Every day a wilderness -- no shade in sight. Beulah
patient among the 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 Michael -- 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
That was years before Father gaver her up
with her name, years before
her name grew to mean
Long before the shadow and sun's accomplice, the tree.
- Rita Dove
*Part of a book length narrative, "Thomas and Beulah," about which Dove writes in introduction, "These poems tell two sides of a story and are meant to be read in sequence." The main characters are African Americans born at the beginning of the twentieth century.
**Beulah means "married, possessed" in Hebrew. In the Bible, it refers to the promised land.
Happy Monday all! To begin, I have to say that I particularly love this poem - it reminds me of something Toni Morrison might write, which is not quite surprising; they are dealing with similar subject matter in similar times. The first thing that leaps off the page in this poem is the imagery - "a rage of light," "the clear bowl with one bright/fish, rippling/wound!" "canary in bloom," "locket of ice...." Dove presents us with these powerful and stunning images, which lend the poem a sort of mystical quality. This contrasts with the simple, domestic act of "dusting" and the apparently plain patience of Beulah. Since this is in its full form book length, there is a lot more to the woman than we get here in the poem, but it still stands by itself, hinting at more richness. (What happened with her father? How did her name take on those different connotations, and how does its Biblical references tie in to her life?) It switches to stream of consciousness narrative (mixed with the poetic voice of the author), and we learn that this woman has had a wealth of experience. The one described here, or rather family of experiences, has to do with "a silly boy" and a fish that appears several times.
Now that I think about it, there is a definite sense of water throughout the poem, but it remains just that: a sense. Dusting, which is a dry, dirty activity is here a "grainstorm," obviously a pun on rainstorm. Furthermore, the rippling wound tangentially refers to water, as does the term "wavery memory." The recollection itself has references to water in different forms, namely snow and ice. Then, too, one of the meanings of Beulah is "desert-in-peace," which refers to an absence of water. The final word of the poem, Maurice, could possibly be a pun on "more ice" - they sound sort of similar, though that could easily be a strech. The sound of the name itself is enough to merit placement in the poem. Anyway. The water is prevalent throughout the poem in every form but as an actual liquid. What this might signify more largely is impossible to divine without reading the entire poem. However, it might be useful to think of water as being necessary for life, which also appears throughout the poem. Dusting gives life to the wood, so Beulah, we know, is a life giver. She vivifies the wood, saves the fish, and fleshes out her memories as she is dusting. There is some self similarity across scale, too, in the fact that as she dusts off this dark something, she dusts off her memories. She frees them just as she freed the fish (the fact that she freed it and saved it brings up the question of how freedom and being saved are linked), just as the dust flies off like "a canary in bloom." This concept of freedom may or may not have something to do with slavery - I don't want to go on liberal autopilot and say that this is a noble, complex, black woman and she is working, dusting, unable to escape the wilderness, longing for some shade, some respite from the harsh reality which is really a societal repeat of slavery only not so explicit. That is not to say that the answer isn't plausible, I simply don't want to escape the bounds of what we have here. To fully understand the significance of many of these motifs would probably require a full reading of the poem, which I do intend to do at one point; I like all of Dove's work that I have read so far. So - I hope that you all enjoyed the poem of the week this week. Of course, feel free to reply at any time with comments, disagreements, other poems that you found complementary...And I am glad that I can share this with all of you every week!