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poem is on narrow window to the right of the door

poem is on narrow window to the right of the door

 

The Morning Baking

by Carolyn Forche

 

Grandma, come back, I forgot

How much lard for these rolls

 

Think you can put yourself in the ground

Like plain potatoes and grow in Ohio?

I am damn sick of getting fat like you

 

Think you can lie through your Slovak?

Tell filthy stories about the blood sausage?

Pish-pish nights at the virgin in Detroit?

 

I blame your raising me up for my Slav tongue

You beat me up out back, taught me to dance

 

I’ll tell you I don’t remember any kind of bread

Your wavy loaves of flesh

Stink through my sleep

The stars on your silk robes

 

But I’m glad I’ll look when I’m old

Like a gypsy dusha hauling milk

 

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Bread, sausage, potatoes, milk.  There’s a meal in Carolyn Forche’s “Morning Baking” and no wonder.  Food connects us to family history in a way old photographs can’t.  The touchstones of ethnic heritage–language, accent, music, dress, beliefs—may fade by second generation, but food remains, primal and pleasurable, inviting us to meet up with the ancestors.

 

Not that the poet’s interactions with her grandmother are all tea and crumpets, sweetness and light.  Family feeling is never simple. Forché wavers between disgust and longing, anger and love, feelings of abandonment and feelings of connection.  Even though she spends much of the poem accusing and attacking her grandmother, her admiration for the old woman balances out the anger.  Grandma may have beat her up in the back of the house, but Grandma also taught her to dance.

 

With the same mix of revulsion and pleasure, the poet watches her body change into her grandmother’s.  Grandma was what poet Grace Paley called “a woman in the old style.”  In Paley’s poem “Here,” the postmenopausal body pleases her to a degree uncommon in Western culture:

 

at last a woman

in the old style sitting

stout thighs apart under

a big skirt grandchild sliding

on off my lap a pleasant

summer perspiration

 

Forche’s initial reaction to such stoutness is more typical.  She’s “damn sick” of growing into a body she characterizes as potato-like, doughy, full of lard and yeasty smells.  But like everything else about Grandma, her body is a mixed bag. Far from losing her sexuality as she grew old and fat, Grandma was sensual in her beautiful silk robe, lusty with her raunchy jokes.

 

But it’s the strength of Grandma’s body, not the grossness of it or the sex of it, that comforts the poet and ends the poem:

 

But I’m glad I’ll look when I’m old

Like a gypsy dusha hauling milk

 

This ending sends me back to the beginning.  Notice that Grandma wasn’t “put in the ground”; she put herself in the ground, fierce and self-determining to the end.  The poet will walk the same path. The little girl voice who called out,  “Grandma, come back,” will become the grandmother she grieves for.

 

The poem raises (and there’s lots of raising and rising here) questions I can’t answer. Why does she blame Grandma for her Slav tongue, that is, why is it bad to have a Slav tongue? Why does she tell Grandma she can’t remember any bread when she clearly does? What are nights at the virgin in Detroit?  Pish-pish? But the longer I write about poetry, the more comfortable I am with not knowing all the answers. I understand enough. And that’s enough.

 

Carolyn Forché was born to a family of seven children in 1950 in Detroit, not far from the bakery where I put her poem. Knudsen’s Bakery in North Rosedale Park has been around since 1923, so perhaps the Forché family came here for a special treat, or at very least, drove past.  (Knudsen’s, by the way, has the best donuts I’ve ever had since I moved to Michigan from Maryland.  Light and full of air, they don’t sit like rocks in your stomach.  Great coffee cake too.)

 

Her father was a tool and die maker and her mother a journalist.  The grandmother in the poem, her father’s mother, lived with the family, but would disappear for weeks at a time without explanation.  When Forché was six, the family moved to a more rural area (now the Detroit suburb of Farmington Hills) so that her father could have land for gardening.

 

Forché graduated from Michigan State and got her MFA from Bowling Green. After publishing her first book of poems at age 24, Forché went to El Salvador where she worked with Archbishop Oscar Romero, documenting human rights abuses.  The experience changed her poetry and her life.  Since then she has published widely, including three additional books of poetry, several translations, and an anthology, Against Forgetting, of poets who have witnessed the political horrors of war, prison, and torture.

 

She has received multiple awards for her poetry and for her work as a human rights activist.  She teaches at Georgetown University and lives in Bethesda, Maryland, my hometown, and once home to Montgomery Donuts, which sadly no longer bakes their glorious donuts.

 

 

 

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