The poem is filled with wonderful examples of figurative language and other literary devices. For example, in the middle of the poem, there are a couple of similes and metaphors that should help the reader feel something for or at least empathize with the speaker. Forché does a great job making the scenes from ‘Taking Off My Clothes’ easily to visualize.
Explore Taking Off My Clothes
‘Taking Off My Clothes’ by Carolyn Forché is a thoughtful poem about a speaker’s failing relationship.
The speaker spends the lines of this piece analyzing the ways she’s made to act as a woman in this relationship, as well as the way the man acts in return. She feels regret and is questioning her choices. She gives so much to him but is faced with an emotionless wall in return. The poem concludes with the speaker admitting that she knows that her partner’s hands are lying to her when they touch her.
You can read the full poem here.
I take off my shirt, I show you.
on my legs with a knife, getting white.
In the first stanza of ‘Taking Off My Clothes,’ the speaker begins by describing herself taking her shirt off, exposing her underarms, and proving to someone, a male partner, that she has “shaved the hair out under [her] arms.” This is something that helps her conform to the beauty standards of contemporary society.
This, in combination with the hair she “scraped off,” her legs, allows her to fit in with what most people see as normal by today’s standards. The use of a “knife” and the word “scraped” show this process as a violent and difficult one, perhaps even painful. This creates an immediate atmosphere for the reader to contend with.
Stanzas Two and Three
My hair is the color of chopped maples.
My eyes dark as beans cooked in the south.
of names for the snow, for this, all of them quiet.
In the second stanza, the speaker notes that her hair is the “color of chopped maples.” This is again another way that the speaker combines female beauty with something violent. The word “chopped” ensures that the reader doesn’t envois the maple as a living, breathing, and growing thing. Instead, it’s been chopped down just like the hair was scraped off her legs.
The following lines provide readers with image-rich descriptions of the speaker’s hair and eyes. She uses a simile to compare her eyes to “beans cooked in the south” and a metaphor to depict her hair as the color of “chopped maples.” These evocative depictions make an interesting contrast with the rough language surrounding them, such as the mention of “blood cracks” in stanza three.
The poet’s language becomes more abstract in the next lines as she defines her skin as a “Ming bowl” and speaks about the snow. Readers may recognize the latter as a common symbol of purity, something that’s interesting when considered alongside the shaving images and the following depiction of the speaker in bed with her male partner.
Stanzas Four and Five
In the night I come to you and it seems a shame
You can’t explain this night, my face, your memory.
The next stanza is a couplet, meaning that it is only two lines long. Here, she describes how she comes to her partner’s bed, and it seems a “shame / to waste [her] deepest shudders on a wall of a man.” The metaphor comparing a man to a wall is an extremely creative one. She’s alluding to his emotional wall, one that’s impossible to penetrate. And, when she shows her own insecurities and other emotions, they’re wasted on his unfeeling exterior.
The poet returns to her more abstracted language, describing what the man she’s been speaking to the whole time “can’t” do. This includes explaining the night and “your memory.” Through these lines, it becomes clear that the speaker is considering the fact that she may be wasting her time on a man who doesn’t deserve her. There is a reference to “destruction” in the third line of this stanza. It may relate back to Forché’s personal history and the times she spent traveling, working in prisons and war-ravaged locations around the world. If the speaker is Forché herself, then it’s possible she was thinking about the differences in their experience and how he can’t understand her.
You want to know what I know?
The final two lines suggest that the speaker has far more insight into the man’s actions and intentions than he realizes. She knows when he touches her that his hands “are lying.” There is untruth in his actions, so much so that it has led the speaker to consider whether or not she’s wasting her time on him.
Structure and Form
‘Taking Off My Clothes’ by Carolyn Forché is a six-stanza poem that is divided into uneven stanzas. The first has four lines, the second and third have three, the fourth has two lines, the fifth: three, and the final stanza has only two lines. Sets of two lines are known as couplets, three lines are known as tercets, and a four-line stanza is a quatrain.
The poem is written in free verse. This means that the poem does not conform to a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. The lines are unrhymed as a whole, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t examples of half-rhyme and even internal rhyme within the text.
Throughout ‘Taking Off My Clothes’ the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Anaphora: can be seen when the poet repeats the same word or words at the beginning of lines. For example, “I” which starts the first three lines of stanza one and “You” which begins several lines in the rest of the poem.
- Imagery: occurs when the poet uses especially effective and interesting descriptions. For example, “I roll up my pants, I scraped off the hair / on my legs with a knife, getting white.”
- Enjambment: can be seen when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines two and three of stanza three. When a poet uses an enjambed line, they force the reader to go down to the next line to find out how the first phrase ends.
The purpose is to explore the nature of a romantic relationship and the way it makes the speaker behave/act. She has to make sacrifices, like stripping herself of her hair and make concessions to her partner’s lack of emotion. She’s led to believe that she’s wasting her time with him.
The tone in this poem is exacting and descriptive. The speaker knows what she’s feeling, and she doesn’t hedge her bet as she deconstructs the relationship she’s in. She also uses quite descriptive language, allowing the reader to get a good picture of her and her partner.
The themes in this poem are love and control. The speaker is in a relationship that certainly uses the latter and has much less of the former. She’s faced with an emotionless wall of a man in bed and knows that he doesn’t understand anything.
The meaning is that it’s necessary to deconstruct one’s relationship and consider its pieces, as well as what it makes you do, to understand if it’s worth being in. The poet uses fairly abstract language to analyze a subject that’s quite common in everyday life.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Taking Off My Clothes’ should also consider reading some other Carolyn Forché poems. For example:
- ‘The Colonel’ – an important piece that sheds light on the atrocities committed in the late 1970s in El Salvador.
Some other related poems include:
- ‘Valentine’ by Owen Sheers – uses flashbacks of specific memories to document the deteriorating relationship Sheers has with his lover.
- ‘Love Letter (Clouds)’ by Sarah Manguso – explores the end of relationships, and how it can often seem like you’ve wasted your time.