The Poem

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 890

“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.

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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 existence. She divides the society before her birth into communities of men and communities of women, each with their own work to do and images that represent them. Most notable are the climatic contrasts: the frozen blood that thaws at her conception, for example.

She pictures her grandmother in her native Uzbek and imagines her daily occupations. Most of the images surrounding her grandmother evoke sustenance and nurturance; yet, the implication is that the tasks of farm life and motherhood took her away from a life of creativity. At the end of stanza 3, the grandmother beckons to the narrator to join her in a cyclic ritual, and the narrator feels connected, linked to both womanhood and her personal history, despite the differences in the two women’s ages and experience.

It is unclear as to where her grandmother leads her; blood reappears here in the footprints pointing away from the house—away from domestic chores and responsibilities. That blood could be creative or destructive; the grandmother seems ready for an escape, a quick getaway. Perhaps she is the victim of a pogrom, or perhaps she is merely running away from the drudgery of being a farm wife.

Stanzas 5 through 10 offer a different cycle, beginning and ending with the tomato worms. Now, more realistically, the narrator paints pictures in the life of her grandmother: her appearance, her knowledge, her lifestyle. Interspersed are comments spoken by the grandmother herself, phrases etched in a young girl’s memory but now recalled only in fragments. In all these memories is a sense of loss, of an opportunity that passes all too quickly, leaving one’s life already determined and perhaps wasted. All the images used to describe the grandmother are closely allied with the natural world and with religion. The child can re-create the image of the grandmother and walk in her footsteps but with a difference of removal through space and time.

In stanza 5, the narrator burns tomato worms and strings useless gourds. Symbolically, she destroys the male principle and finds her own fertility, or productivity, equally destitute. In stanza 10, the tomatoes, complete with their worms, are brought into the home and retained and accepted rather than destroyed—salvaged at the last minute from the destruction of the frost. Even though the narrator can imaginatively experience the pain of achieving sexual maturity through the life of her grandmother and its expansion to archetypal dimensions, she cannot avoid the experience herself, and her time has arrived. The scene is set, but there is a confusion as to its nature: It can be both destructive and creative. Nature seems to encourage her boldness, offering her examples at every turn. She enacts her rite of sexual passage in stanza 12.

Stanza 13 gives a glimpse of the narrator after becoming a woman. Ironically, the passage has not brought her clarity of vision but rather reveals that the answers are simply in the living. Her grandmother had her own truth and keeps it to herself; the narrator must also find her own answers and cope with the pain of existence on her own.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 376

The thirteen sections of the poem intermix memorial reconstruction of the grandmother’s life, the actual voice of the grandmother, and the narrator’s personal history revolving around the hardships and rhythms of a life linked to the land.

The poem attains unity through alliteration and assonance. Although it does not rhyme, the repetition of consonant and vowel sounds lends the poem an air of mystery and remoteness, as if it were an incantation.

This remoteness takes the poem away from the specific details of the narrator’s life and memory of her grandmother and renders it archetypal, that is, an enduring and endlessly recurring pattern of human behavior. All the images and symbols of the poem align themselves along poles of masculinity and femininity. For the male principle, there are the tomato worms, logs, bonfires, cucumbers, gladioli, daggers, and knives; for the female, there are the gourds, tomatoes, apples, beads, candles and the worship of the Virgin Mary, hearts, and the moon.

The recurring image of blood points to the ambivalence that the poem retains from beginning to end. In ancient cultures, the wedding sheets were hung on the clothesline the day after the marriage to show the entire community by means of the bloodstains that the bride was a virgin and that the union had been consummated. Nature teaches the necessity of fertility and renewal, yet blood also appears at destruction, as when animals dying in traps bleed on the snow. Humankind seems to be the agent of destruction indicated by the blood, yet humans are also necessary partners in the renewal of life.

The central section of the poem employs the trope called metonymy, which is the use of a crucial part of something to represent the whole. The hands of the grandmother—both their potential and the actual work that they do—tell her entire story. Other female images reinforce the feeling of magic and transformation traditionally associated with women: worship of the moon, tending to growth and sustenance, the mysteries of birth. Yet, if procreation is a natural and necessary process, it is hard to account for pain in the world. Interestingly, the female initiate feels like an animal of prey, as suggested by the analogy to the rabbit in stanza 11.

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Themes