Rita Dove’s Thomas and Beulah is a volume of poetry unlike any other. It is poetry that reveals; it tells a story, narrates the lives of Thomas and Beulah in astutely chosen words and carefully crafted images. Her words assault you kindly and gently. She takes you by the hand and walks you through history, not decorating or defaming, but presenting it as it was and as it felt. Like Toni Morrison, her words have a viscosity, a richness, and depth unlike any other; they are layered with meaning, one word, one image two, three, four-fold with meaning and interpretation. Dove paints with her words. She has the uncanny ability to describe a moment, an emotion exactly as one would experience it, but could never find the words to express it. The “Mandolin” and the “Canary in Bloom” both one and the same: Thomas and Beulah, tangible and intangible.
The dreams and freedom of men are represented by tangibles. Thomas has his mandolin, his freedom in his hands; tangible and wholly his to create or destroy at will. Music, the blues set him free, but they also drew upon him like the power of the Sirens, women. The mandolin provided not only freedom, but a gift, a magical and musing power.
The dreams and freedom of women are represented by intangibles. Dreams, freedom are like the canary’s song, intangible and not wholly theirs; secret but universal. The images of Beulah operating in the mundane tasks of “Taking in the Wash” and “Dusting” are ripe with imaginative intensity. These are not simply chores, but time for reflection, for contemplation, for dreams; where she was nothing more than that time, that chair and those thoughts.
At those moments she was free to travel to Paris, to roam the halls of Versailles.
The juxtaposition of “Mandolin” and “Canary in Bloom” is like the convergence of two opposing elements. Thomas beset by images of blue, images of the river and the sea is of water. Beset by images of forging steel and metal is of fire. Beulah beset by images of yellow, images of nature and dust is of earth. Beset by images of birds and the sky is of air. These two combine to create a balance. Though harmony is achieved, there is still something more, a commonality between the two, but a divergence as well; freedom, more specifically their modes of freedom. Thomas is freed through each note plucked upon the strings of his mandolin. His manhood justified by work and family. Beulah is freed through each moment of silence she can contain; freed through fantasy. Her femininity justified by chores and family. Defined by history and household, these two know of love and loss. Their present condition is not separate of their past. They are whole within the realm of one another, but defined by different sets of circumstance.