“I think if Beulah was a star, she’d want to be the sun”
—Sandra Heska King, commenting on “Daystar”
In May, I heard Rita Dove interviewed by Derek McGinty on The Diane Rehm Show, and she read her poem “Daystar.” From that moment I decided her collection Thomas and Beulah, in which that poem is featured, would be the secondary text for a class I was preparing to teach, The Joyful Partnership of Poetry and Memoir.
Thomas and Beulah is a collection of 44 poems — half from Thomas’s perspective and half from Beulah’s. Dove wrote the poems about her grandparents, who came to Ohio during the Great Migration of blacks from the south to the north during the early 20th century. She referred to the poems as pearls on a necklace, in which each poem stands on its own but together they form something greater. It was a perfect choice for the class.
Except for one thing. Was I qualified to teach these poems? I’m a white woman. I’ve never even been to Ohio. What did I know about the lives of Thomas and Beulah?
Only what I was given: poems and a chronology of major events in their lives, listed in the back of the books. The poems tell a story of two ordinary people that no historian would have noticed, but in the hands of a poet they became Every Man, Every Woman, Every Marriage.
In “Daystar, ” Beulah “lugged a chair behind the garage / to sit out the children’s naps.” I remember going outside during such precious hours. I didn’t daydream, like Beulah. I would have been writing. And I think in a different time, maybe in a different century, Beulah would have been a poet.
Rita Dove begins the collection with this note: “These poems tell two sides of a story and are meant to be read in sequence, ” and that’s how we read them in our workshop, four at a time. We all liked Thomas, the musician, the man haunted by the death of his best friend, Lem. It was hard to switch to Beulah’s poems and realize maybe we didn’t know as much about Thomas as we thought we did.
One reason I chose the collection was because it showed how sometimes the moments that change us most aren’t the ones that make the news. Only a poet knows that quitting the A.M.E. church’s gospel choir is worthy of its own poem.
The collection includes mentions of a lynch mob and a cross burning and an encounter with a carload of white men who run Thomas and Beulah off the road and “halloo past them on Route 231, ” but those horrific events are not the point. The point is what Thomas and Beulah did in response.
They built a life together. A life with four daughters, as Thomas muses in “Compendium”: “Girl girl / girl girl.” It is not until his grandson Malcolm is born, “little / Red Delicious, ” that Thomas, a man of deep emotion, can return to his “invented embellishments, ” the kind that wooed a proper woman like Beulah, who wore a pleated skirt. And Beulah? She escapes into her head. She dreams about an old boyfriend, relives old nightmares, imagines a smokestack laying on its side and stopping in front of her patent leather shoes. “She can think up a twilight, ” the poem “Obedience” tells us, “but she would never create such puny stars. / The house, shut up like a pocket watch, / those tight hearts breathing inside — / she could never invent them.” And this life together, it was a good one. As Beulah tells Thomas near the end of his life in “Company”: “listen: we were good, / though we never believed it.”
Thomas dies in 1963, before the March on Washington. In “Wingfoot Lake, ” set a year later, when Beulah’s daughter announces, “Mother, we’re Afro-Americans now!” Beulah thinks to herself, about herself, “What did she know about Africa? / … Where she came from / was the past.” A past where Beulah, who can imagine just about anything, can’t imagine an America that isn’t segregated, “white families on one side and them / on the other, unpacking the same / squeeze bottles of Heinz, the same / waxy beef patties and Salem potato chip bags.”
As Beulah rejects the designation of “Afro-American, ” we as readers felt uncomfortable with “Negro, ” which appears in some of the poems. The n-word is there too, used between Thomas and Beulah while buying a car. Sometimes we would have a question about a reference in a poem. We’d ask each other something along the lines of, Am I not getting this because I’m white?
When we make it a point to seek out poems by poets of ethnicities or cultures or backgrounds other than our own, there are bound to be some awkward moments. In all, I spent about six months with Thomas and Beulah — three while preparing the workshop and another three while teaching it. I felt like I was just starting to get to know them when, oops, the class was over, but I wasn’t done. There was more I wanted to understand. So I kept at it.
Over Christmas, I read Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer-prize winning novel Beloved, a ghost story set 18 years after the Civil War. Then two days after that I saw the movie Fences, the adaptation of August Wilson’s play that won a Pulitzer and several Tony awards. Suddenly the 100 years between 1850s slavery in Sweet Home and 1950s black family life in the industrial Midwest didn’t seem like a long time at all. Thomas and Beulah are the literary descendants of Paul D and Sethe, the virtual neighbors of Troy and Rose Maxson. They are somehow universal and also very specific.
Knowing the differences between us better than when I began this journey, I still come back to “Daystar, ” that first poem I encountered from the collection. When I was a mother of young children, when naptime came, I wanted the same thing Beulah did: “the place that was hers / for an hour — where / she was nothing, / pure nothing, in the middle of the day.” And it seemed this workshop of white women, all of us mothers, could identify at least with that.
She wanted a little room for thinking:
but she saw diapers steaming on the line,
a doll slumped behind the door.
So she lugged a chair behind the garage
to sit out the children’s naps.
Sometimes there were things to watch —
the pinched armor of a vanished cricket,
a floating maple leaf. Other days
she stared until she was assured
when she closed her eyes
she’d see only her own vivid blood.
She had an hour, at best, before Liza appeared
pouting from the top of the stairs.
And just what was mother doing
out back with the field mice? Why,
building a palace. 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.
Some comments from The Joyful Partnership of Poetry and Memoir workshop participants:
Sharon Gibbs: She dreams A LOT!
Sandra Heska King: In “Daystar, ” she closed her eyes sometimes out back … but when Thomas lurched into her, she would open her eyes and think of her place…
Marilyn Yocum: “Daystar” is my favorite poem thus far. Am I jumping ahead?
Sharon Gibbs: That word lurched caught me immediately. This abrupt movement. Maybe vulgar to her.
Sandra Heska King: A reminder of her past?
Marilyn Yocum: I liked “Daystar” because she found her little island.
Laura Brown: That she made a special place out of absence?
Sally Clark: I liked “Daystar, ” too, maybe I could identify with it.
Sharon Gibbs: Yes, I loved “Daystar, ” too. The word steam is used a couple different times in this set of poems. I’m thinking, steam meanders, rises in the air and out of sight. She may have felt this way.
Sally Clark: Megan, I identified with the need to have just a few moments to herself. I used to lay my head down on my desk at work, the business checkbook for a pillow, in a busy restaurant, with customers, waitresses, cooks all around me and just try to breathe for a few minutes. The bathroom was always a welcome island, too. And no, her children will never understand until they are grown.
“Megan Willome’s The Joy of Poetry is not a long book, but it took me longer to read than I expected, because I kept stopping to savor poems and passages, to make note of books mentioned, and to compare Willome’s journey into poetry to my own. The book is many things. An unpretentious, funny, and poignant memoir. A defense of poetry, a response to literature that has touched her life, and a manual on how to write poetry. It’s also the story of a daughter who loses her mother to cancer. The author links these things into a narrative much like that of a novel. I loved this book. As soon as I finished, I began reading it again.”
—David Lee Garrison, author of Playing Bach in the D. C. Metro