Thomas and Beulah is a book of poems which is actually a sequence of poems - a double sequence. These poems tell the story of a marriage - two African-Americans who came to age during the 20th Century. Thomas gets work in the rubber factories of Akron, Ohio which were exploding so rapidly that they did not have time to build enough sleeping space for the men so they slept in shifts just as they worked in shifts.

Straw Hat & Dusting

Straw Hat

In the city, under the saw-toothed leaves of an oak
overlooking the tracks, he sits out
the last minutes before dawn, lucky
to sleep third shift. Years before
he was anything, he lay on
so many kinds of grass, under stars,
the moon’s bald eye opposing.

He used to sleep like a glass of water
held up in the hand of a very young girl.
Then he learned he wasn’t perfect, that
no one was perfect. So he made his way
North under the bland roof of a tent
too small for even his lean body.

The mattress ticking he shares in the work barracks
is brown and smells
from the sweat of two other men.
One of them chews snuff:
he’s never met either.
To him, work is a narrow grief
and the music afterwards
is like a woman
reaching into his chest
to spread it around. When he sings

he closes his eyes.
He never knows when she’ll be coming
but when she leaves, he always
tips his hat.

In this poem Beulah is doing one of those tasks that never seems to be done.

Dusting

Every day a wilderness – no
shade in sight. Beulah
patient among knicknacks,
the solarium a rage
of light, a grainstorm
as her gray cloth brings
dark wood to life.

Under her hand scrolls
and crests gleam
darker still. What
was his name, that
silly boy at the fair with
the rifle booth? And his kiss and
the clear bowl with one bright
fish, rippling
wound!

Not Micahel –
something finer. Each dust
stroke a deep breath and
the canary in bloom.
Wavery memory: home
from a dance, the front door
blown open and the parlor
in snow, she rushed
the bowl to the stove, watched
as the locket of ice dissolved and he
swam free.

That was years before
Father gave her up
with her name, years before
her name grew to mean
Promise, then
Desert-in-Peace.
Long before the shadow and
sun’s accomplice, the tree.

Maurice.

From Thomas and Beulah (Carnegie-Mellon University Press, 1986; 'Dusting' originally published in Poetry, November 1982) copyright Rita Dove 2006, used by permission of the author and the publisher.

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