(1986), which won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1987, is the most well-known work by U.S. poet laureate Rita Dove. Loosely based on the lives of Dove's maternal grandparents, this volume of poems opens with instructions that “These poems tell two sides of a story and are meant to be read in sequence.” This chronological order gives the poems a novelistic sense of narrative. Details from the chronology included at the end of the poems tell us that Thomas was born in Wartrace, Tennessee, in 1900, and Beulah was born four years later in Rockmart, Georgia. Beulah soon moved to Akron, Ohio, and Thomas met her there almost twenty years later. They marry, have four daughters over the next ten years, and live out their lives in this midwestern town with an African American population of fewer than five percent. The cover sports a photograph of Dove's grandparents, giving a sense of the ordinary people whose quotidian lives will be fleetingly sketched within.
Although they live together for decades, the poem sequences reveal lives that barely intersect, more often the two moving in their own worlds. For example, when Beulah is pregnant for the third time, Thomas plans what he would teach the child if the child were a male. Thomas's poems have revealed so little interest in his children, that his desire for a son whom he can teach to be a man leaps out. Beulah's life, on the other hand, is filled with her daughters.
In two linked poems, Dove continues to explore the disconnection among family. Dove illustrates Thomas's main concern by naming the poem on his daughter's marriage “Variation on Gaining a Son.” The poem begins with his focus on his daughter and the “shy angle” of her head, his ignorance of her lifend women's lives–revealed in his wonder: “where did they all learn it?” As he watches her with her bridegroom, Thomas forges a familiar relation from his empathetic response to the groom's fear, nervousness, and wonder. Dove skillfully connects this poem with one in Beulah's sequence, reversing father and daughter. In “Promises” Beulah recalls not her groom, but her father and the advice he whispered during the ceremony. Although her father, unlike Thomas with his daughter, may be focused on wishing her well, his words strike her as hypocrisy. Fathers and daughters, wives and husbands, all inhabit perspectives separated by lack of understanding and common interest. Yet the volume also mediates the sadness of disconnection with the richness of individual lives, imagined as well as lived.
Helen Vendler, “In the Zoo of the New,” New York Review of Books, 23 October 1986, 47–52.Ekaterini Georgoudaki, “Rita Dove: Crossing Boundaries,” Callaloo 14.2 (Spring 1991): 419–433.Maxine Sample, “Dove's Thomas and Beulah,” Explicator 52.4 (Summer 1994): 251–253.