Thomas and Beulah is a tour de force, a virtuoso performance by a major poet operating at the height of her powers. Thomas and Beulah takes the form of a two-part book of narrative poems that collectively tell the stories of Thomas (in “Mandolin,” the book’s first part) and his wife, Beulah (in “Canary in Bloom,” the second part). The parts are meant to be read sequentially and offer the male and female perspectives on some seventy years of private history. The two parts are followed by a “Chronology” that provides an imagined framework of the critical years in the married life of Thomas, a mandolin player and talented tenor, and Beulah, his proud and sometimes unforgiving spouse. The poems are a mixture of lush imagery involving food, musical instruments, cars, and weather, as well as quotations from songs and specimens of actual “Negro” speech. Although the poems form interlocking units, many of them (such as “The Zeppelin Factory” and “Pomade”) are self-sufficient and freestanding works of art that could be read individually, without reference to the book as a whole.
The story is a fairly simple one, even if the reader must fill in some gaps. Thomas takes a riverboat and leaves Tennessee. After two years of rambling and playing his mandolin, he settles in Akron, where there are many good jobs, and where Beulah’s family has already established itself after leaving Georgia. Thomas cuts a dashing figure, with...
(The entire section is 527 words.)