I have been sitting at the machine, thinking, and have finished my dissertation, "Community and Contestory Writing Practices in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1970-Present." In honor of that, here is a poem from Karen Brodine’s Woman Sitting at the Machine, Thinking: a series of work poems.
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 ll 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 out 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 her 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.