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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 just like me.” The last three lines shift the poem’s terms away from Moss’s relationship to her mother and toward her relationship to “another parent”:

I treated God badly also; he is another parentwatching his kids through a window, eager to be proud of his creation, looking...

(The entire section is 3,695 words.)