The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Burning the Tomato Worms” is a long poem of thirteen stanzas in free verse, the key poem among seven others in the section of Carolyn Forché’s Gathering the Tribes that bears the same name. At first, the poem seems not to be about the event named in its title. Stanza 5 finally mentions burning the tomato worms, an act that is transformed in stanza 10, when the tomatoes and their worms are brought in for shelter from an early frost. The symbolic significance of the round, red tomatoes and the cylindrical worms that destroy them becomes clear by the end of the poem.

The epigraph for the poem offers a suggestion for interpreting it. The epigraph speaks of the cycles of creation and destruction, a cycle that is readily apparent in tending crops and, in the poem, is applied to human life. Moreover, the epigraph gives the injunction that poetry must be an attempt to “know” and name and order these important patterns of life, that it must strive to capture the roots of birth and death and to tell people what to do in the interim between them.

In the first stanza, the narrator is stimulated by the sights and feelings of autumn into remembering her grandmother. Although the stanza is brief, only seven lines, it introduces the reader to several important aspects of the poem. The dark spines of the pine trees seem to be phallic, an image of masculinity. In contrast, the clouds (perhaps billowy and rounded), the fertility of the plowed ground, and the bulging beaks of the pelicans as they bring food to their young suggest femininity. The narrator is careful to place this scene in the United States. The memory comes during a transitional time, an interim, “Between apples and the first snow.” All of this suggests that the poem will reenact a rite of passage for the narrator: from naïve and innocent childhood to the age-old knowledge of womanhood and a kinship with her female ancestor. She will attain the knowledge of creation but also of pain, suffering, and loss.

As the memory of her grandmother becomes more focused, the narrator projects into the circumstances of her own conception and birth by imagining a time prior to her own...

(The entire section is 890 words.)