(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Choosing poems for inclusion in a volume of selections from past work must give a poet a moment of pause. On the one hand, she could simply select among her favorites, or the critics’ favorites, or a mix of the two, and publish the poems thus chosen maintaining the order in which they originally appeared, addending, perhaps, a section of new poems. On the other hand, she could choose to unravel her books, reknit the relationships previously established between the poems therein, and weave in new poems where appropriate to the newly emerging design. In choosing the poems of Small Congregations: New and Selected Poems, it appears that Thylias Moss chose the latter, less usual method. From her four previous books she has selected sixty-four poems and mixed them together, along with two dozen new poems, to emphasize certain themes and recurring images. The result is a book that successfully creates something like a narrative that pulls the reader along; where most narrative maintains cohesiveness through characters and locales, however, the narrative of Small Congregations is created through movement among specific images and themes.

From this narrative ground rises what might, in the examination of a different rhetorical mode, be called an argument, though it is left to the reader to substantiate that argument. Thus, Moss demonstrates what writers of fiction and poetry have all along known: that narrative—even simply the act of assuming a voice-is argument enriched and fleshed out, or more to the point, is argument proper, while the skeleton traditionally termed “argument” is nothing but the bare bones, to which the addition and multiplication of abstracted exemplifications can render no more than an unsubstantiated, and hence unanimated, heap.

That this is a book rich in recurrent images is evident from the start. The first poem, “Washing Bread,” uses the image of a woman in a river washing “big white slices of bread/ like shirts.” The bread imagery continues in the next poem, “Fullness,” which incorporates the bread of Christ’s Last Supper and sets the stage for the following Christmas poem. The laundry imagery returns four pages later in “Fisher Street,” which plays off the fish in the preceding poem, “All Is Not Lost When Dreams Are,” and these fish images themselves interlace with the previous Christ imagery. Such rereflections occur throughout the book, too apparent to be coincidences, yet too protean to be mere schematic pictographs reducible to the one-to-one correspondences of allegory. Through these images come recurrent themes and linkages between those themes, leaving the reader with the sense of a wholeness communicated with necessary and natural movements between its parts, each part pointing in the direction of others-not a jumble of separate parts individually propping themselves up. Indeed, this community among the poems that populate the overall congregation ofSmall Congregations is itself a major theme of the book, along with more focused examinations of racism and sexism, of the roles of mother and father, and of spirituality in a world dominated by a racist and sexist religiosity and economics.

From these congregations arise an argument that makes subtle moral judgments, though this argument does not follow the restrictive logical patterns dictated by traditional rhetoric. Moss’s “argument” has a surreal quality in which themes and images are played against each other, creating apparent frictions or relaxations that suggest to the reader what Moss makes of her poetically rendered world. It is a world in which frictions predominate, where evil, to use an overabused word, is far more subtle than the preacher of the Sunday sermon could ever fathom and is indeed less present in those things he preaches against than in the preacher himself. This suggestion is at least as old as the Bible, though it is perhaps more easily identified, in certain circles, with William Blake. The Bible’s...

(The entire section is 1628 words.)