Eve Silberman: On Thylias Moss

Moss’s professional success is a victory over a childhood that contained beauty but also extraordinary pain. She grew up in Cleveland, the precocious and adored only child of Calvin and Florida Brasier, a tire recapper and a maid. Her father created the name Thylias because "he decided I needed a name that hadn’t existed before."

Her first five years were spent happily with her parents in the attic apartment of a home owned by a Jewish couple who Moss believes were Holocaust survivors. The Feldmans treated her like a grandchild, recalls Moss, playing with her, celebrating Jewish holidays with her, giving her presents. She still keeps the meticulously carved toy stove that Mr. Feldman made, and which is the subject of one of her poems.

After the Feldmans sold their house and moved, the Brasiers remained in their apartment. The new homeowners had a 13-year-old daughter, Lytta, who baby-sat Thylias after school and treated her cruelly. Thylias lived in fear of Lytta, who stole her piggy bank full of silver dollars and once forced her to slash her nails across the face of another girl.

Moss never told her parents about her tormentor. "I accommodated," she says. "I thought, “This is the way the world is.” Once I was back with my parents, there was paradise. Why would I be the one to ruin the paradise?"

Moss experienced other horrors during the four years she remained in that house. When she was 7, she was passing by a friend’s house when the friend jumped from a window to escape a would-be rapist. That same year, on her way to the library, she saw a boy riding a bicycle killed when a truck ran him down. "I never said a word of this to anybody," she said. "I was there witnessing things that only happened when I left that house."

At school, there was pain of a more subtle sort. Although she started out at a friendly, racially mixed school where her intelligence and her gifted violin playing were recognized, she had to leave that school at age 9 when her family moved. At the new, mostly white school, she was treated indifferently, and denied a school-issued violin. "It was clear to me that all this happened because of race," says Moss, who vows to take up the violin again someday.

Moss grew withdrawn at school, seldom speaking in class even though she was a leader in her neighborhood. She found solace in writing, however. She’d written her first poem at age 8 on the back of her church bulletin, which she began editing at 15. And through church sermons, she says, her sense of language and of the power of the spoken word was heightened. She was awed, she says, "by my awareness of what these ministers were able to accomplish with voice alone."

It was also through church that she met her husband, John Moss, who was then in military service and is now a U-M administrator. They married when she was 19, and she spent two unhappy years at Syracuse University. She left Syracuse to work for several years at a Cleveland business, starting out as an accounts payable clerk and ending up as a junior executive. Increasingly unhappy despite her success on the job, she quit and enrolled in Oberlin College in 1979, and wound up graduating in 1981 with the top academic record in her class. Moss got her master of fine arts in creative writing from the University of New Hampshire, where Simic "lit a fire" in her. She produced poetry that dealt not only with the pain of her past, but also with the possibility of recovery and revival.

Moss’s Haven Hall office suggests much about her personal and poetic journeying. On her desk are photos of two beaming boys; her sons Dennis, 9, and Ansted, 4. Books of poetry line her office shelves, and on a wall hangs a relic of segregation: a sign saying "Colored Waiting Room."

As a small child visiting relatives down South with her parents, Moss noticed those signs. Many of her poems deal with the African American experience, bearing titles like "Lunchcounter Freedom," "The Lynching," and "Nigger for the First Time." She is chary, however, of being classified as a "Black Female Poet." She’ll accept the label if it is applied, she says, because "I am a person whose ancestors were brought to this country from Africa. But it has not very much of anything to do with how I view the world." And although she admires groundbreaking contemporary writers like Toni Morrison and Audre Lorde, she declares firmly, "If no Black woman had ever written anything, I would have written. I don’t mind adding to the African American female aesthetic, whatever that is. I hope it is not easy to define."

 

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Criticism Overview
Title Eve Silberman: On Thylias Moss Type of Content Biographical
Criticism Author Eve Silberman Criticism Target Thylias Moss
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 07 Jul 2014
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
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