Carolyn Forché

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How can I do a close reading of "Taking Off My Clothes" by Caroline Forche?

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A close reading of a text is the preparation for a deeper, more extensive analysis of the text. The two central bascis of close reading are (1) observation of the details of the text and (2) original interpretation based upon the data acquired in the careful observation of detail.

What you will observe and annotate the text for: You will observe interesting, significant or unusual usages of literary techniques, like symbols; literary elements, like diction and structure; rhetorical devices, like patterns of repetition and the use of hyperbaton (changes to word order); and allusions including cultural, classical, and historical.

You will observe the patterns and associations that emerge from within the text. For example, if you observe a frequent use of the word "lost" in a text, you will note how many characters and things are lost or have lost qualities. Observations like these lend importance to your data when you compile it in the form of your original interpretation.

Some specifics to observe are:

  • mood
  • contradictions between devices (like an angry narratorial tone but a cheerful interior story mood)
  • vocabulary
  • diction
  • syntactic characteristics (e.g., simple or complex sentences)
  • word play (like Shakespeare's play on words with multiple meanings)
  • imagery
  • paradoxes
  • characters who have or do not have a voice (e.g., servants, racial minorities, women, children etc)
  • point of view
  • metaphors
  • symbols

How does this apply to Forche's poem? Let's consider one stanza as an example of close reading application.

My hair is the color of chopped maples.   
My eyes dark as beans cooked in the south.   
(Coal fields in the moon on torn-up hills)

In this stanza, the first thing I observe is that the third line, a parenthetical, seems to be random and have no connection or relationship to the other lines. After repeated contemplations, I realize it might be a second metaphor for what the persona's eyes are like: they are like coal fields atop a strip mined hill under the palely illuminating light of the moon. The next thing I've noticed, of course, is that the persona's eyes are described by a simile (simile: a type of metaphor that employs the words "like" or "as" or a few other similar relationship words) in the second line. The simile describes how dark her eyes are while the "moon" metaphor tells that they are dimly illuminated from within; they lack a radiant shine. These metaphors conflict with each other because the second is inset as a symbolically whispered secret, which adds to the persona's characterization. Another thing I notice is the pattern of and opposition to repetition in the three lines represented by the anaphora of "My" (anaphora: repetition at the beginning of a clause).

Other things for you to observe in these lines are the nature of the metaphor in the first line; the vocabulary; the images evoked; the characterization developed from descriptions of only the persona's hair and eyes. In the end, you will consider how the data from your careful observations leads you to an interpretation of the short work or passage you have closely read.

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