Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

In his introduction to Gathering the Tribes, Stanley Kunitz contends that Carolyn Forché’s first volume of poetry is a work preoccupied with the theme of kinship, and while this is certainly true, Forché’s vision is of a distinctly woman-centered kinship. In the poetic style that she has described as “first-person free verse lyric-narrative,” Forché writes a three-part sequence of poems exploring a woman’s connections with her ancestry, the land and its people, and her physical body. Forché opens the volume by invoking memories of her grandmother, Anna, a central figure who functions as a spiritual guide for the poet in her journey toward establishing these essential female connections.

The poems of the first section, “Burning the Tomato Worms,” are united by their focus on history, particularly Anna’s Slovak roots. “Grandma, come back,” the poet writes in the ambiguous first poem, “The Morning Baking.” Expressing anger over Anna’s death, the majority of the lines berate the grandmother: “I am damn sick of getting fat like you.” The ending, however, speaks of reconciliation: “But I’m glad I’ll look when I’m old/ like a gypsy dusha hauling milk.” These lines foreshadow many of the section’s poems, such as “What It Cost” and “Early Night,” that connect the poet’s identity with that of her grandmother, as well as poems in subsequent sections that reach toward possibilities of regeneration.

In the poem “Burning the Tomato Worms,” Forché introduces additional conditions of women’s existence that will recur in the volume. In this poem, she intersperses fragments of Anna’s history with her own primary poetic themes: cycles of history and nature, cycles of birth and death, and the cycles that govern a woman’s body. She also writes about feminine rituals of spirituality, purification, and initiation. The poem ends with an account of the poet’s sexual initiation—a subject that Forché writes about ambivalently and to which she will return in the poems of section 3.


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Gathering the Tribes Context

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Gathering the Tribes, Carolyn Forché’s first volume of poetry, was published as part of the prestigious Yale Series of Younger Poets, an honor she shares with such distinguished poets as James Agee, Muriel Rukeyser, W. S. Merwin, and Adrienne Rich. Gathering the Tribes can be read in conjunction with other contemporary feminist poetry such as Rich’s The Dream of a Common Language (1978) and A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far (1981) as similarly important poetic work actively seeking identity for women. While Forché does not consider herself to be the “feminist activist” that Rich is, her poetry reveals that she has been greatly influenced by women’s concerns.

In Gathering the Tribes, Forché writes poetry that places a primary focus on women’s heritages, experiences, and life rhythms. Rejecting conventional masculine poetic themes, in particular the Anglo-American heritage that centers on Western culture, Forché works with fragments of Slovak and Tewa (Pueblo Indian) language and myths, symbolically equating women’s marginal status with other marginalized and oppressed peoples. She repudiates the traditional representations of women in male-authored poetry—stereotypes of the woman as lover, goddess, temptress, or deceiver. Instead, she develops full and complex portraits of women who fulfill a multitude of roles, and many of those roles serve independently of male expectations for women.

Forché’s poetry focuses on spiritual and physical connections rather than on cerebral complexities; the poetry is both sensual and visual, and it derives from an inner comprehension. In other words, Forché expects her readers to see and feel her poetry instead of intellectually analyzing the poems for abstractions. Her frank exploration of women’s sexuality, for example, and the myths and taboos that surround the subject, operates as a critique of women’s traditional role as sexual object. Forché implies that women’s spiritual kinship with their heritage, the earth, and their bodies engenders a sexuality which transcends mere physical union. Gathering the Tribes is ultimately an important part of the body of work produced by women authors challenging restrictive women’s roles.

Gathering the Tribes

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

Reading a new poet is like learning a language beyond one’s own; a first book of poems presents a grammar and vocabulary derived, and yet different, from what one has read and heard before, often very difficult, yet possible to understand; untranslatable, yet somehow clear. Even poets of contemporary America can celebrate cultures unfamiliar to their American readers, present models of dignity foreign to the reader’s experience, struggle with an inheritance of belief and foolishness not shared in, yet recognizable as very like one’s own.

A poet of great range and originality, Carolyn Forché reminds us that the study of such languages is not only possible but also of inestimable value. Here is a poet of remarkable perception, a generous and gifted young woman telling us her truth, not so as to move us to assent to be disciples of a creed, but to remind us of a great catholicism: nothing human is foreign to us.

To read her well one must overcome prejudice for the familiar, for principles of coherence easily discerned or recognized as conventional torturings of syntax and common sense. Quite apart from her great debt to her Eastern European ancestry, and her almost cabalistic expressions of the lives of the American, Mexican, and British Columbian Indian, the reader must contend with her personal language cast in personal forms, with her contrary espousals of value poem to poem, and with her unabashed and straightforward accounts of her sexual experience.

Yet for all of this, her poetry is at last readable, and coherent, and often astonishing; for although a few poems speak out the feelings of others, what the reader hears throughout is the sound of her voice. Perhaps foremost among her gifts is a wonderful balance of self-expression and communication, a voice deeply personal, yet consistent, developing, true. Her Slovak grandmother, who taught her to make bread and to dance, who told “filthy stories about the blood sausage,” advised her to “Eat Bread and Salt and Speak the Truth.” The language of her poetry struggles with the burden of memories, labors to sort out self-definition from influence, as if to acknowledge her indebtedness but also to point to moments when she found herself set against her background, rising to action all her own, speaking in her own voice. We are lucky to have such granddaughters as poets.

Her grandmother, who “could hear snow touch chopped wood,” may also have passed on to her some of the extraordinary sensual quality of her images and metaphors. Forché’s poetry of cold weather is so alive to detail, so precise in analogy as to be hopeless of comparison. In “Burning the Tomato Worms,” for example, the poet describes

Stiff air, same color as a child’s veinRigid against the freezing curls...

(The entire section is 1175 words.)

Gathering the Tribes Bibliography

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Forché, Carolyn. “The Province of Radical Solitude.” In The Writer on Her Work: New Essays in New Territory, edited by Janet Sternburg. New York: W. W. Norton, 1991. Forché writes an autobiographical account of her experiences with language, focusing in particular on her awakening political consciousness and her restless search for a poetic identity.

Gardner, Joann. “The Mirrored Self: Images of Kinship in Carolyn Forché’s Poetry.” Women’s Studies 18, no. 4, (1991): 405-419. Gardner perceptively explores the themes of kinship and connection, mother figures, and sexuality in both Gathering the Tribes and Forché’s second volume of poetry, The Country Between Us (1981).

Lerman, Eleanor. “Tribal World of Carolyn Forché.” Book Forum: An International Transdisciplinary Quarterly 2 (Summer, 1976): 396-399. Lerman rejects the standard interpretation of Gathering the Tribes as poetry celebrating kinship and connection and offers an alternative reading; Lerman claims that Forché’s poetry reveals a “deep sorrow at the ending of a way of life.”

Ostriker, Alicia. “The Thieves of Language: Women Poets and Revisionist Mythmaking.” In The New Feminist Criticism: Essays on Women, Literature and Theory, edited by Elaine Showalter. New York: Pantheon Books, 1985. A landmark feminist essay dealing with women’s poetry, this article provides an excellent analysis of the feminist poets who aim to revise patriarchal language and traditional male-written myths.

Vertreace, Martha M. “Secrets Left to Tell: Creativity and Continuity in the Mother/Daughter Dyad.” In Mother Puzzles: Daughters and Mothers in Contemporary American Literature, edited by Mickey Pearlman. New York: Greenwood Press, 1989. While the portion of this essay that specifically deals with Forché’s poetry is not lengthy, Vertreace’s discussion of the poems pertaining to Anna and her spiritual legacy provides useful insights.