Awards earned by Thylias Moss, who became an English professor at the University of Michigan in 1992, include a Guggenheim, a National Endowment for the Arts Award, and a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship in 1996. Born Thylias Rebecca Brasier, Moss was the daughter of Calvin Brasier, a tire recapper, and Florida Brasier, a housekeeper. With their adored only child, the Brasiers lived in an attic apartment owned by the Feldmans, a Jewish couple who treated Thylias as though she was their own grandchild.
After the Feldmans sold the house, the thirteen-year-old daughter of the new owners, Lytta, baby-sat for the young Thylias and treated her with extreme cruelty, a fact the youngster never told her parents. Lytta victimized her physically, verbally, and sexually, forcing darkness into an otherwise idyllic childhood. It is this relationship that forms the focus of Moss’s memoir, Tale of a Sky-Blue Dress.
Moss started school at Louis Pasteur Elementary School, a friendly, racially mixed school where her intelligence and gifted violin playing were encouraged. She sometimes led the class, contributed to discussions, wrote plays and poems, and eagerly played the violin. When she was nine, her family moved to a primarily white neighborhood. At the Benjamin Franklin School in her new neighborhood, she was treated indifferently and denied a school-issued violin as well as attendance in the accelerated classes she had been in previously. She grew resentful, withdrawn, and sullen but found solace in writing.
Moss attributes her remarkable ear for poetry to regular church attendance, where she first became aware of the power of the spoken word. Apparently what she learned stayed with her; her poetry readings, which encourage audience participation and use many voices, are popular and widely known. (In 1991 she won the annual Dewar’s Profiles Performance Artist Award in poetry.)
It was also in church that she met her husband, John Moss, who was in military service and later became a University of Michigan administrator. They married when she was nineteen and eventually had two sons, Dennis and Ansted. After marrying, she spent two unhappy years at Syracuse University and then worked for several years in a Cleveland business, where she ultimately became a junior executive. She enrolled at Oberlin College and graduated in 1981 with the top academic record in her class. Later, she earned her M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of New Hampshire, where the well-known poet Charles Simic inspired her and recognized her talent. She taught at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, and won an artist’s fellowship from the Massachusetts Arts Council in 1987 that enabled her to work on her second book of poetry, Pyramid of Bone, a collection that was short-listed for the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Moss’s poetry is both earnest and comic, embracing both extremes of this apparent dichotomy. In one poem she will move between a polemic tone and an irony that recognizes few boundaries. She is comfortable taking on even the most sacred cows. In “A Form of Deicide,” God plays the part of her father, walking Moss down the aisle to turn her over to her husband: “. . . He will/ always be my Father, but another man will be/ my husband and I will look at him in ways God/ does not want to be seen. . . . Ever the strong, silent type. . . .”
Moss deconstructs the idea of God, liberating it from the controlling religious paradigm. Religion is a common theme in Moss’s work, which often reimagines the Christian tradition with its various symbols, including angels, devils, and God. These terms are redefined in new and different ways, rendering them fresher and certainly more personal. Just as Moss is adventurous in her language, she is equally adventurous in her use of form. She juxtaposes instructions and dialogue, uses tercets to frame a poem written in quatrains, inserts italicized refrains as ironic comments on stanzas, and writes...
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