Maya Angelou (1928-2014) is an African-American woman poet. Her poetry most often deals with women of her own community. ‘Woman Work’ is such a poem. It describes the plight of a single mother, who must take care of her household all by herself, with no support from anybody.
‘Woman Work’ was first published in the 1978 collection of Angelou’s poems entitled And Still I Rise. The poem itself consists of five stanzas. The first stanza is the longest one, and it is made up of fourteen lines. All the subsequent stanzas are shorter, each made up of four lines.
In the first stanza, Angelou provides a list of the household chores that the protagonist of the poem must perform on a regular basis. This is a seemingly endless list. Angelou, speaking in the voice of the protagonist, says that she must take care of her children, and mend all their clothes which have been torn by constant and repeated use. She must also mop the floor of her humble dwelling, and go shopping to bring back food items to satiate her children’s hunger. In addition to all this, she must fry chicken for their next meal. The youngest child, the baby, cannot be ignored. The baby’s diaper must be changed. The protagonist is also expecting guests, so she has to cook for them as well. The list does not end here, and she goes on. She must remove weeds from her garden. She must also iron the shirts, and dress the younger children who are too small to get dressed on their own. However, the home is not the only place where the protagonist must work. She also has to go to the fields to cut the latest crop of cane sugar. But this does not mean she can escape keeping her “hut” clean. She must act as caregiver to the sick living all around her. Last but not least, she must pick bales of cotton to be spun into cloth that can be sold. All this she must do in a single day.
In contrast to the fast pace of the first stanza, the subsequent three stanzas exhibit a slower, and more relaxed movement. It is as if the speaker needs to rest after a hard day’s work. In that time of rest and relaxation, she calls upon the elements of nature to give her company.
In the second stanza, the protagonist asks the sun to shine down on her, and the rain to refresh her. She also asks the dewdrops to create a cooling effect on her brow, which is sweating from all the effort that has gone into accomplishing all her daily household chores.
In the third stanza, the protagonist asks the storm to hit her with its fiercest flow of wind, so that she can be flown away with it till she comes to a state of rest.
In the fourth stanza, the protagonist continues her call out to nature by asking snowflakes to fall on her and cover her with their pristine whiteness. She expects that the cool weather that will result from snowfall will help her get some rest that night.
The protagonist ends the poem by invoking the presence of the sun, the rain, the curving sky, mountains, oceans, leaves, stones, and the light from the stars and the moon, and saying that it is only nature that she can call her own, that will give her company at the end of an exhausting day, and refresh both her body, and her soul.
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