Rage is a quality often associated with African-American art and politics, especially from the 1960s onward, and if Amiri Baraka embodies for many the rage of the black man, Thylias Moss came to stand out, from a generation of back female writers (e.g. Rita Dove, Marilyn Nelson, Toi Derricotte) who were not afraid to confront the realities of their lives, as the white-hot epicenter of black rage. This characterization, if taken too literally, would severely limit an appreciation of Moss’s range as a poet of the black experience, the female experience,and the human experience, reflecting all the contradictions and turmoil that come from living in the worlds of inner and outer experience. Rage is too often accepted as a substitute for poetic integrity, and this is not the case with Moss’s work.
Thylias Moss was born Rebecca Brasier on 27 February 1954, in Cleveland, Ohio, to a working class family: her mother was a maid, her father a recapper for the Cardinal Tire Company. Her father gave her the name Thylias when he decided that she needed a name which hadn’t existed before. During her early childhood, her family lived in attic apartment in the house of a warm. loving Jewish couple—holocaust survivors, Moss believes—who treated her like a grandchild. Later, she was subject to cruel abuse at the hands of the teenage daughter of the house’s new owners. That, and painful experiences in a mostly-white school, made her draw inward, and turned her to writing.
She married John Lewis Moss at age 16; the couple has two sons. She attended Syracuse University from 1971-73, an unsatisfying time for her, then Oberlin College in 1981, where she received her B.A. She worked various jobs in the interim, but kept writing—she won an award in 1978 from the Cleveland Public Library for her poem "Coming of Age in Sandusky." She received an M.A. from the University of New Hampshire in 1983, and began her teaching career at Phillips Academy in Andover, MA, where she remained from 1984-92. Since 1993 she has taught at the University of Michigan, attaining the rank of professor in 1998. She has also been a visiting at the University of New Hampshire and Brandeis University.
Her first collection of poems, published in 1983, was Hosiery Seams on a Bowlegged Woman (1983). Subsequent collections were Pyramid of Bone (1989), At Redbones (1990), Rainbow Remnants in Rock Bottom Ghetto Sky (1991), Small Congregations: New and Selected Poems (1993), and Last Chance for the Tarzan Holler (1998). Her verse narrative, Slave Moth, was published in 2004. She has also written a memoir of abuse at the hands of her teenaged babysitter, Tale of a Sky-Blue Dress (1998), two plays, Talking to Myself (1984) and The Dolls in the Basement (1984), and a children’s book, I Want To Be (1993). She has won fellowships from the Artist’s Foundation of Massachusetts (1987), the Guggenheim Foundation (1995) and the MacArthur Foundation (1996). She has received a Pushcart Prize (1990), a Dewar's Profiles Performance Award (1991), a Witter Bynner Award for Poetry (1991), and a Whiting Award (1991).
Moss gained early recognition not just for her rage but for the powerful originality of her imagery (“Only the seamstress changes, / the vinegar she's become cannot sterilize the needle /before it penetrates”). With her third collection, At Redbones, she created a world of mythic proportions, a place where “You go … after/you've been everywhere else and can see the rainbow/as fraud, a colorful frown.” Redbones is a refuge which is no refuge, a central theme of Moss’s poetry. She gives us religion, family, even racial solidarity, and she gives to understand that she believes in all of them, trusts none of them. There is no place that’s a barrier to malevolence, whether it’s the malevolence of the KKK, a vicious babysitter, a self-devouring soul, or even a Eucharist that eats itself.
Moss vividly depicted her own childhood of horror in Tale of a Sky-Blue Dress, but then seemed to have exorcised that demon sufficiently to be able to explore the joys and enthusiasms of childhood in I Want to Be, a young girl’s Odyssey of language and dreams, a book luminous in its optimism. In her poetry, too, she was finding more room for acceptance, solidarity and trust, both of experience and of other people. In “The Rapture of Dry Ice Burning Off Skin as the Moment of the Soul's Apotheosis,” she begins by asking “How will we get used to joy/if we won't hold onto it?” She follows with a rejection of even extinction as an impediment, and holds her course through a world of junkies, religious hucksters and a smothering materialism to an ultimate, oxymoronic joy. That dangerous world of shattered families and shattered dreams is still there, but the distrust is balanced against hope.
Last Chance for the Tarzan Holler saw Moss working more with longer poems, and very much aware of the certainty of mortality, which necessarily changed the edgy adversarial relationship to the circumstances of life which had marked her earlier work – and her relationship to the religious themes which continued to claim her attention. She also showed her readiness to find her place in the literary heritage of African-American women, addressing such forebears as Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison.
With Slave Moth, she took on the challenge of a book-length poem, the challenge of understanding slavery, and the challenge of creating characters who embodied a complex gradation of conditions between slavery and freedom: Mamalee, an educated slave who chooses to remain in captivity so that she can educate other slaves and help them escape; the slaveowner’s white wife, enslaved by her own ignorance and illiteracy, and especially Varl, Mamalee’s fiercely literate teenage daughter, who identifies with the rare moths slaveowner Peter Perry collects, and refuses freedom because she refuses to accept that anyone has the power to free or enslave her. Varl is a compelling alter ego for Moss herself, trusting no one but herself yet deeply aware of a higher power, in love with words but accepting of their limitations…up to a certain point, beyond which she accepts no limitations.