Last Updated on September 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 733
Thomas and Beulah is a story told in two parts—the first centered on Thomas and the second on Beulah. Rita Dove tells an inclusive story over the course of the anthology while each poem also stands on its own. Of the work, Dove said:
I was consciously trying to put a narrative into short lyric poems—stringing the lyric moments one after the other like beads on a necklace; I was working the lyric moment against the narrative impulse, so that they would counterpoint each other.
As the collection of poems begins, we're introduced to Thomas, and see things from his perspective. In "The Event," the first poem about Thomas, we learn that his best friend, Lem, has died, drowning in the water during what was initially a lighthearted trip on the boat.
the island slipped
in the thickening stream.
While Lem's death occurs at the very start of the anthology, he is an ever-present part of Thomas's psyche. He feels, remembers, and communes with Lem on various occasions. In "The Charm," Thomas dreams of Lem in a way that is sad and slightly disturbing, both picturing him as he died but also as if he's present.
naked and swollen
under the backyard tree
In "The Stroke" Thomas nearly dies, and his friend, Lem, is again a character in his story.
tapping his chest
Thomas feels pain from the loss of his friend, and Dove's description is visceral, both beautiful and tragic.
There was a needle
in his head but nothing
fit through it. Sound quivered
like a rope stretched clear
to land, tensed and brimming,
a man gurgling air.
Thomas and Beulah journey north to settle in what they're hoping are freer lands. They live in a time of change for civil rights, and Dove portrays their journey through small moments. Thomas and Beulah take a trip in "Nothing Down" in which their car falters and they are forced to stop on the side of the road.
[a] carload of white men
halloo past them on Route 231.
"You and your South!" she shouts
above the radiator hiss
Years later, Thomas spends some time with his grandchildren, reading to them from an encyclopedia published years before they were born. He picks and chooses which passages to share, mindful that he can paint whatever picture of life he wants for those children. He mulls over his options, deciding not to show them just how bigoted the writer of Werner Encyclopedia was when penning the book.
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.
Beulah, for her part, is a strong woman who wants nothing as much as happiness in her marriage, and for her children and grandchildren. When we first meet her, it's jarring to...
(The entire section contains 733 words.)
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