At Redbones. Hosiery Seams on a Bowlegged Woman. Last Chance for the Tarzan Holler. Pyramid of Bone. Rainbow Remnants in Rock Bottom Ghetto Sky. Small Congregations. Tokyo Butter. The titles alone are provocative enough to evoke curiosity about her poems. Each of these volumes sits on my poetry bookcase side by side because they are all by the same poet—Thylias Moss. The last poem I loved led me back to reading all these books, to trace the arc and trajectory. How did she write two books to get to that poem? How did Moss move from “Lessons from a Mirror” to her more recent work?
“Lessons from a Mirror” is from Moss’ third collection. Pyramid of Bone was part of the Callaloo Poetry Series, which published early books by Rita Dove, Brenda Marie Osbey, and Elizabeth Alexander. “Lessons from a Mirror” is a concise gathering of 10 couplets that articulates the contrast between a woman of color and someone who she will never be, Snow White. The title itself recalls the wicked stepmother queen asking for the truth from a mirror, which can be a difficult object for women to face as they age or otherwise depart from unrealistic standards of beauty.
The first stanza merely describes Snow White as so white that she’s thought to be nude, indistinguishable from her wedding dress, which further hints at the idea that a matrimonial dress is more ideal for her than it is for others. The speaker places herself beside Snow White as if both are art pieces when “the proximity is good/for a study in chiaroscuro, not much else.” It calls to mind how race is a social construct, even when the two people compared are both objectified.
“Her name aggravates me most, as if I need to be told/what’s white and what isn’t.” This line further magnifies the awareness of the speaker about her own otherness. The following couplet reads like an aside that infers just that: “Judging strictly by appearance there’s a future for me/forever at her heels, a shadow’s constant worship.” This not only implies a sense of possible servitude but a sense that a shadow, darkness will always be beneath whiteness that darkness must bow and defer as an underling.
Her next couplet turns interrogative, asking is it fair “to live that way, unable/to get off the ground?” Must the speaker be trapped and static, doomed to a life beneath others?
The first line of the next couplet steps in another direction. “Turning the tables isn’t fair unless they keep turning.” Again, the speaker is alluding to a perpetual motion of true equality that one side, black or white cannot maintain power too long without becoming corrupt, but she follows with “then there’s the danger of Russian roulette” which immediately places Snow White and the speaker taking turns spinning the chamber of a gun and pulling the trigger hoping for a solitary click without thundering death. In this scenario, both women have an equal shot at a similar outcome.
The deliberate choice of continuing the thought to the next couplet recalls that the speaker is beneath something else again: “and my disadvantage nothing falls from the sky/to name me. The speaker knows that her odds are not better than Snow White’s. There is nothing above her in the sky with which she can claim hierarchical kinship.
In stanzas 8 and 9, the speaker becomes less than a shadow. She claims “I am the empty space where the tooth was, that my tongue/rushes to fill because I can’t stand vacancies.” She is an absence and she is doing her best to fill it. One hopes that she can stand herself or at least hope that she knows that she is not a vacancy in comparison to Snow White. The tongue as placeholder is not enough. Neither is a penis that “just fills another gap.” This is the only point in the poem where she repeats a phrase—“And it’s not enough.” To say this, recalls how black people have often had to work much harder to gain a toehold similar to counterparts of another race, a toehold that has become increasingly more difficult to gain as shown in recent Pew Research Center study about wealth accumulation and loss in the U.S.
When the speaker arrives at the final couplet of this poem, it is not the dainty click of a latch on a jewelry box. It is the drop of a hammer. The idea of absence transforms into another possibility: “When you look at me,/know that more than white is missing.” The absence, what is missing, is a sort of signifying. The speaker leaves room for other qualities that are not articulated, noticed, or understood by anyone who may not see more than chiaroscuro or a shadow. There is so much said in this poem by not saying the overt, easy line, which is difficult to do in poems that confront identity. The shorter lines, hard endstops, and hard consonants make this poem halt at points that reinforce the speaker’s tone.
I knew I loved this poem because I had to read it several times, then show it to other poets. We had a similar response of shock and awe of how Moss elucidated this feeling of inequity so succinctly. A link to the poem even traveled among Facebook pages for at least a week, which can be a lifetime in the viral world of the social networking.
After revisiting Anne Sexton’s poems in Transformations or Lucille Clifton’s biblical poems many times and looking at recent work like Barbara Jane Reyes’ Diwata, Marjorie Tesser’s The Magic Feather, Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s Miracle Fruit, Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, and the anthology The Poets’ Grimm, I’m reminded of how necessary and jarring it is to see archetypal stories deconstructed, retold, or even replaced with more inclusive stories.