Essays by Thylias Moss
The Extraordinary Hoof
by Thylias Moss
There are certain marvelous coincidences, for instance, that my
ordinarily inconsequential toes, inconsequential not to bipedalism, but to what is
momentarily more essential to me, endeavors that take place especially and no place but in
where I've just become aware of being an admirer of hooves, less the cloven than the full, particularly as reflective objects,
giving something like depth to an image of dust kicked up, say, by a twenty-mule team hauling borax; particles sent swirling in
the deep reaches of an infinite illusion by the courtesy of the surface of the horny covering that protects the whole foot as
opposed to toenails's less substantial responsibility for separate digits. On some days, this movement of dust suffices as frenzy,
model of passionate intellectual engagement. Dust rising like a praise of gnats, active veil of one of the hats I don't get to wear
How much further would this digression have to extend-- surely not to infinity-- before it would arrive at necessity or, better, at
revelation so that detour result in an essential yet, ever the hope, astonishing poem? Especially a detour from self, as impossible
as that is, that usually gets in my way, at the very least informing just what it is that I notice; were I someone else, at last I could
notice something else--though I hope still the hoof. There are theories that could explain both my admiration of the hoof and my
having suppressed that admiration until the occasion to write this essay arose, and were I someone else or somewhere else,
hoof would have its proxy or perhaps there'd be no digression at all, but instead a more conventional road and a more reliable
vehicle to traverse it, but as just a poet finding imagination ever so trustworthy, I needn't doubt the gift of hoof.
I prefer that unanticipated discovery lead me to and through a poem; for me there is some rapture if the dance of dust mirrored
in the hoof of some unspecified beast offers delight and insight that perhaps I would miss were I regularly more interested in
imposing certain agendas on my poems; if right now, as I am about to do, I paused to consider just how dust and hoof must
change according to my poorly understood and often unimportant identity.
My sense of my identity has formed, and remains subject to change, over a mere forty-four years, yet parts of it are considered
certain although, as a rule, I don't like rules, and as another, I most often reject certainty for being so sure and through,
apparently, with questions which are all that I have and are what I most enjoy because questions, better than anything else,
promise chances at discovery. I question hoof, but do not doubt it. And so, yes, literary criticism, multiculturalism, for instance,
as forms of questioning; doctrines that reject certainty. That which is apparently stable in my identity has ceased, for me, to be
intrinsically revealing. I am simply not astonished anymore by my racial heritage[s] alone, my sex alone. Only when something
occurs to restore astonishment through fresh rankling of my awareness. Although I do confess to remaining consistently
impressed with sex with my husband for its unceasing accessing of a more, my fascination with my social roles has paled except
for when contemplation of them leads me to something that seems, whether or not it really is, extraordinary. Only what seems
extraordinary compels me to write. The extraordinary hoof.
I attempt, always, to say more than I am black, a woman struggling because of being black, a woman; for most of my personal
struggle was born elsewhere, and my current struggle, elsewhere still, and I hold no patent on struggling-nor is mine, so lucky,
grievous or disabling struggle; instead, it is source of my energy and will. I suppose that I will never know to what extent, if any,
my poems depend on my identity for their meaning, but the impossibility of such knowing forces me into no quandary; I do not
sweat the analysis of my writing--I, such a brazen little thing, just try to write without restriction. The judgments are judgments,
and nothing more; contrived-as fallible as I am.
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 me.
I do not always want a filter because I want to attempt filter-free vision at times, as much--or as little it may turn out--as
possible. Sometimes, what is needed is not what is looked for, but that which is found almost by accident, coincidences bred
by the process of seeking itself. There is more in the universe than the components of my identity and more, much more than
anything I have ever noticed or considered-and it is sometimes an unassuming hoof that leads me to a glimpse of the more.
Naturally, from time to time, I consciously become preoccupied with various ideas and approaches; sometimes, there's motive,
but such preoccupation is but temporary commitment, a detour, if you will, in my travels in perception. I won't bother to fret the
unconscious, and if it is indeed unconscious, how could I fret it anyway? I don't want to knowingly see [hoping soon to be free
of my crutches] only the same things in the same way all the time; eventually, surely I'd become bored or claustrophobic if I
became confined and entrenched in such unnatural stability, in stasis that frightens me--if death is stasis, then that will be why I
won't like it. And why I already dislike the stability I've presumed of infinity. And why I like the hoof, for its picture, only a
picture, of infinity that within the context of hoof is fallible, so acceptable.
I don't think that I ignore the facts of my identity--facts that sometimes can be fallible--but identity is most often behind me--a
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 identity's trappings; I don't want to limit my search or the outcomes of my searches.
And if I have limited them, I don't 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.
I continue to marvel at being alive; indeed, not only at being alive, but also member of humanity that is apparently at the top of
the terrestrial cognitive hierarchy. Fascinating, I think, especially if this position is coincidental and not designed. But no less
strange if by design humanity has come into existence; God's needing or wanting, if that is the case, to design humanity is
curious, strange, fascinating just as is the apparent existence of so much--yet so little--variety. There are other living forms that
could have been made [and perhaps wait for-or even hide from-discovery]. Extraordinary and marvelous oddity. Humanity is
not a form of existence that could have been predicted. The nose, the ear--their functions could have been carried out by other
anatomical forms, and indeed are in some rather impressive snouts, trunks, slits, in the aliens we design, always in forms with
which we may interact whether to our benefit or detriment.
At times, hoof may require that I consider mule, hinny, their hybrid sterility, both ethical and unethical manipulation, or I can
forget all that and consider the hoofing of dancers in a line-up, stepping away from the height chart, hoofing as their number is
called, guilt or innocence determined by this contest, how well they delight the audience into forgetfulness and/or forgiveness.
Of course, I do not forget that everything can be subjected to political, socioeconomic or to any other interpretation. It is not
necessary that I specify one though I sometimes do, as consequence of an acknowledged obligation to information and to
humanity's circumstances, humanity's sometimes so extraordinary circumstances.
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.
from The Boston Review 23.3. Copyright Boston Review, 1993-2000.
Online Source: http://www-polisci.mit.edu/bostonreview/BR23.3/moss.html
"Contemplating the Theft of the Sow: An Appreciation of
Galway Kinnell's 'Saint Francis and the Sow'"
by Thylias Moss
I had no choice but this poem by Kinnell, a poem I can recite better than any poem I've writtenand it sounds so natural on my tongue, as if product of my tongue that curls around each word as if each were a saving wafer and all I have to do in this life is believe. I am convinced that had Kinnell not written this poem, I would have. He beat me to it. This appreciation is the only ethical way in which I may claim this poem.
Why such coveting? Each time I read it, I am propelled into a reverence I am unable to find unescorted. Not that I suffer from reverence's absence, for I don't, but this reverent place, since it is a place, requires visitationa minimal gesture, not a generosity. What I dislike is neglect, especially my own acts of negligence. It is precisely Kinnell's first six lines that revitalize this reader in particular. Kinnell here seems to fully understand the requisites for hope's success. That which leads me too often to denunciation propels Kinnell to praise and rehabilitation. I am too quick to emphasize the derogatory potential of "swine," filth, excrement, the pig's biblical rejection as unclean, unworthy even of consumption although consumption is no prize.
The poem begins with a two-word line that offers a totality I still don't really believe. How I admire the bud, the audacity of a bud, to dare begin despite all challenges, to dare exist exclusively as possibility. Every bud promises to open, suggests that opening is possible and is fully prepared to blossom even if that event does not occur. But it is this moment without limit that appeals, the moment just before disillusionment, the moment when anything is possible, when no limits have been imposed. There is no telling what the bud contains. Pure potential. That is what, sadly, diminishes as we grow: potential. Accordingly, these two words should stand alone. Why, the universe may be shaped like a bud.
The bud becomes an ideal symbol for anything, especially those things inadequate in their own right. The bud with its ability, exercised or not, to flower. Flowering is in bud's repertoire though it is not in the repertoire of some others. So this fragile and not yet (until it opens) showy bud has this power of transformation. Kinnell writes that "...everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing" and this self-blessing enthralls me as much as the bud, for the blessing does not depend upon some external dispenser of blessing and approval, yet despite emphasis upon self-empowerment, reverence is not wrecked, for it is too much evidenced in the poem's extreme yet necessary compassion.
More important than either "bud" or "self-blessing," however, is Kinnell's admission in lines five and six that "sometimes it is necessary / to reteach a thing its loveliness"; I have been one of those needing to be retaught. Oh the truth and brilliance, for truth must radiate, or "reteach"; the thing, all things, all things represented by the bud were privy to loveliness. Loveliness is the state of origin, but something happens, perhaps just birth and of course all of birth's consequences, that teaches the thing inferiority, ugliness, self-loathing. The lesson of loveliness is not a new one, but was foundational knowledge that must be excavated so that the interrupted process of blossoming can resume. And words are insufficient to impart this reteaching. That which has become repulsive, that which has been relegated inferior and untouchable must be embraced by that which is confident of its own lovely status. It is the combination of touch and language that restores the loveliness and returns the repulsive to the bud which is also chrysalis and all those things whose definition is change or access. Kinnell's injunction is to "retell it in words and in touch/ it is lovely"; there is no redefinition involved, no mere shift of perspective, for it is all return. Maybe it is a return to an implausible ideal, and maybe after a day or two of everything aware of its own (inert) loveliness I would miss the harsher (active) judgments, but this poem knows well many of my struggles and knows also that I overcame them only by blossoming as I did for certain nurturers I've met along the way, nurturers like Saint Francis who loved anything that could be called beast.
"...and the sow began remembering..." not the "great broken heart" nor how it had become broken, but its own splendor that the sow after this touch, here more sincere than consolation, must maintain or risk another birth through a trapdoor to grief. It is shocking sometimes what lies buried under torment, grief, and anger. A graveyard of marvelous buds should not be nipped.
from Countermeasures: A Magazine of Poetry and Ideas 7.
Online @ http://www.csf.edu/countermeasures/colloquium7-3.html
Review of Crown of Weeds by Amy Gerstler
by Thylias Moss
How it matters when I read this, at a time when I am more prone to milk every romantic possibility out of the most (otherwise) meaningless encounters with my husband, this morning watching him brush his teeth, Colgate frothing around his mouth in a pale, teal sort of color reminiscent of the shade I should have chosen for those bridesmaid dresses (ten of them) I made, and reminiscent also of the flowers he once gave me when I was shy about being with him twenty-seven years ago, so I kissed him sharing this froth and had on my lips remnants of those old first flowers that passions have melted, transformed to froth. So in this state, I come to Amy Gerstler's Crown of Weeds, and because of this state, I can detect in it no strangeness at all, just those absolutely necessary gestures (that I hope I would endorse even were I not in this state) to transform, to present the process of living as a form of enchantment, thereby creating a vehicle in which to move, in which to assure that there can always be departure, and that departure, a sense of leaving one realm on the way to another though it is unnamed, is in fact the purpose. For in this act of unending departure, there is no opportunity for anything to become familiar or reliable or threatening, for whatever it is, it is always new, always compelling, and about to be abandoned, perhaps just to be rediscovered endlessly.
Midway through the book, Gerstler in "An Account of Herself" offers a speaker who admits that "I still have trouble telling the difference between progress and pathology." Of course there would be this trouble, for nothing is fixed, that is one of the benefits of always departing. Anything can be changed, even released. Everything is in a stage of existence, some stages more sublime than others, but all of them stages. Progress of course is just a form of motion, the movement accomplished by departing. But to depart ceaselessly, to leave life (a frequent event in Crown of Weeds), seemingly arriving in death only to be granted the likelihood of revival (a frequent event in Crown of Weeds), becomes pathological to the logic that is maintained, despite all this traveling and progress, that there should be some permanence. Again; no strangeness here, although Gerstler occasionally names, deliberately, through some particularly challenged and disillusioned speakers (those weighed down, burdened so that moving, rising is compromised), certain circumstances and objects strange--as in the title poem where th speaker in taking inventory of his life comes up short, finding his "tunelessness" more conspicuous than both his song of transformation and his reverential interest in facsimiles of bliss. This speaker asserts that he "bloomed manic, strange" (emphasis added), lamenting his "solitary boyhood" and nearly succumbing to the cowardice of self-pity, overlooking that while "manic" and "strange" blossoming may not broach the ideal, it is nevertheless authentic blooming; there is here more revelation tha disillusionment. In fact, the speaker admits that he but "momentarily" forgets "the pleasure ahead of [him]," the pleasure to which he must travel in order to claim it, the facsimiles of bliss delivering him to it via his "analytic faculty of sight, [his] appreciation of color and pattern" that help him "consume the world with [his] eyes: cathedrals, weeds, cabbage leaves," and "the intricate carpet design on the stairs," "a particular configuration of branches." There remains commitment to delight (hunger is necessary, not strange) as the world unfolds and unravels. This commitment itself is what actually adorns the speaker (and appropriately names the book), for this exalting commitment makes of the speaker something of a monarch whose ceremonial objects do not dazzle (being but facsimiles), yet function genuinely, the crown no less symbolic (of hoped-for elevation) for being made of what grows profusely and tenaciously--of what is troublesome and common; the kingdom of weeds is kingdom, no matter where it falls in the hierarchy of kingdoms. The point is: it too falls.
This strangeness is a condition mostly refuted by vision-driven speakers inspired by the traveling and the compelling inventory that incessant traveling inspires when the traveler lists what has been found (or noticed) during motion. In "Account of Herself," for instance, the speaker offers as travels credentials: "I spent decades awakening, / wandering this nations' / dazzling displays / of petticoats and neckties." I should point out that Gerstler, as she (and everyone) must, nevertheless places upon the traveler limitation (the speaker in this poem begins with a sort of disclaimer: "Born at the onset / of this tranquilizer age"), for interpretation, of necessity, is limited to what the interpreter has noticed--hence the opening paragraph of this commentary o Crown of Weeds.
The idea of non-arrival is an element of enchantment, especially the open ending of living "happily ever after," for that ending announces the failure to arrive at any other state of perception or stage of existence such as disillusionment, aging, maturity, death. Enchantment in its rejection of reality as a fixed entity travels to a union with pathology yet the ability to transform is crucial to live and move through cycles and stages of life while retaining bliss. Indeed, Gerstler's use of enchantment as transforming is a splendid act of rebellion, a fine rejection of withering (still movement as is any deterioration) to nothingness for nothingness (a hub, so to speak, where most everything has a little lay-over or rerouting from time to time, time being another such hub) would simply transform, move elsewhere.
How loftily, then, in such context are the insane to be esteemed, for the insane or any who are given to hallucination can travel further than most and apparently, often instantaneously. The hallucination (such as the "beautiful" hallucinations in "Song") transforms the mundane, establishes alternatives; the insane or the visionary are cartographers of what would be inaccessible if they did not travel there. But I would contend that this is heroic, not strange. This is necessary, not strange. And the reward, of course, is the access, the journey itself. Such people (liberators really) resist form, stability, definitiveness; they revere change, the ability to flee a stage of being to enter another, to contort experience, to alter perception at which point it becomes safer to reintroduce what has been abandoned, for now that thing or situation would more likely be viewed as changed, different if not new. Gerstler's figure of "The Superior Man" has abilities afforded by this rank, this rank that he has earned because of his ability to transform (a form of enchantment and therefore motion, an act of rebellion, a rejection of stability, inertia, etc.) at will:
This being may exit
his body on a moment's
notice, in midsentence
if necessary, without
anyone being the wiser.
Occasionally. he sucks
rusty nails when feeling
anemic. As often as not,
scholars tell us,
the superior man was a good-
looking woman . . .
This is a truly superior rebellion in its not appearing to be rebellion at all, deception as a form of enchantment. By the end of the poem, the superior being has become someone with whom the speaker has had intimate connection, familiar again, but different, infinite--so always traveling, perhaps just from superior to ordinary and back again. The superior being, as do all the travelers, takes inventory, picking up a shoe heel, nails, considering goldenrod, a steak, yellow dung-supported mushrooms, ghosts (themselves superior beings who don't rebel and don't commit to death).
Instructions for the taking of inventory to reveal the process through which enchantment is accessed are offered in the book's opening poem, "Recipe for Resurrection." Here the process is particularly exciting for the power over death that resurrection supplies and also for the transformation of what is ordinary, including and especially a corpse:
Bathe the body in quinine.
Then let his wrists
be braceleted with the stings
of tiny iridescent insects.
A group of ten restless boys
should encircle the sleeper
whose marrow is to be rekindled.
The boys must sneeze violently
without covering their mouths
till the body is wet.
A poultice of figs and licorice
smeared over the lips
has often proved useful.
[ . . . ]
armed with pinches and kisses,
fistfuls of pumpkin seeds
and biscuit crumbs, let him
be breathed on by the subtle
dusty gusts from a lily's
Graciously welcome the truant
soul home as you stutter your love--
that thin tuneless exhaust
we exhale every day.
Parts of things become compelling and imbued with power, parts of things for their individual contributions to both their own and a larger process; these parts are the equivalent of stages of beings, and if everything is in flux, in process, then even that which seems complete or finished (such as death) is also a stage, a step towards something. It is the microscope, the telescope (liberating tools) that can help those who are not liberators discover the enchantment of the components of enchantment; the ingredients required for the recipe are like those discoveries that telescopes and microscopes assist and sponsor ("stings of . . . insects," "duck feathers," "a lily's golden-tonsilled throat," "figs," "licorice"). The moment in which the dead reawakens (the sleeping beauty so to speak) is where the enchantment, as much as in any fairy tale, must end, for there is an apparent rupture in process, a temporary recognition of the world rejoined in which motion halts, in which change eases, and in that moment of return to home ("home" to indicate a stable--inert--base, illusion or not, that is fixed, a permanent point of departure that in being fixed can be only returned to, cannot travel) that really cannot exist, there is reduction of magic to mundane. "Breath" so otherwise magnificent, so otherwise a caretaker of process, so otherwise each breath a new breath, original though the intake is of air endlessly recycled, renewed each time it passes through a different organic system, is reduced to "that thin tuneless exhaust / we exhale every day" (also defined in the poem as "love"--so otherwise magnificent, so otherwise a caretaker of process, so otherwise inspiring).
But love does recover, throughout Gerstler's book, when used as a tool of the enchanters and liberators. In fact, it is apparently love that fuels the vehicles in which Gerstler's most rebellious speakers (the ones defying the miasma of hopelessness and dejection) travel to one bliss after another; love of bliss, love of travel, love of accomplishment, love of their own abilities to contrive all this. One of the best illustrations of love as this fuel occurs in the desperate transforming that concludes "Chain of Events" (a title synonymous with "process"):
I wanted a corpse,
and though the previous
week there had been piles
of them stacked
in the high school gym,
I was given only kindling
and fuzzy plaid blankets.
Perched on a bar stool
not long after a major
earthquake, I cried out
for a stiff drink
and felt instead
an awful substitute,
filling me as though
poured from on high
into a hole drilled
through the top of my head,
only to leak out the soles
of my feet.
[ . . . ]
A grimy, shell-shocked
youngster wearing her torn
blouse inside out
clambered into my lap,
putting a damper
on my ability
to behave as uncouthly
as I usually look forward
to doing in bars.
I patted her back between
shoulder blades no bigger
than toast points,
of a motherly touch.
She grabbed my patting
hand, stuck the fingers
in her mouth
and began sucking them,
as though something might
be dredged up from this dead
well, as though weak milk
thin as cactus juice
might flow from under my nails
if she sucked hard enough--
as though instead of
an empty mine shaft barely
moistened by liquor,
I was some sort of spigot.
Here the one who is transformed has lost faith in enchantment, yet is changed by one, a child, still aware of potential (via desperation or hallucination that is most often called "imagination" when associated with youth) who because of that potential succeeds in turning the sucked fingers of the speaker's hand from "an empty mine shaft barely moistened by liquor" into "some sort of (that is, some form of, process of) spigot." In "A Measured Joy," the speaker is one who witnesses an enchanter/liberator in action, referring to the enchanter as "a flagrant earthly / glory, Mysterious as opium" and "as full of epiphanies / as a thoughtful drinker," and concluding that love is frightening "in its lunatic ceaselessness," yet this ceaselessness is responsible for travel, motion, progress: for the jettisoning of the weight and burden that would prevent the rising, prevent the resurrection, the remaking that must occur if there is to be to start each day, a dawn (praise now the ceaseless travel of the earth around the sun).
The privilege of traveling, of enchanting, is a heightened awareness that seems strange to those who are more static and passive. Travelers begin in a most familiar locale: the body. The body is home, the primary point of departure, where travelers are situated most of the time, yet despite the possible humble implications of familiarity, the extraordinary occurs as that place is transformed (time is such a transformer), both the body and what the body has visited. This transformation introduces second, third, fourth chances, the speaker, for instance, in "A Fan Letter" ". . . being remade / into a reflective, immaculate being" (the very sort of entity that frequents enchanted locales). An obvious benefit of such traveling and remaking is the change in perspective, the ability to see various levels and textures, to understand the necessity of context, the mutability of everything, the unlikelihood of answers, even the rejection of answers as these tend to devalue process which consists only of questions. Here, of course, is the risk, the loss of answers and likely therefore also of comfort.
"Bear in mind all journeys / are perilous," Gerstler writes in the opening lines of "On the Road." The speaker loses a sense of security and is lost in the woods, yet perseveres, eventually approaches something that "From far away . . . / resembled an ornate tiered / wedding cake, beginning to mold"--hardly inviting or welcoming, but still a valid discovery. Closer, however, from right within the barn, there is further transformation as process (the journey) continues: "The hayloft felt like a giant / nest. Oh, the eggs it could / have contained!" (the speaker now utilizes a transforming tool, realizing imagined possibilities that rebel against fixed reality). There is reward for this daring. There is reward for unplanned, unpredictable travel. There is reward for rebellion, for practicing enchantment; waking the next day unable to stay ("eager to leave")--because the speaker is now committed to travel--the speaker discovers, "that while I was sleeping / they'd filled my boots / with strawberries." This event of strawberries is one that happens only through the process, only through enchantment, hardly strange or inexplicable, for it is the direct consequence of movement, of stretching and reaching toward, of leaning, becoming elastic so that an incredible flexibility is attained in which even approaching infinity, the elasticity holds; there is no breakage, but assuming breakage happens (ah mystery), each fragment dances, moves in the process to a place not possible to visit without fragmentation. This is why a road not taken is never taken; each step constructs a road; each motion compels a road, and it is a road that exists only for the moment in which it is built, only for its brief existence in the process of that step. We are going headlong, Gerstler's book leading us, to some unnamable "where" that does not exist until we arrive and that ceases the moment we leave, changing us while we are there, enriching us, bringing us closer to something, but not to finishing--that will never be.
From Boston Review 23.1. Copyright Boston Review 1993-2000.
Online Source: http://bostonreview.mit.edu/BR23.1/moss.html
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