Thylias Moss’s poems have changed over the years, exhibiting an astonishing growth in control and complexity as well as new forms. Moss’s early work is marked by strong portraits of racial bitterness and despair. Hosiery Seams on Bowlegged Women, her first book, attracted relatively little attention but was representative of the themes that Moss would pursue in later work: deep concern over the roles of women and minorities in society, a religious sensibility that is critical of the social and intellectual repression of conventional religion, and an examination of her own emotional states as she comes into contact with the various facets of life.
From the rage and honesty of her first two books, Moss moved to the slightly less negative tone of At Redbones, a collection that reflects the events and influences of her early years. These include the church she attended as a child and the family kitchen on Saturday nights, where her father would hold court, sipping whiskey and asking forbidden questions regarding the soul. “Redbones” is the mythical place that holds the poems, full of racial images and protest, together. It portrays a world dominated by old-fashioned racist images such as the character of Mammy in the film Gone with the Wind (1939) and the Aunt Jemima logo on maple syrup bottles. Moss’s style began to receive critical praise with this book, due to her facility with puns and other kinds of wordplay. Her later work reflects a more tranquil mind and a strong interest in experimentation, as well as an acute grasp of psychology as shown in Slave Moth.
The themes of Small Congregations are the ways religious symbolism informs everyday life, the mythology of African American life, and racism. Although the book is divided into three parts, there is a great overlap of subject matter between the sections. Religious imagery informs many of them, including the opening poem of the collection, “Washing Bread,” in which the children eat their crosses; “One Year Sonny Stabs Himself,” an ironic poem of a child who stabs himself on the Christmas tree star; “The Manna Addicts,” about the mysterious biblical substance; and “Spilled Sugar,” a poem about her father in which Moss redefines the concept of God. The idea of “God” also appears in the closing poem of the anthology, “One for All Newborns,” in which Moss states:
The miracle was not birth but that I lived despite my crimes.I treated God badly also; he is another parentwatching his kids through a window, eager to be proudof his creation, looking for signs of spring.
Some of her use of mythology turns the myth upside down. In “The Adversary,” she says that Satan is the original Uncle Tom; in “The Wreckage on the Wall of Eggs,” Moss interprets the nursery rhyme of Humpty Dumpty as a tale of segregation in which it is she who sits on the segregated wall, where life is not easy. In “November and Aunt Jemima,” Aunt Jemima shows up at the Thanksgiving table as a guest, the target of pancakes thrown at her by whites whose sins are as invisible as her pain is.
Early signs of Moss’s formal experimentation occur in this early collection, in such prose poems as “The Warmth of Hot Chocolate,” “Renegade Angels,” and “Denial.” Included are an epistolary poem, “Dear Charles,” which condenses all the experiences of African Americans into the answer to a letter; poems that are interspersed by choruses; and “The Best of the Body,” in which sections named for “Spleen” and “Liver” are followed by a glorious linguistic riff on “Heart to Heart Talk.”
Slave Moth is that rare literary item: a novel told in verse that has all the range and density of a novel combined with the sublime language of poetry. From the very first words of this remarkable novel, “My master is a collector/ Rare things delight him,” readers know they are in an extraordinary environment. Varl, the fourteen-year-old daughter...
(The entire section is 1,275 words.)