Last Updated September 5, 2023.
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 slippedunder, dissolvedin 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 swollenunder the backyard tree
In "The Stroke" Thomas nearly dies, and his friend, Lem, is again a character in his story.
Lem's knucklestapping his chestin passing
Thomas feels pain from the loss of his friend, and Dove's description is visceral, both beautiful and tragic.
There was a needlein his head but nothingfit through it. Sound quiveredlike a rope stretched clearto 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 menhalloo past them on Route 231."You and your South!" she shoutsabove 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 themthat the Werner admitted Negro childrento be intelligent, though brisknessclouded over at puberty, bringingindirection 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 see Thomas through a different light than that which he presented himself. Dove aims to show that there are two sides to every story and two people in every marriage. When Thomas describes the beginnings of their relationship in "Courtship," he can't believe how well their date is going.
Then the parlor festoonedlike a ship and Thomastwirling his hat in his handswondering how did I get here.
When we hear from Beulah in "Courtship, Diligence," her take on the date is less rosy.
Cigar-box music!She'd much prefer a pianolaand scent in a sky-colored flask.Not that scarf, bright as butter.Not his hand, cool as dimes.
Beulah dreams of all the places her life could...
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have taken her, if not into Thomas's life, as his wife and mother of their children. In "The Great Palaces of Versailles," Beulah imagines the lavish life of ladies in a French court, which she once read about in a book.
how French ladies at court would tucktheir fans in a sleeveand walk in the gardens for air. Swayingamong lilies, lifting shy layers of silk.
"Daystar," a favorite of many fans of the anthology, paints a rare moment of a break from being a mother. She had this beautiful hour while the children were napping and Thomas was a work in which she could stop being a wife and stop being a mother and just be.
. . . Laterthat night when Thomas rolled over and lurched into her, she would open her eyesand think of the place that was hersfor an hour—where she was nothing,pure nothing, in the middle of the day.