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.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.