “raising 15 children”, she still makes a point to end with “The common woman is as common as a nail”. The resilience of a nail in its situation is an apt metaphor for the strength of Nadine’s experiences, while using a common item like a nail ties into the common metaphor Grahn emphasizes.

  4. Hi! Beautiful work…
    I really enjoyed your rendition of both Whitman and Grahn’s pieces and how their ideas on contributions to society are juxtaposed. In particular, I found your last couple lines on heteronormativity and the ability or lack thereof to travel and contribute to society very interesting and would’ve loved if you had elaborated more on it! In particular, I enjoyed your idea, “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.” From what you have noted, Whitman has a sense of unfortunate superiority, seemingly, because he is a heterosexual white male. In contrast, those who are in the LGBTQ+ community have been pushed aside for many years, and are unfortunately not given as many opportunities.

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