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Karen Brodine

By Janet Sutherland - 1988.

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."


I'm in a rowboat. I reach the shore of an island,
walk toward a fire, quick and bright. Take woodshingles,
hold them flat over the fire, warming my palms. As the
wood flames, I realize I'm dreaming about teaching.

Teaching this class is convincing people they have a right
to speak their minds. It is saying write like lightning
then judge. I see each new group caught in terror of form
as if that were the only question. I ask what holds you
back from writing and an older man says, "Verbs, verbs,
the past tense grips me." A woman says, "It is too easy,
didn't take hours, so it must be nothing." Who taught
us our images don't live and breathe?

Added to all this, that images are the 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.

I'm in a field my father gardened. The garden is wild.
Deep in berries and long grass. Four people from my class
are here. We set up a table and chairs. We play cards
with a translucent deck. The cards, slips of plastic,
rest on our palms like windows. I draw a picture, though
I don't know how. The sketch outlines a fierce, strong
woman. Her short hair is dark and shining. Her face
is lined and spare. I try to fill in the cropped edge
of her hair where it meets her neck. I try again and
again to charcoal in the lines of her high cheekbones.
When I turn back toward the class, my arms overflow
with purple-red flowers from the Cascades called Fireweed.

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."

Excerpt from 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. 

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, 1966-76,a 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).

Drawing the Line

1. Firing Line

Notice of Proposed Removal Action
Loyalty Board

Post Office Department, Washington D.C.
In the Matter of the Loyalty of Harriet M. Pierce
Seattle, Washington Loyalty Case Number 6

Executive Order 9835, March 21, 1948
established a Federal Employees Loyalty Program
to see that disloyal civilian officers or employees
are not retained.

As the result of a recent investigation
made of you as an employee of the Post Office

information has been received
which indicates you have been
and that you are
affiliated or sympathetic with

an organization, association, movement, group
or combination of persons
designated as subversive

and on the basis of this evidence
grounds exist
for belief
that you are disloyal
to the Government of the United States

2. Holding the Line

We have lists
of those who stepped
across that line
to join us.
A piece of paper.
A simple list
of our party,
and combination of persons.
The names are the names
of those who stepped
across that line
to join us.
We stand in lines that stretch beyond
the law.
We march and are arrested.
We do not let the right wing
break our lines.
We say we have the right
to freedom of speech
to freedom of silence.
We say what we know
to be truth for the record.
We refuse to name names.
Subversive we shove back.
Loyal, we hold in trust
each name given.
It is that difficult
and that simple.

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.

Excerpt from By Fire or by Water

May 1986

Here, on that new strange plain
where my left breast is no longer
where the angry scar blanches out
to a thin reminder
Here, my heart is closer now
to my lover's ear, listening
to the sun lazing its warm palm
on my pale skin, closer now
to the traffic blare
to shouts of street people
to the rasp of each day,
the rough, practical tones.
My heart is closer now.
Hear its steady, stubborn drum. 

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.

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