Dove's sequence of poems based upon the lives of her maternal grandparents won her the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1987, and was only her third book. In direct but evocative concrete detail, the poems tell the story of the courage amidst the hardship and racial injustice of two of the many blacks among those who traveled from the south to the industrial north for work in the early and mid-century, in this case to the tire city of Akron, Ohio. Dove has said that one concern was to show the complexity of the inner lives of the poor. In the final pages of the book a chronology sets out the main events of the lives of Thomas and Beulah alongside a chronology of the major public events of the time - events as localized as an airship accident at the Goodyear tire factory, and as national as the 1963 Civil Rights march on Washington. The Civil Rights movement promised to radically change the opportunities for Beulah's children and grandchildren, but it leaves the by then widowed Beulah feeling that such changes have little to do with her sense of her self, a self composed of her memories and those of her dead husband - memories that, as passed on to the poet's mother, make for the foundation narrative, and the telling detail of the individual poems.
Thomas and Beulah is divided into two sections, devoted respectively to the point of view of the husband and the wife. The book is dedicated to Dove's mother, Elvira Elizabeth. The dedication page details the structure of the book: "These poems tell two sides of a story and are meant to be read in sequence." The first section, "Mandolin," tells the story of Thomas, from his journey with best friend Lem up the Mississippi river to look for work in the north, to Thomas's death from a stroke. The first poem, "The Event," recounts Lem's death by drowning on the riverboat trip north, when Thomas dares him to swim across to an island in the river to gather chestnuts. The two were childhood friends, as later poems that recount Thomas's memories of his earlier life make clear, and throughout "Mandolin" he is haunted by the guilt of his role in his friend's death. The two were song-and-dance men on the riverboats, and the mandolin that titles the first part of the sequence follows Thomas like the guilt, a recurring motif in a number of the poems. Dove has said that this story of Lem's death, never told to her by her grandfather, was the starting point of the book - as she tried to understand how her grandfather could live with such guilt, and what the relationship could be between the young man traveling the riverboats and the older, kindly figure she came to know in her childhood.
Thomas arrived in Akron, the chronology tells us, in 1921. A number of poems describe his continuing pain, his determination, and poverty - in one poem, "Straw Hat," sharing a bed in shifts with two other men - and his vague romantic hopes. "Courtship" pictures his wooing of an initially distant Beulah, as he gives her his yellow scarf (her perspective appears later in "Courtship, Diligence") and a gnat flies into his eye and she thinks he is crying and is thus softened towards him. Such are the small chance events that change lives, Dove has said. In many poems in the book, the individual voices play an important role in the narrative and characterizations. Even though the speech is often in stock phrases, the phrases are spoken with passion and given an individuality by the context supplied in the poem: "Fine evening may I have / the pleasure . . ." is how "Courtship" begins. Other poems give glimpses of Beulah's voice ("Nothing nastier than a white person!" thinks a frustrated Beulah in "The Great Palaces of Versailles"), and other voices include Lem's, those of the later grandchildren, and even Death's. Sometimes the voices are more general - songs and rhymes remembered from childhood that punctuate the experience of the present. Recurring habits play a similar role in piecing together the picture of shared lives -Thomas's love of fishing, and a routine of moviegoing being two examples.
Later poems in "Mandolin" record the milestones of a marriage, tinged with the ever-present memories of Lem's death, one reminder being the musical instrument hanging on the wall; the birth of a child, purchasing a car, the impact of the Depression. The 1929 disaster of the airship Akron is a backdrop to poems from both parts of the sequence, Thomas's and Beulah's. Later in the marriage Beulah's canary comes to signify a distance Thomas feels from her emotionally, and the bird provides the title of her own sequence. With the coming of war employment in the aircraft industry is plentiful, one of the couple's daughters marries a soldier, and - in an event that then figures in a later poem - Thomas purchases in a "basement rummage sale" 24 volumes of a 25-volume Werner's Encyclopedia. Entries missing because the missing volume is the last one are characteristic of the historical gaps that a sequence like Thomas and Beulah seeks to fill: "no zebras" (one of nature's harmonious patterns of parallel black and white), "no Virginia,"
with its central role in slavery, and "no wars." In "Roast Possum" Thomas describes trapping and eating the animal to his enthralled grandchildren, but at one point:
He could have gone on to tell them that the Werner admitted Negro children to be intelligent, though briskness clouded over at puberty, bringing indirection and laziness.
In the first of the final three poems of "Mandolin" Thomas has his first stroke (with "Lem's knuckles tapping his chest in passing"). Then, forced to be less active and thrown back further on memory he recalls his cleaning job during the Depression. Thomas's final stroke, while driving his car to fill a prescription, is imagined in telling detail, but is simultaneously his actual death "at the wheel," and, with the rain outside, a death that parallels Lem's in the river. "Thomas at the Wheel" begins:
This, then, the river he had to swim.
Through the wipers the drugstore shouted, lit up like a casino, neon script leering from the shuddering asphalt.
Then the glass doors flew apart and a man walked out to the curb to light a cigarette. Thomas thought the sky was emptying itself as fast as his chest was filling with water.
"Canary in Bloom" is the title of Beulah's sequence. The 21 poems begin with her childhood, her mother taking in washing and her father coming home drunk and threateningly violent. The second poem, "Magic," establishes a recurring dream of Beulah's that is never realized, to go to Paris, and it gives particular resonance to the later "The Great Palaces of Versailles." In her job in a dress shop ironing alterations, she is forced to stay in the back because of her color, and the ironing process releases the stale odor of "Evening of Paris" perfume from the clothes. As she irons Beulah imagines the finery of the eighteenth-century French royal court. Another later poem, from the time of Thomas's post-stroke convalescence, reveals that "Years ago he had promised to take her to Chicago" - another dream apparently unfulfilled.
Courtship, marriage, memories of earlier romantic hopes fill out earlier poems in her sequence. In the Depression she sometimes helps feed those passing through looking for work, or just trying to survive. The wonder of pregnancy and motherhood, her ballooning body paralleled to the Goodyear airship, are the subject of "Weathering Out" and "Motherhood." But this family life is no more sentimentalized than any other part of the narrative in the book. The canary comes to play a central part in bringing beauty and pleasure into Beulah's life. And in "Daystar" she relishes at night the hour of afternoon quiet she found while her youngest child slept:
Later that night when Thomas rolled over and lurched into her, she would open her eyes and think of the place that was hers for an hour - where she was nothing, pure nothing, in the middle of the day.
Private dreams and memories increasingly make up the texture of Beulah's life in the poems that follow, although she runs the house, takes care of her ailing husband, and sees her children off on their own lives with little complaint. Invited to an Independence Day picnic in 1964 by her daughters, she thinks of the now dead Thomas, of her own and Thomas's childhoods, and is "scared" when told by daughter Joanna "Mother, we're Afro-Americans now!" anxiously wondering "What did she know about Africa?" The previous August she had watched the march on Washington on television with similar fear. In the first of the last two poems she remembers the dead Thomas, and in the final poem - one of the finest in the sequence -Beulah, now bedridden and with glaucoma - hears and sees the transformations of a twirling ballerina on a music box, her world now much more limited, but her imaginative response to experience still richly detailed in the poem.
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