Thylias Moss: An Appreciation Perspected
Copyright by Dan Schneider, 2/11/05

  Thylias Moss is a rarity in contemporary literature- she is a black female poet who is not an absurdly political Leftist, not is she a PC Elitist, nor is she a Black Power remnant. Think of Maya Angelou, Audrť Lorde, Nikki Giovanni, Rita Dove, Lucille Clifton, and even Gwendolyn Brooks before her death, and the sort of poetry that will come to mind is manifest- bitter rants, banal greeting card verse, or chic quasi-lesbianism. Instead, TM takes a highly successful and radical approach to poetry- she writes it well.
  She had always been a name Iíd see here and there in sundry little poetry magazines, and each poem- even if not her best- was demonstrably better than far more heralded poems by far more lauded poets in those magazines; be those poets white or black, male or female. So it was in the late 1990s that I came upon her 1993 Small Congregations: New and Selected Poems (from The Ecco Press). Having known her work from before I knew better than to rely on back cover blurbery to tell me whether or not to purchase the book.
  The first blurb comes from proem specialist Charles Simic:

  ĎMoss is a visionary storyteller, a political and religious poet. Itís the world of Ďmarvelous thirstsí and Ďglorious hungersí, to use her words. I donít know many poets who have better eyes and better ears. She knows that language is both the individual and the community. She has a sense of history, the complexity and variety of Black experience in America. What drama, humor, imagination, intelligence and range of subject matter these poems have!Ö.Thylias Moss is already a major figure in contemporary American poetry.í

  Well, itís praise, but so off-the-rack and convoluted that itís virtually worthless. Not to mention that CS was her teacher in graduate school at the University of New Hampshire. While TM often tells a tale in her poems the term visionary is one of those toss-abouts that the claimant is never compelled to describe. To be Ďvisionaryí means that the reader enters a world that is distinctly a particular artistís vision, one usually forced upon the reader by the poet.  More often than not itís one projected outward, by poets like Walt Whitman, Robinson Jeffers, Hart Crane, Sylvia Plath, W.B. Yeats, Rainer Maria Rilke, etc. Some might say that vision can also be inward, with poets like Robert Frost or Emily Dickinson. Iíd disagree, but itís clear that while her poems are excellent TM is no visionary. Is she political and religious? There are certainly elements of those things, but to label her either political or religious is to delimit her. She writes poems that are political and religious, but even they are not merely political and religious poems. Good poets know that one dimensional political and religious poems need more to them than just those elements to be a resonant and relevant piece of art. The ears and eyes comment is a generic throwaway, while the comment on the individual and community must be lacking a for before the word both, because the personification is silly as a metaphor. The rest of the blurb is paint-by-numbers.
  Still, itís better than the second blurb from the unfortunately, yet aptly, named Marilyn Hacker:

  ĎThylias Moss names the black truths behind white lies. These poems are angry, defiant, yet informed with a sense of the sacred in their images, in their language, in their mimesis of transcendent ritual in everyday life. Here is a writer who speaks bitterness and makes her own music of it.í

  Well, if CSís blurb was banal, if laudatory, MHís totally distorts TMís being as a poet. Reading this one would expect a Nikki Giovanni type, yet TMís poems are not angry and defiant. In fact, this is what separates her from the poseur poetry of the NG types. Thereís the stereotypical nod to the sacred, and then the non sequitur of Ďmimesis of transcendent ritual in everyday lifeí. Lastly, MH sees bitterness, perhaps, because thatís what she projects into the poetry- but itís a total misconception.
  TMís poetry is interesting and unique, vis-ŗ-vis most other contemporary published poetsí work because it is none of what MH claims. Instead, it is filled with interesting images, good word choices, and while sometimes her poetryís form (even if free verse) is loose, her angles into subjects, and her insights, can soar. She neologizes well, and her poems are often filmic, with quick cuts that rarely descend to blandeur. Even in lesser poems she rises above typical poetasters:

Lessons From A Mirror

Snow White was nude at her wedding, sheís so white
the gown seemed to disappear when she put it on.

Put me beside her and the proximity is good
for a study of chiaroscuro, not much else.

Her name aggravates me most, as if I need to be told
whatís white and what isnít.

Judging strictly by appearance thereís a future for me
forever at her heels, a shadowís constant worship.

Is it fair for me to live that way, unable
to get off the ground?

Turning the tables isnít fair unless they keep turning.
Then thereís the danger of Russian roulette

and my disadvantage: nothing falls from the sky
to name me.

I am the empty space where the tooth was, that my tongue
rushes to fill because I canít stand vacancies.

And itís not enough. The penis just fills another
gap. And itís not enough.

When you look at me,
know that more than white is missing.

  This poem is not strong on music, and has some weaknesses that any other black female poetasters named above could have written, but, what separates TM from them (save for the early great poems of Gwendolyn Brooks) is the conceit of the 1st 2 stanzas and the metaphors of stanzas 6-8. Remove them and the poem could have been written by a Nikki Giovanni or Audrť Lorde. Read it:

Lessons From A Mirror

Her name aggravates me most, as if I need to be told
whatís white and what isnít.

Judging strictly by appearance thereís a future for me
forever at her heels, a shadowís constant worship.

Is it fair for me to live that way, unable
to get off the ground?

And itís not enough. The penis just fills another
gap. And itís not enough.

When you look at me,
know that more than white is missing.

  This poem is almost exactly what MH describes in her blurb- what was removed is what separated TM from lesser poets, even in this lesser poem of hers, for this poem has the very conceits and metaphors that lesser poets cannot even conjure, much less deploy.
  That brings me to the poem that CS quotes from, TMís most famous poem, and a good one:

The Rapture Of Dry Ice Burning Off Skin As The Moment Of The Soulís Apotheosis

How will we get used to joy
if we wonít hold onto it?

Not even extinction stops me; when
Iíve sufficient craving, I follow the buffalo,
their hair hanging below their stomachs like
fringes on Tiffany lampshades; they can be turned on
so can I by a stampede, footsteps whose sound
is my heart souped up, doctored, ninety pounds
running off a semiís invincible engine. Buffalo
heaven is Niagara Falls. There their spirit
gushes. There they still stampede and power
the generators that operate the Tiffany lamps
that let us see in some of the dark. Snow
inundates the city bearing their name; buffalo
spirit chips later melt to feed the underground,
the politically dredlocked tendrils of roots. And this
has no place in reality, is trivial juxtaposed with

the faces of addicts, their eyes practically as sunken
as extinction, gray ripples like hurdlersí track lanes
under them, pupils like just more needle sites.
And their arms: flesh trying for a moon apprenticeship,
a celestial antibody. Every time I use it
the umbrella is turned inside out,
metal veins, totally hardened arteries and survival
without anything flowing within, nothing saying
life came from the sea, from anywhere but coincidence
or Godís ulcer, revealed. Yet also, inside out
the umbrella tries to be a bouquet, or at least
the rugged wrapping for one that must endure much,
without dispensing coherent parcels of scent,
before the refuge of vase in a room already accustomed
to withering mind and retreating skin. But the smell
of the flowers lifts the corners of the mouth as if
the man at the center of this remorse has lifted her
in a waltz. This is as true as sickness. The Jehovahís

Witness will come to my door any minute with tracts, an
inflexible agenda and I wonít let him in because
I'm painting a rosy picture with only blue and
yellow (sadness and cowardice).
I'm something of an alchemist. Extinct.
He would tell me time is running out.
I would correct him: time ran out; thatís why
history repeats itself, why we canít advance.
What joy will come has to be here right now: Cheer
to wash the dirt away, Twenty Mule Team Borax and
Arm & Hammer to magnify Cheerís power, lemon-scented
bleach and ammonia to trick the nose, improved--changed--
Tide, almost all-purpose starch that cures any limpness
except impotence. Celebrate that thereís Mastercard
to rule us, bring us to our knees, the protocol we follow
in the presence of the head of our state of ruin, the
official with us all the time, not inaccessible in
palaces or White Houses or Kremlins. Besides every
ritual is stylized, has patterns and repetitions
suitable for adaptation to dance. Here come toe shoes,
brushstrokes, oxymorons. Joy

is at our tongue tips: let the great thirsts and hungers
of the world be the marvelous thirsts, glorious hungers.
Let heartbreak be alternative to coffeebreak, five
midmorning minutes devoted to emotion.

  This is a poem that could use some trimming and touch ups, especially re: the enjambments, but overall it follows an interesting narrative arc that impels a reader onward. It starts with a metaphoric title, a query, then a declamation, then typical political whining; then it turns with a whiff of flowers. This should really end stanza 3. Nonetheless, narratively the poem smoothes over small structural flaws like this. The speaker re-bolsters their positivity with diurnal do, and ends with a philosophic bon mot.
  While this does not compare to the complexity of a Plath, Crane, or Rilke poem, can you even remotely imagine Maya Angelou writing the above poem? Some may take that as a backhanded compliment, but it is also true. My pointing this out brings up a never discussed point about art- that is the artist relative to their peers, and how such a relationship influences the art of the individual and the art of the times.
  Itís akin to trying to judge Abraham Lincoln as a racist by current standards. While itís true he held racist views about blacks the very fact that he transcended those biases and did the right thing is all the more impressive because of his times and that fact. Similarly, had TM started publishing her moderately complex poems in the first three decades of the 20th century, rather than the last three, her work would simply not stand out that much- in general, or in the specific realm of Ďblack poetryí. But, given the PC tenor of the times and the feint from even attempting to corral depth, TMís poetry stands all the higher.
  For example, how many poets who are black ever fade away from race in a poem? Not many. TM can and does:

All Is Not Lost When Dreams Are


The dreams float like votive lilies
then melt.

It is the way they sing
going down that I envy and to hear it


I could not rescue them. A dirge
reaches my ears like a corkscrew of smoke
And it sits behind my eyes like a piano roll.

Some say this is miracle water
None say dreams made it so.


Long ago a fish forgot what fins were good for
And flew out of the stream
It was not dreaming
It had no ambition but confusion.


In Nova Scotia it lies on ice in the sun
and its eye turns white and pops out like a pearl
when itís broiled.

The Titanic is the one that got away.

  While I would question the use of similes over metaphors in part 1, part 2ís daring metaphor makes up for that. I can imbue about a dozen or so possible interpretations of the last line, and all make sense, in relation to the title. But, is this a Ďblack poemí? While one could argue endlessly over that point the fact that itís a good poem is pretty well settled. This is a good example of a poem that does not rely on music nor imagery as much as metaphor for the poetry it produces in the readerís brain. Another thing to note is that it is a short poem, even as itís complex.
  Concision is a quality lost to most of the left margined doggerel that appears in the American Poetry Review, Poetry, and magazines of that ilk. In 7 short stanzas and less than 120 words TM ties together several motivs and posits a few philosophic points. Imagine the length that it would take a Wanda Coleman to do the same, and the prosaic, clumsy, and trite way in which she would render the words.
  Here is how TM deals with the idea of race in an essay called The Extraordinary Hoof, published in The Boston Review:

  The substance of my identity need not be relevant unless it is the subject, and it should not be presumed to be my only subject--not until racial, for instance, differences are of a significance that commands the prefacing of every attempt at thought with homage to race. Then my perception necessarily would be restricted, but as a territorial and, proudly she says, stubborn being I would nevertheless attempt to extend my territory to whatever in the universe interests me. Today, the hoof. Tomorrow, the circumference of belief. Only an unreasonable logic would have my work be a study of race, for instance, primarily or exclusively. Such simplicity, despite simplicity's general attractiveness, does not even tempt meÖ.I donít think that I ignore the facts of my identity--facts that sometimes can be fallible--but identity is most often behind meóa type of fortification?-- rather than in front of me as a lens through which anything viewed first must be interpreted. If identity, no matter its subordinate location, alters my perception, then it is altered, but it is a more, I would argue, subtle alteration than would be identity as required corrective lenses. But a hoof is something I find, at least right now, more interesting and compelling than obligation to identity and identityís trappings; I donít want to limit my search or the outcomes of my searches. And if I have limited them, I donít want it to matter; I prefer that what is written transcend identity and intentions. That is best. Some of my poems perhaps can reject an oversimplification of race by making race an illogical reduction of their meaning; if race must be on every page, then let it not be a premeditated notion of race brought to the book, but instead a notion of race challenged, expanded, freed by the book.

  Compare that to the ĎBlack Firstí stance of poets from Langston Hughes on down, and note its kinship to the Ďall art is politicalí trope. Is it any wonder that itís a TM, not an Alice Walker, who wrote All Is Not Lost When Dreams Are? Later, in that essay, TM explains part of her restive search for more than the prosaic- that which too much poetry settles for:

  I am not satisfied with my poems unless they have attempted some reaching, some moving toward a more that ever moves away, that is occupied with its own reaching; certain marvelous coincidences, that my toes although right now only appreciating the rug, dig through fiber and evidence of machine-manufacture, encountering premium water (would that be wine?), atmospheric roses, the scent that rises from the water as toes stir, as toenails loosen and drift, gather downstream reforming a flower in the distance, just one, just distance, safe distance from even sweet-smelling density, clutter; look-- from here, such pretty debris.

  Now, I donít want to leave the impression that TM does not have some flaws- at her worst, her poems can dangle near Nikki Giovanni territory, and even The Rapture Of Dry Ice Burning Off Skin As The Moment Of The Soulís Apotheosis needs some tightening, but itís the fact she can rise beyond that which is the reason for this essay. Hereís a snippet from her poem One For All The Newborns:

Then the dark succession of constricting years,
mother competing with daughter for beauty and losing,
varicose veins and hot-water bottles, joy boiled away,
the arrival of knowledge that eyes are birds with clipped wings,
the sun at a 30į angle and unable to go higher, parents
who cannot push anymore, who stay by the window
looking for signs of spring
and the less familiar gait of grown progeny.
I am now at the age where I must begin to pay
for the way I treated my mother.

  The whole poem has a few weak spots, such as starting off with a reference to jazz, and an end that reworks this snippetís trope less successfully, even as it has a few other good metaphors, but look at this section. About the only published poem that I can recall that treats the female condition vis-ŗ-vis other females so well is Rudyard Kiplingís My Rival.
  It is moments like this that make TMís lesser poems, and parts of poems, all the more frustrating. In her poem Tornados TM compares the stormsí look and motion to assorted things associated with black people. It can give you a great passage like this:

I saw my first forming above the church a surrogate
steeple. The morning of my first baptism and
salvation already tangible, funnel for the spirit
coming into me without losing a drop, my black
guardian angel come to rescue me before all the words

  and a lesser, trite one like this:

the tornado is a perfect nappy curl, tightly wound,
spinning wildly when I try to tamper with its nature, shunning
the hot comb and pressing oil even though if absolutely straight
Iíd have the longest hair in the world. Bouffant tornadic
crown taking the royal path on a trip to town, stroll down
Tornado Alley where it intersects Memory Lane.

  That said, TM is still a poet worth reading, and one worth complimenting (her email is/was thyliasm@umich.edu), and much better than almost all the published Ďname brandí poets out there. Compare her to a James Tate, Jorie Graham, Sharon Olds, or Gary Soto, and this is clear. That said, like most published poets, her best work seems to be behind her, as she has now hit the age of 50. Her official online bio:


  Thylias Moss was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1954. She earned a B.A. from Oberlin College and an M.A. from the University of New Hampshire. Her books of poetry include Last Chance for the Tarzan Holler (Persea, 1998), Small Congregations: New and Selected Poems (1993), Rainbow Remnants in Rock Bottom Ghetto Sky (1991), At Redbones (1990), Pyramid of Bone (1989), and Hosiery Seams on a Bowlegged Woman (1983). She is the author of a memoir, Tale of a Sky-Blue Dress (1998), and two plays, Talking to Myself (1984) and The Dolls in the Basement (1984). Among her honors are a MacArthur Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Dewarís Profiles Performance Award, a Witter Bynner Award for Poetry, and a Whiting Award. She is a professor of English at the University of Michigan. Thylias Moss lives in Ann Arbor with her husband and two sons.


  Still, I always hold out hope for a poet capable of such daring tropes like this below from The Nature Of Morning (which plays off the rime with mourning), for it starts and ends with brushing teeth, while veering off to touch upon subjects like regret, marriage, and the need to settle, before ending:


Apology travels incognito, in the form of toothbrush,
in the form of maid, doing my dirty work for me, keeping
my hands clean, my elbows off the table, my mind
off the farmer. This much is right: Grace
must precede the meal, for teeth are gladiators.


  Iíd quibble with Ďdirty workí and the penultimate lineís enjambment, but the whole stanza is well beyond anything written by any of the other named poetasters in this essay- and thatís the point. TM is not a perfect nor great poet, but still one of the best currently published. In these times of deliberately dumbed down art and discourse even thatís a thing to admire.

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