Moss, Thylias (Rebecca)

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MOSS, Thylias (Rebecca)

Nationality: American. Born: Thylias Rebecca Brasier, Cleveland, Ohio, 27 February 1954. Education: Syracuse University, New York, 1971–73; Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio, 1979–81, A.B. in creative writing 1981; University of New Hampshire, Durham, 1981–83, M.A. in English/Writing 1983. Family: Married John L. Moss in 1973; two sons. Career: Drama and Reading Rehabilitation Specialist, Bellevue Elementary School, Syracuse; order checker, 1973–74, junior executive auditor, 1975–79, data entry supervisor, 1974–75, The May Company, Cleveland; graduate assistant, 1981–83, lecturer, 1983–84, University of New Hampshire, Durham; instructor, Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts, 1984–92; Fannie Hurst Poet, Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts, 1992; visiting professor, University of New Hampshire, Durham, 1991–92. Assistant professor, 1993–94, associate professor, 1994–98, and since 1998 professor, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Awards: Cleveland Public Library Poetry Contest Winner, 1978, for "Coming of Age in Sandusky"; Dewar's Profiles Performance Artist award in poetry, 1991; Witter Bynner prize, American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, 1991; Whiting Writer's award, 1991; Guggenheim fellowship, 1995; MacArthur fellowship, 1996. Member: Academy of American Poets. Agent: Faith Hamlin, Sanford J. Greenburger Associates, 55 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York 10003, U.S.A. Address: P.O. Box 2686, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48106, U.S.A.



Hosiery Seams on a Bowlegged Woman. Cleveland, Ohio, Cleveland State University Press, 1983.

Pyramid of Bone. Charlottesville, University of Virginia Press, 1989.

At Redbones. Cleveland, Ohio, Cleveland State University Press, 1990.

Rainbow Remnants in Rock Bottom Ghetto Sky. New York, Persea, 1991.

Small Congregations: New and Selected Poems. Hopewell, New Jersey, Ecco Press, 1993.

Last Chance for the Tarzan Holler: Poems. New York, Persea, 1998.


The Dolls in the Basement (produced New England Theater Conference, 1984).

Talking to Myself (produced Durham, New Hampshire, 1984).


I Want to Be (for children). New York, Dial Books, 1993.

Tale of a Sky-Blue Dress. New York, Bard, 1998.


Critical Studies: In The American Religion by Harold Bloom, New York, Simon and Schuster, 1992; in Hudson Review, 47(1), spring 1994; by Tim Martin, in Prairie Schooner, 68(2), summer 1994.

Theatrical Activities: Director and Actor: Plays— all her own plays; Dolls in the Basement, 1984; Talking to Myself, 1984. Actor: Play— Female lead in Midnight Special by Clifford Mason, 1973.

Thylias Moss comments:

The day, the hour are lost to me, but one day I began to write when I was not quite seven years old. Since then there has been no stopping. But the immediate provocation and necessity of that "then"; who knows? An odd compulsion, to begin this process of thoughts appearing from fingers as if the thoughts had been bled, but it began even as the universe began. First on heavy paper around which my mother's stockings came wrapped, stories and poems happened. She would discard the stiff paper, and I saw it in the wastebasket, saw the mistake of the discarding, realized the possibilities had been trashed, so I retrieved the paper and on it formed words for the first time. What was it that I should have been doing instead; what chore went neglected? It was silent, diligent enterprise, but I had seen the explosions on Sundays, the preacher's hands on a book, fingering words that inspired everything else that happened as the congregation huddled on its knees around the pulpit at altar call to be relieved of all human misery by a blues-dominated prayer and sermon that made the congregation swoon and that intoxicated them with the spirit of the Lord, wrenching out the misery in the healing rhythm, stripping them of everything but the Lord. Words made them shout, made them experience glory that perhaps was not actually there, their feelings providing glory with the only substance it had. How wondrous! I wanted to make such words. I wanted to make what the preacher called "text."

There was also the way my father could transform the world with just his words and voice, my father who established in the kitchen on Saturday nights, while he drank whiskey, a school for his young brothers-in-law, a school to which I, at six by far the youngest pupil, was also invited. He lectured mostly on the dialectics of the soul, asking the forbidden questions, giving words power over any taboo, and thereby endowing them with an affirming ability that still delights the part of me that remembers his tale at bedtime of the girl that geese surround, their feathers locked as tightly as a snow house. Around her they honk, their circle tightening, their feathers brushing against her, some of the feathers working their way into her skin until, when the circle widens, in the center is a goose princess whose new wings are a form of crown. Such words. Such influence.

*  *  *

"A visionary storyteller," as Charles Simic has called her, Thylias Moss is a true betokener, one who gives us signs and portents. We listen to Moss to hear how our world is doing. Each poem holds news. Rarely linear, the news is in patterns woven from observation, from myth, from analogies and not quite parallels that make us search for what the signs portend.

Few poets can be so deadly with irony, so surprising and direct, as in "EASTER":

 Dr. Frankenstein feeds his son voltage, juice
fires up the hormones
on the day of unkillable testosterone
while Mary and Martha heed their spices,
their urges to preserve, not dulled by the impropriety of
  the kitchen
in which they slaughter lambs and chickens.

Moss can be in turn mocking, urbane, ironically self-deprecating, angry, lyrical, but always impassioned. Concerned equally with psychology and religion, she focuses more on injustice than on politics or history. She yearns to heal, but she sees the rents in the social fabric too clearly to go farther without pointing. She shows us mythic connections between events. So the potential extinction of whole species, including our own, becomes a tale of Little Red Riding Hood in which, if only it could end happily, the baboons and the mackerel and the egrets would join "the grandmother / and Little Red Riding Hood / walking out of a wolf named Dachau" (from "There Will Be Animals").

Moss is a teacher who one day brought a flower to class and asked her students to describe it. And the next day. And every day, while the petals fell and dusted themselves away and the brute thorn stem browned and drooped. And the day after that. And the day after that. "By the end of the term," she said, "they began to know one flower." And to see metamorphosis, the deceptiveness of beauty, the power language has to somehow transcend death, at least for now. Her poems teach us this.

Moss is a spellbinding reader. One cannot take her voice lightly; it is a preacher's voice, amber honey on a straight razor. She sings jazz. She can build entire poems from a painting or from a chance rhyme ("Timex Remembered"), write colloquial syllabics, drop in song lyrics, children's voices, letters, drive-by shootings, fairy tales, and the life of Riley—her poetry is America; her poems can hold anything.

And Moss's canvas is enormous. She writes detailed poems about saints, biblical stories, water softeners, kings, farmers, writing, lactation, fire, and faith. Beneath many of her poems lies a deep, pure ambiguity. The opening lines of "Glory" lay that out straight:

The sun does not really rise; the earth turns and leans into that perception as it circles a sun busy burning for the sake of light.

That's what I'd like God to do, burn himself again
for the sake of light. Commit to the bush instead of
when it got too hot, berries burning the hands pick
  ing them,
picking Him, Moses suffering heat as they suffer in a
  Chicago August
five hundred dropping, no rapture to sustain them, members
of Star of Hope...

There is no subtlety, no aside, no coloration, no disaffection, no irony, no affection, no shading, no leap that seems beyond Moss's control of language. And she tells great jokes and laughs at them. The following is from "Sour Milk":

...And God, don't forget that God loved him
and loved P.T. Barnum—has to love a good hoax,
a literality in which His being love

unifies all theories :)

Excerpts cannot do Moss justice. Her news builds from the first words to the last in her search for clear vision. The following is from "Advice":

I visit shrines all over Europe and Asia; when
D.C's Holocaust Memorial Museum opened, I was there
feeling uneasy about my innocence for innocence

can not actually be proven; it is becoming increasingly
difficult to prove because we are finally learning
our hearts.

...and I will not abandon this poem
that attempts to touch much of what keeps touching me
shaping me into a woman who hopes to finish know-
   ing herself
in time to begin to know something else.

And if what Moss knows flares before our eyes, we may realize that our vision has been dulled for a long time. But surely there is no irony when Moss reassures us in "Sour Milk" that

...Every generation loses something
but as long as this loss makes it possible to gain
   something else,
to sidestep as though really traveling to galaxies
   more distant
than distance where some believe we can witness
life beginning in nutrient-laden watery primordial soup just
to diversify, mutate as we know life does because we're
   here, each one of us
the result   and it's OK to call it intelligent or miraculous  
   no matter
what it really is.

Moss's poems are rooted in contemporary American awareness, and all of the effects of our daily lives are here, its sounds, its materialism, its distrust of logic and government, its agonizing awareness of race, femininity, and sexuality. So too are its surreal devices, its loosely arranged lines, casual enjambments in the service of the speaking voice, predilection for the startling truth and for a canvas mythic in breadth and intensity. Moss has a sense of humor both Horace and Juvenal would admire. There is a fierceness in her, a prophet's compassion, and a vision that pierces anything fake.

—Edward B. Germain