Carolyn Forché Essay - Critical Essays


In her first collection, Gathering the Tribes, Carolyn Forché recounts the experiences of her youth and maturation, focusing on places and people of importance to her development. She writes of her grandmother and Michigan but also of Teles Goodmorning (a Pueblo Indian) and the Southwest, claiming a spiritual kinship. Her second volume, The Country Between Us, is marked by a similar emphasis on places and people, but this time, the place is often El Salvador or Czechoslovakia and the people are victims of oppression.

Her first collection charts the growth of a child entering adulthood, and the second completes the process, chronicling the development of a social conscience with an emphasis on commitment and responsibility. Criticized for being an activist poet, Forché counters, “There is no such thing as a nonpolitical poetry.” Her belief that “we are, as a species, now careening toward our complete destruction with ever-greater velocity” explains her political involvement and her commitment to speak out.

Gathering the Tribes

In Gathering the Tribes, Forché links the process of her maturation to the influence of specific people and places. These poems display a strong sense of place, whether it be the Michigan of her childhood, the Wakhan region of northern Afghanistan, or the Pueblo villages of New Mexico. However, there is also a strong sense of dislocation: Her Slavic ancestors left their homeland, and the narrator can never be part of the Southwest. Thus strong bonds between people are essential; the tribes must be gathered together. The people whom she cherishes might be her Slavic ancestors, her childhood friends, or those she considers spiritual ancestors—the American Indians of the Southwest. It is often women who provide guidance—her peasant grandmother; the Indians Rosita and Alfansa; the narrator’s lover, Jacynthe. Reinforcing the prominent position of women in the collection are many domestic images, such as bread making and pea shelling, and images drawn from nature and the natural cycles. This emphasis on women has led to questions about Forché’s position on the women’s movement; she responds, “I think any intelligent woman would have to consider herself a feminist.”

Gathering the Tribes is divided into three parts. The first, “Burning the Tomato Worms,” focuses primarily on the narrator’s Slavic ancestors and their history, including their probable forced migration from northern Afghanistan, across Turkey, to the region where Russia borders Czechoslovakia. The poems suggest a connection between the past of the ancestors and the present of the narrator’s girlhood. In other words, her life is a continuation of their lives, especially that of the peasant grandmother, Anna. The poems are imbued with Anna’s wisdom and knowledge of the Old World’s folkways and folklore, knowledge that the narrator needs: “Grandma, come back, I forgot/ How much lard for these rolls” (“The Morning Baking”). Throughout the poems, there is a transference of the past to the present. Eventually the narrator becomes, in a sense, her grandmother: “But I’m glad I’ll look when I’m old/ Like a gypsy dusha hauling milk.”

The strong bond between the speaker and her grandmother is evident in the central poem “Burning the Tomato Worms.” The poem is set in the Midwest, with its “ploughed land” and “horse-breath weather,” reminding the narrator of her deceased grandmother Anna. The narrator is directly linked to her grandmother’s ancestors:

Before I was born, my body as snowfat Crept over Wakhan As grandfathers spat into fires and thawed Their tarpaulin Sending crackled paths of blood Down into my birth.

She inherits these memories and those of her grandmother’s youth in Eastern Europe, when political oppression forced her family to leave home:

When time come We go quick I think What to take.

Carrying nothing but the bare essentials, the grandmother eventually settled in Michigan.

It is Anna who, “shelling snow peas” with Uzbek hands that once were “known for weaving fine rugs,” teaches the narrator and guides her, relying on Old World maxims such as “Eat bread and salt and speak the truth.” Anna wants the speaker to confront “something/ That was sacred and eternal.” The meaning of this “something” is left ambiguous until the final section of the poem, when the reader understands that the grandmother is leading the speaker to an acceptance of the natural cycles of life. Her grandmother shapes the speaker’s life, yet the narrator is not frozen to the past but is part of the present and future. Her life is a counterbalance to her grandmother’s death. Thus the poem tells of the younger woman’s sexual awakening and ends with a transferring of life from the grandmother to the speaker.

Just as the first part of Gathering the Tribes examines the influence of Forché’s biological ancestors, the second, “Song Coming Toward Us,” shows the influence of her spiritual forebears, primarily the American Indians of the Southwest. The bonds are again clear: “What has been/ and what is becoming/ are all of the same age” (“Calling Down the Moose”). The American Indians, such as Alfansa (in “Alfansa”) and Rosita (“Mientras Dure Vida, Sobra el Tiempo”), are her teachers, just as her grandmother was. This section ends with “Plain Song,” which expresses her acceptance of her eventual death, since death, like sex, is part of the natural cycle:

When it happens, let the birds come. Let my hands fall without being folded. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Close my eyes with coins, cover my head with agave baskets that have carried water.

The final section, “The Place That Is Feared I Inhabit,” draws predominantly on Forché’s personal experiences rather than on her ancestors. The poems chronicle the development of the narrator’s sexuality, from her...

(The entire section is 2711 words.)