Moss, Thylias 1954–

views updated

Moss, Thylias 1954–

(Thylias Rebecca Brasier Moss)

PERSONAL: Born February 27, 1954, in Cleveland, OH; daughter of a recapper for the Cardinal Tire Company and a maid; married John Lewis Moss (a business manager), July 6, 1973; children: Dennis, Ansted. Education: Attended Syracuse University, 1971–73; Oberlin College, B.A., 1981; University of New Hampshire, M.A., 1983.

ADDRESSES: Office—435 South State St., 3187 Angell Hall, Ann Arbor, MI 48100-1003. Agent—Faith Hamlin, Sanford J. Greenburger Associates, 55 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10003. E-mail[email protected]

CAREER: Poet and educator. The May Company, Cleveland, OH, order checker, 1973–74, junior executive auditor, 1975–79, data entry supervisor, 1974–75; Phillips Academy, Andover, MA, instructor, 1984–92; University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, assistant professor, 1993–94, associate professor, 1994–98, professor, 1998–. University of New Hampshire, Durham, visiting professor, 1991–92; Brandeis University, Waltham, MA, Fannie Hurst Poet, 1992.

MEMBER: Academy of American Poets.

AWARDS, HONORS: Cleveland Public Library Poetry Contest, 1978, for "Coming of Age in Sandusky"; four grants, Kenan Charitable Trust, 1984–87; artist's fellowship, Artist's Foundation of Massachusetts, 1987; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1989; finalist, National Book Critics Circle Award, 1989, for Pyramid of Bone; Pushcart Prize, 1990; Dewar's Profiles Performance Artist Award in Poetry, 1991; Witter Bynner Prize, American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, 1991; National Poetry Series Open Competition, and Ohioana Book Award, both 1991, for Rainbow Remnants in Rock Bottom Ghetto Sky; Whiting Writer's award, 1991; Guggenheim fellowship, 1995; MacArthur fellowship, 1996; finalist, National Book Critics Circle Award, 1997, for Last Chance for the Tarzan Holler;Village Voice best book of 2004 list, for Slave Moth: A Narrative in Verse.

WRITINGS:

POETRY

Hosiery Seams on a Bowlegged Woman, Cleveland State University Press (Cleveland, OH), 1983.

Pyramid of Bone, University of Virginia Press (Charlottesville, VA), 1989.

At Redbones, Cleveland State University Press (Cleveland, OH), 1990.

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

Small Congregations: New and Selected Poems, Ecco Press (Hopewell, NJ), 1993.

Last Chance for the Tarzan Holler: Poems, Persea (New York, NY), 1997.

Slave Moth: A Narrative in Verse, Persea (New York, NY), 2003.

Tokyo Butter: A Search for Forms of Deirdre, Persea (New York, NY), 2006.

Contributor of poems to magazines and journals.

OTHER

The Dolls in the Basement (play), produced by New England Theatre Conference, 1984.

Talking to Myself (play), produced in Durham, NH, 1984.

Larry Levis and Thylias Moss Reading Their Poems (sound recording), 1991.

I Want to Be (for children), illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, Dial (New York, NY), 1993.

Tale of a Sky-Blue Dress (memoir), Avon Books (New York, NY), 1998.

SIDELIGHTS: Thylias Moss is a poet who first won a poetry prize in 1978 for her "Coming of Age in Sandusky." Her poems were then collected for publication in 1983 as Hosiery Seams on a Bowlegged Woman, which was commissioned by Alberta Turner and Leonard Trawick of the Cleveland State University Poetry Center. Six years later came Pyramid of Bone, a volume written at the request of the University of Virginia's Charles Rowell. The book was a first runner-up in the National Book Critics Circle Award for 1989, and earned Moss praise from a Publishers Weekly critic for her "rage and unyielding honesty." Reflecting on the difference between the author's life and her work, a critic in Virginia Quarterly Review observed: "If Thylias Moss's resume is sedate … her poetry is anything but."

Moss's third book, At Redbones, has a marginally less negative tone, and is also more faithful, in its premise, to the poet's working class upbringing. The poems speak of a mythical place call Redbones; part church and part bar, it serves as a refuge of sorts. Describing her own early influences, Moss has cited the "explosions on Sundays" in church, when the preacher "made [the congregation] shout, made them experience glory that perhaps was not actually there" Her other strong influence, she has said, was akin to a bar, though she describes it as more of a schoolroom: the family kitchen on Saturday nights, where her father would sip whiskey and speak "mostly on the dialectics of the soul, asking the forbidden questions, giving words power over any taboo."

With the place called Redbones holding together the poems in her third book, Moss unites two salient influences from her childhood, but the effect is not necessarily—or even usually—comforting. Her images are of racism and brutality, a world in which the Ku Klux Klan is as ever-present as the laundry, and Christian faith offers no refuge: "Bottled Jesus is the / Clorox that whitens old sheets, makes the Klan / a brotherhood of saints." It is a world of sit-ins that took place in the 1960s, when African Americans were denied service at the "whites-only" counters of Southern U.S. eating establishments, and sometimes beaten if they refused to give up their seats: "When knocked from the stool," she writes in "Lunchcounter Freedom," "my body takes its shape from what it falls into."

Turning from race to religion, Moss describes a physical revulsion in the sacrament of communion. In "Weighing the Sins of the World," receiving the Eucharist—Christ's symbolic blood—becomes a blood transfusion, and it turns out to be the wrong blood type, which is fatal. In "Fullness" she takes on, with similarly strong imagery, the literal substance (Christ's body) for which the bread of communion is a symbol: "One day / the father will place shavings of his own blessed fingers / on your tongue and you will get back in line for / more. You will not find yourself out of line again. / The bread will rise inside you. A loaf of tongue."

At Redbones earned Moss critical praise. Sue Standing of the Boston Review, for instance, wrote that "if At Redbones were a light bulb it would be 300 watt; if it were whiskey, it would be 200 proof; if it were a mule, it would have an awfully big kick." Gloria T. Hull in Belles Lettres, also reviewing At Redbones, found that Moss "possesses absolutely stunning poetic skill … [which] she unites with one of the bleakest, most sardonic visions I have ever encountered by an African American woman writer." Marilyn Nelson Waniek in Kenyon Review concluded that there was "a fine rage … at play in these pages."

Referring to Rainbow Remnants in Rock Bottom Ghetto Sky, Choice reviewer H. Jaskoski noted the "predictable sentiments in unexceptional free verse" in which Moss "brings up the topics young black female poets seem expected to interpret." Other critics were more kind in their assessment. "Using intricately woven, well-crafted sentences, she writes accessible, sensual, feminist poems about pregnancy, bonding between women, and racial and ethnic identity," wrote Judy Clarence in the Library Journal. Clarence added that "there's a sense of hopefulness, of the poet's and our individual ability to survive, even to rejoice, in a very imperfect world." A Publishers Weekly reviewer also praised the collection, writing: "Moss refuses to accept things as they are … [her] writing expertly simulates the processes of her fecund mind, with thoughts overlapping and veering off on tangents that bring us back, with fuller knowledge, to a poem's central concern." Prairie Schooner reviewer Tim Martin commented: "Readers who delight in originality of image, language, and the striking metaphor might be urged to read Moss. Several poems are tours de force of sheer description."

Moss continued her success as a poet with Last Chance for the Tarzan Holler: Poems, which reviewer Fred Muratori in the Library Journal called "a massive, acidedged tribute to mortality in all of its contradictions and wrenching ironies." In this collection, Moss seeks to "finish knowing herself / in time to begin to know something else," touching such topics as sexuality, religion, and motherhood. Muratori called the work "loquacious and impassioned, precise and ragged, willing to risk even boredom in its drive to get at the heart of humanity's conflicted, necessary obsessions." A Publishers Weekly reviewer commented: "Moss meditates, starkly and unsentimentally, on death and motherhood, on God, and, beneath them all, on sex and power." Calling the collection's poems "unflinching" and "brilliant," reviewer Donna Seaman, in a piece for Booklist, called it "a book of extraordinary range."

With I Want to Be, a book for children illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, Moss took a new and refreshing direction. As a little African-American girl walks home, thinking about the question often asked by adults—"What do you want to be when you grow up?"—she finds in herself some intriguing answers: "I want to be quiet but not so quiet that nobody can hear me. I also want to be sound, a whole orchestra with two bassoons and an army of cellos. Sometimes I want to be just the triangle, a tinkle that sounds like an itch." "The untrammeled exuberance of a free-spirited youngster, eager to explore everything, sings through a poetic story," wrote a critic for Kirkus Reviews, later calling the work "exhilarating, verbally and visually: the very essence of youthful energy and summertime freedom."

Moss's Tale of a Sky-Blue Dress marked a departure from her previous works. This book, a memoir of the author's childhood, recounts the physical, emotional, and sexual abuse Moss endured as a child at the hands of her babysitter, a teenage girl living in the same apartment building. The book opens with descriptions of a comfortable childhood, adoring parents, and domestic and familial rituals. The warmth of such scenes diminishes, however, when Moss's new babysitter introduces the child to humanity's dark side. The sitter, Lytta Dorsey, frequently wears a blue dress that is several sizes too small and displays an emotionally disturbed mind to her small charge. Moss, who endured the abuse for four years, sought to protect her loving parents from distress and never told them of the tortures to which she was forced to submit. She also relates in the book that she was "fascinated with the pull of darkness," according to Booklist contributor Grace Fill. Moss writes that Lytta gave her "the gift of darkness" in her life, a life in which her parents had kept her wrapped in a blanket of wonder, protection, and comfort. "Is it true," writes Moss in Tale of a Sky-Blue Dress, "that I would not be a writer, if not for Lytta?"

Eventually raped by her tormentor's brother with his sister's encouragement, Moss entered adolescence troubled by the abuses she had suffered. She was drawn into relationships with men that mimicked her abusive relationship with Lytta and undermined her self esteem. Finally, at the age of sixteen, Moss met a young Air Force sergeant whose patient understanding and love helped her move beyond the pain of her childhood. A Kirkus Reviews critic called the book "an elegant, forthright exploration of the effects of evil on a fragile life" and "a stylish, well-wrought memoir that forgoes self-pity for redemption." New York Times Book Review critic Paula Friedman commented: "While her analysis of her own surrender is impressive in its depth and unwillingness to settle for the simple role of victim, Moss may finally claim both too much and too little for herself: a 5-year-old is usually at the mercy of her caretakers."

Moss again turned to a fresh genre with her 2003 title, Slave Moth: A Narrative in Verse. The verse narrative deals with the education of the slave girl, Varl, whose master, Peter Perry, considers the attempt at education to be an experiment of sorts. Perry, however, is confounded in his quasi-experiment, for Varl's learning to read and think critically "leads her to questions which challenge the very foundation of Perry's society," according to Peter Campion in Poetry. Though the tale is told in verse narrative, Moss also includes numerous more traditional poems in the work. Writing in the Library Journal, Doris Lynch noted that "Varl gives the reader an emotional investment into a part of a history that was bleak, unjust, and unforgiving." In her 2006 collection, Tokyo Butter: A Search for Forms of Deirdre, Moss presents "her most ambitious" work to date, according to a reviewer for Publishers Weekly. Missing persons is the theme of this collection, and its core poem, "Deirdre: A Search Engine," "gives heft and clarity to what might otherwise feel overwhelming, establishing Moss as a creator with an unmistakable mind," as the Publishers Weekly contributor concluded.

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

BOOKS

Bloom, Harold, The American Religion, Simon and Schuster (New York, NY), 1992.

Contemporary Women Poets, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1998.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 120: American Poets since World War II, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1992.

Moss, Thylias, At Redbones, Cleveland State University Press (Cleveland, OH), 1990.

Moss, Thylias, Rainbow Remnants in Rock Bottom Ghetto Sky, Persea (New York, NY), 1991.

Moss, Thylias, Small Congregations: New and Selected Poems, Ecco Press (Hopewell, NJ), 1993.

Moss, Thylias, I Want to Be, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, Dial (New York, NY), 1993.

Moss, Thylias, Tale of a Sky-Blue Dress, Avon Books (New York, NY), 1998.

PERIODICALS

American Scholar, spring, 2005, Langdon Hammer, "Invisible Things," p. 49.

Belles Lettres, spring, 1991, Gloria T. Hull, review of At Redbones, p. 2; summer, 1992, Rita Signorelli-Pappas, review of Rainbow Remnants in Rock Bottom Ghetto Sky, pp. 62-65.

Booklist, January 1, 1998; February 15, 1998, Donna Seaman, review of Last Chance for the Tarzan Holler, p. 970; June 1, 1998, Grace Fill, review of Tale of a Sky-Blue Dress, p. 1708.

Boston Review, February, 1991, Sue Standing, review of At Redbones, p. 28.

Choice, February, 1992, H. Jaskoski, review of Rainbow Remnants in Rock Bottom Ghetto Sky, p. 896.

Hudson Review, spring, 1992, Mark Jarman, review of Rainbow Remnants in Rock Bottom Ghetto Sky, pp. 163-164.

Kenyon Review, fall, 1991, Marilyn Nelson Waniek, review of At Redbones, pp. 214-226.

Kirkus Reviews, August 1, 1993, review of I Want to Be, p. 1006; June 1, 1998, review of Tale of a Sky-Blue Dress, p. 799.

Library Journal, May 15, 1991, Judy Clarence, review of Rainbow Remnants in Rock Bottom Ghetto Sky, p. 86; February 15, 1998, Fred Muratori, review of Last Chance for the Tarzan Holler. p. 146; February 1, 2005, Doris Lynch, review of Slave Moth: A Narrative in Verse, p. 93.

New York Times Book Review, September 13, 1998, Paula Friedman, review of Tale of a Sky-Blue Dress..

Poetry, November, 2004, Peter Campion, review of Slave Moth, p. 136.

Prairie Schooner, summer, 1994, Tim Martin, review of Rainbow Remnants in Rock Bottom Ghetto Sky, p. 156.

Publishers Weekly, January 20, 1989, review of Pyramid of Bone, p. 143; April 5, 1991, review of Rainbow Remnants in Rock Bottom Ghetto Sky, p. 141; February 23, 1998, review of Last Chance for the Tarzan Holler, p. 69; July 31, 2006, review of Tokyo Butter: A Search for Forms of Deirdre, p. 54.

Virginia Quarterly Review, summer, 1989, review of Pyramid of Bone, p. 100.

Women's Review of Books, March, 1994, Elizabeth Frost, review of Small Congregations, pp. 11-12.

ONLINE

Michigan Today Online, http://www.umich.edu/ (September 29, 2006), Eve Silberman, "Thylias Moss: A Poet of Many Voices and a Spellbinding Delivery."

UM Department of English: Graduate Programs: MFA in Creative Writing Web site, http://www.lsa.umich.edu/english/ (September 29, 2006), "MFA Faculty: Thylias Moss."