A Complex Poet of Wide Range

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Thylias Rebecca Brasier Moss, who was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1954, has been hailed by the poet Charles Simic as “a major figure in contemporary American poetry.” Part of the reason for Moss’s steadily growing reputation as a poet and for her steadily growing audience is the unusually wide range of formal styles, voices, and subject matters that make up the poems in her books. Although Moss was once considered by critics and by fellow poets such as Marilyn Hacker as primarily an angry and defiant poet whose creativity stemmed from her bitterness over the oppression of African Americans, women, and members of the working class, Moss’s poetry is by no means composed strictly of hostile statements about what Hacker called “the black truths behind white lies.” Moss’s fourth book, Rainbow Remnants in Rock Bottom Ghetto Sky, which was selected by Simic for the National Poetry Series, particularly reveals her wide emotional range. Moss’s poetry embraces love, friendship, and visionary and religious experiences, as well as the political themes found in such poems as “Lunch Counter Poem,” which reflects Moss’s memories of the struggle endured by African Americans to achieve civil rights through the protest movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s.

Moss believes that her poetry has gained in technical control since her first book, Hosiery Seams on a Bowlegged Woman, appeared in 1983. She was not yet thirty and had only recently graduated from the University of New Hampshire’s master’s degree program in English. Her work expresses a sense of personal hopefulness and exuberance while remaining sensitive to the difficulties of maintaining this optimism as an African American living in a country with a painful history of racial conflict. Moss’s optimism about life, the sanctity she finds in everyday experiences, and her feeling for community and for continuity between familial generations stem from her often delightful and nurturing experiences as a child. Moss grew up in what literary scholar Gerri Bates has described as “a stable, working-class environment in Cleveland.” Her mother was a maid, and her father worked for a tire company. Moss’s affection for her mother caused her to dedicate her third book, the National Book Critics Circle Award nominee Pyramid of Bone, to a woman who, Moss writes, “made it to the dean’s list of preferred housekeepers; she is a maid of honor.”

Mother and Daughter

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Moss’s sensitivity to the depth and complexities of the relationship between mother and daughter is especially poignant in the poem that opens Pyramid of Bone, “One for All Newborns.” While the poem’s speaker relishes the joy and hopefulness of a new birth (“Everything about it was wonderful”), this poem also reflects Moss’s awareness as a mother of her own children that tensions inevitably surround the mother-daughter relationship, especially as the daughter reaches toward her own maturity. In the poem, the speaker realizes that her personal growth implies her mother’s loss of unquestioned authority:

Then the dark succession of constricting years,mother competing with daughter for beauty and losing,varicose veins and hot water bottles, joy boiled away.................and the less familiar gait of grown progeny.

The poet is here dealing with a memory of conflict with her mother, but later in the poem Moss hints that this memory was precipitated by her feelings of sadness and guilt over her mother’s recent death. On a delayed flight home to her own daughter, Moss begins to feel remorse that she did not treat her mother as well as she might have: “I am now at the age where I must begin to pay/ for the way I treated my mother. My daughter is...

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A Difficult Childhood

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Although Moss’s poetry often conveys a sense of the marvelous and the mysterious aspects of the ordinary experiences of childhood, she also stresses how difficult it was for her to grow up with dark skin in Cleveland, Ohio, in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, when the privileged models of youthful beauty in fables, fairy stories, and popular culture (such as Snow White and Heidi) were not often related to her own physical appearance. In “Lessons from a Mirror” and “The Wreckage on the Wall of Eggs,” two poems from Pyramid of Bone, Moss recalls how easy it was for her to feel invisible in a society that placed an exclusive value on white skin and, in turn, how easy it was for her to resent other girls in her neighborhood only because their skin was white. In “The Wreckage on the Wall of Eggs,” Moss recalls jumping rope in her driveway and noting the “hundreds of girls/ perfect for the part of Heidi.” Because she realized that her ancestry “would not lead to Dörfli/ in the Alps,” Moss writes, she found it easy to resent the white “girls who couldn’t control ancestry.” Her mature response to her youthful recognition that her skin color would alienate her from accepted models of beauty is, paradoxically, to experience regret that she “can’t hate Heidi well.” Moss recalls the story of Humpty Dumpty as a metaphor to describe her own situation as a young girl segregated from other children. Through this conversion of a fairy...

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Moss’s “Better Eyes”

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

“An Anointing” is an excellent example of Moss’s ability to combine her impulse to tell stories about her own past in an incantatory rhythm that is related to a child’s speech with her training in traditional forms of English poetry. Besides being a child’s chant, “An Anointing” is also a dramatic monologue, or a narrative poem spoken in a voice other than that of the poet. Often, as in the case of the nineteenth century English poet Robert Browning’s “Fra Lippo Lippi,” which concerns the life of a painter in Renaissance Italy, the poet uses the dramatic monologue to capture the intimacy and nuance of a character from a distant time and place. In “An Anointing,” however, Moss uses the dramatic monologue form to recapture the voice and vision of the world of Thylias Moss as a young girl. “An Anointing” is also a love poem, but Moss turns this traditional motif into a celebration of the special affection between two young girls who are best friends: a first-person speaker, referred to in the poem as “Me,” and her virtual identical twin, “Molly.” The image and anecdotes Moss uses to suggest their closeness reveals one of her mature strengths as a writer. Charles Simic has argued that this strength stems from her “better eyes,” by which he means her skill at finding precise yet unusual visual images to convey her emotional life in a colorful and indelible way.

“Boys have to slash their fingers to become brothers. Girls trade/ their Kotex, me and Molly do in the mall’s public facility.” In this opening stanza, Moss...

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Public Poetry

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

In “The Place That Makes Presidents,” Moss meditates about the African American experience from the setting of a Protestant church in Massachusetts. Within the context of this site of “history,” “tradition,” and “solitude,” the “noisy violence” of the lives of contemporary African Americans living in the predominantly black Boston neighborhoods of Roxbury and Mattapan have no place to be heard. The “old theft” of slavery and the “acquisition of the continent” by white settlers through violence are erased within the pious settings of “Pilgrim privilege” and “Yankee superiority.” “Quietly a crime becomes heroic,” Moss writes.

In “Interpretation of a Poem by Frost,” Moss rewrites the American poet Robert Frost’s famous poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” (1923) from the perspective of “a young black girl” who finds herself trespassing on the property of a white landowner:

A young black girl stopped by the woods,so young she knew only one man: Jim Crowbut she wasn’t allowed to call him Mister.The woods were his and she respected his boundarieseven in the absence of fence.

Moss’s ability to turn Frost’s poem inside out allows her to express a new way of looking at life, a new way of thinking about an issue from an unexpected perspective. This type of conversion is a general strategy that Moss uses to make poetry out of familiar materials. It is also her strategy for turning scenes of oppression or despair into starting points for poetic insights and for displays of her strength as a poet.

A good example of Moss’s ability to turn inside out a negative or unpleasant experience in her own life and to remake it into an image of beauty occurs in “The Rapture of Dry Ice Burning Off Skin as the Moment of the Soul’s Apotheosis.” As in “An Anointing,” Moss uses sacred terminology to describe secular events in an unexpectedly heightened way. “Apotheosis” is a term gathered from religious discourse that refers to the moment when an ordinary person is elevated to divine status. The fact that this elevation occurs in her poem through an unpleasant and painful event—dry ice burning off skin—is consistent with Moss’s general strategy of transforming unpleasant experiences into events of special, possibly sacred, significance.

“The Rapture of Dry Ice Burning Off Skin as the Moment of the Soul’s Apotheosis” expresses the poet’s empathetic relationship to the near-extinct buffaloes and to drug addicts whose habits bring them, like the buffaloes, near to the edge of extinction. Within this wide-ranging meditation about such weighty topics, however, a brief anecdote appears that encapsulates Moss’s tendency to convert everyday, mundane experience into the spectacular:

Every time I use...

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(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Auburt, Alvin. Review of At Redbones and Rainbow Remnants in Rock Bottom Ghetto Sky, by Thylias Moss. American Book Review 13 (February/March, 1992): 29. Praises Moss’s development of an “assertive poetic voice” that is reminiscent of Ishmael Reed’s but nevertheless “very much her own.”

Brouwer, Joel. “Last Chance for the Tarzan Holler.” In Boston Review: A Political and Literary Forum (October/November, 1998). Uses Moss’s “A Shoe in the Road” and “Sour Milk” to illustrate her passion, intellectual stamina, and expansiveness—considered her strengths as well as her weaknesses at times....

(The entire section is 454 words.)