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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(The entire section is 845 words.)