Gathering the Tribes Analysis
by Carolyn Forche

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Gathering the Tribes Analysis

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Forché’s poetic technique incorporates recurrent patterns of symbols throughout the volume, and she uses repetition to establish consistency in Gathering the Tribes. Perhaps the most persistent symbol in the book is whiteness: White is represented by snow, baking flour, the color of the poet’s skin, and other images. Yet, whereas white has always been a symbol for women, particularly in regard to purity and virginity, Forché takes her symbolic use of white from other cultures. In countries such as Mexico, white traditionally symbolizes death. Therefore, in “Burning the Tomato Worms,” the line that states “Cake flour clung to her face” in reference to Anna can be read as a foreshadowing of her death. The “muslin snow” in “What It Cost” symbolizes the death of the land for refugees who must leave it. In “Mountain Abbey, Surrounded by Elk Horns,” white cattle slated for slaughter serve as symbols of faith for the abbey’s bread-maker. “Your eyes are snowy,” the poet writes in “Taproot,” indicating that the boy she had once known is now dead to her. Yet death is never a finality in Forché’s poetry; for example, even though Anna is dead, “Burning the Tomato Worms” indicates that she is “big under the ground,” allowing for the possibility of Anna’s rebirth.

Many of the symbolic purification and initiation rituals in Gathering the Tribes are spiritual ceremonies of connection and regeneration. Anna’s religious rites in “Burning the Tomato Worms” serve to establish a “sacred and eternal” bond with her granddaughter; as Forché writes, “It was a timeless, timeless thing” that even death cannot destroy. Only the poet’s furtive sexual initiation temporarily severs the kinship of grandmother and granddaughter. Following Anna’s death, the poet seeks her presence in history, in the land, and in people she meets: Teles Goodmorning in “Goodmorning and the White Girl,” Rosita in “Mientras Dure Vida, Sobra el Tiempo,” and Jacynthe in “Kalaloch.” In order to complete the cycle of the volume’s poetry and restore her bond with Anna, the poet must purify herself from degradation and alienation.

In “Taproot,” the boy’s lust is awakened when he observes “a young monk” fondling the breasts of a statue, and the poet realizes that to satisfy him she must become the statue’s physical manifestation. The woman in “Taking Off My Clothes” has desecrated her own body in order to please her sexual partner. In “That Is Their Fault,” sexual release is only possible for the young girl masturbating herself to sleep by imagining acts of humiliation and violence. “Year at Mudstraw” describes the frustrating loneliness of a woman sexually rejected by her husband after she has given birth. The erotic poem “Kalaloch,” conversely, is a sensuous celebration of women’s bodies. Forché endows this poem with lush images of natural plenty that ironically contrast with the arid and violent imagery of her heterosexual poetry.

Read as a whole, Gathering the Tribes is a survival guide. The poetry urges the reader to recognize and embrace crucial common goals while it warns against self-destructive impulses to ignore history and the rhythms of nature. Mutuality is possible, Forché proclaims, once essential identifications are established among the tribes.