In Fellini's 8½, movie director Guido Anselmi can't decide what to include in his new film, so he decides to include everything. "In my movie everything happens," he says. "I'm putting everything in. Even a sailor who does the soft shoe." And then, out of the shadows, comes a sailor dancing a jig.
Thylias Moss's sixth collection of poems, Last Chance for the Tarzan Holler, is packed with such dancing sailors. Like Guido, Moss seems bent on putting every available association into her work, from St. Anthony to the Smurfs and Medea to Susan Smith. You understand you're in the presence of an omnivorous sensibility from the moment you see the book: it's thick–116 pages, including three pages of notes–and square, to accommodate Moss's extraordinarily long lines, which often run to twenty or thirty syllables. These poems begin slowly and gradually gather associative steam, hauling aboard any idea or image that crosses the path of the poet's train of thought. "A Shoe in the Road" begins with a soiled white pump Moss notices on the asphalt, and then goes on to catalog the resulting associations. I quote at length to give a sense of Moss's lung power:
. . . I'm thinking the shoe
is the start of this trail: shoe here, wallet miles away, purse
in a drainage ditch, her whereabouts un-known, missing,
presumed to have disappeared like the subtle act of minutes
becoming years and regret, unnoticed be cause of the good
fraud of tomorrow; scarf caught on a rudderin Vancouver,
carried there the way good intentions, balloons, messages
and medicines in bottles can span incredible odds and distances,
germs and fragrances hitchhike in water, air, hopeful
as gyroscopes, and claim the world, global links triggered
by practically nothing at all: a shoe in the road
that fell from a bag hastily packed as a woman who hadn't
in years but believed one evening would again dance, fled
a brutality increasingly possible to imagine
behind game show doors and car doors, all doors
or that hit the road falling from a mishandled generosity
when it wasn't loaded well on the charity's blue truck
— still there was something contrary to aggression
behind the gesture although this shoe probably
won't be the one helping someone recover fox trots . . .
What strikes me here (in addition to the dizzying length of this sentence, which continues for another five stanzas) is the poet's willingness to follow her thought process even when it takes wrong turns. Moss imagines the shoe came from the "bag hastily packed" of a woman fleeing danger, drops this theory, and then, perhaps riffing on the "car doors" image, proposes that the shoe bounced off the back of a Salvation Army truck. But after two lines she drops that too, and goes back to the fleeing woman. Any poetry workshop, exercising its primal drive to smooth rough edges, would urge the deletion of those two "charity truck" lines–they are clearly a misstep, a first-draft feint that shouldn't have made it to the finished poem. But this is precisely Moss's modus operandi: the poem is a map of the course of her thought, however circuitous.
The resulting expansive, loquacious quality of Moss's poems is both her most exciting achievement and her most dangerous weakness. At times the speed of her associations is thrilling and illuminating, as in "After Reading Beloved," where the poet jumps from an infanticide scene on an episode of M.A.S.H. to the atomic bomb to the Garden of Eden, and ends with a complicated, strange, provocative vision that encompasses both the nurturing and the loss associated with motherhood:
Need ruined everything: the child screamed
for itself, for its mother, and as soon as it affirmed
its life, the mother's hand clamped tightly against lips
and nose small as a bud.
We know what the atom can do;
Eve pulled down that first red one, split it with her teeth
and survived. We still survive termination, not all of us
but enough to ruin eugenics, politics, sport, and convenience.
Some termination may be necessary to prove this:
The mother on the bus suffocated her baby, refusing
the gas that suspended the consciousness of chickens
because she thought her breast could do it better.
Sometimes it can well after weaning, and by then,
someone else did it for salvation; Mary did not have to wield
the hammers forcing in nails slightly rounded like her nipples.
But other poems slip out of their harnesses and run wild. Moss says in a note to the long poem "Sour Milk" that the poem "began to behave much as the event horizon of a black hole, pulling all of the available into its composition, warping the surrounding space, and allowing nothing that entered it to escape." This is certainly an apt description of this poem's structure; whether that is a good thing, however, is an open question.
Moss begins "Sour Milk" with a discomfiting vision of milk's purity made deadly by spoilage, echoing the double-edged sense of motherhood expressed in "After Reading Beloved" and revisiting the ideas of infection and mutation, each of which appears in a number of poems here. The spoiled milk leads Moss quite gracefully to a passage about a Mexican woman, "a victim of her country, her company," whose body is soured by HIV, and who passes the infection to Moss's brother-in-law, who had come to Mexico to "search for a woman (la vaca) who knew all the tricks of corn/ that he knew in Muncie." Moss renders this relationship movingly, not shrinking from the horror but also celebrating the love these two people had for each other:
. . . She loved him, she loved
him not, loved him on a pallet on the floor, comfortable
until his i.v. got in the way of the rectangle on the floor, his
panel in the miles and miles of quilt, the distance
love is supposed to last.
Up to this point, "Sour Milk" provides an excellent example of how long poems allow for depths of emotional and intellectual intensity impossible to attain in short poems. When we arrive, after five pages, at this resonant image of the AIDS quilt, with its sudden enjambment and zoom out heavenward, it feels like a symphony is coming to end. But instead of letting the poem end on this perfect note, the unstoppable Moss again strikes up the band:
And God, don't forget that God loved him
and loved P. T. Barnum–has to love a good hoax . . .
Thus begins the poem's third act: a catalogue of Barnum's freaks, a reference to Saartjie Baartmann, a.k.a. the Hottentot Venus, an African woman displayed as a freak at carnivals in nineteenth-century France, and a brief discussion of modern fertility treatments and genetic engineering. It isn't difficult to see how this third movement connects thematically with the rest of the poem. But the casual jump from the brother-in-law with AIDS to Barnum's "Fejee Mermaid" seems bizarre and a bit cold. We understand that both "died in great agony," but are we to understand that Moss feels the same grief for each? A similar question emerges from "Glory," Moss's poem in praise of fire. Echoing Walter Pater's exhortation to artists to "burn always with this hard, gemlike flame," Moss here encourages the reader to "Give yourself to the glory . . . to the astronomical temperature where there's instant outburst into flame." Throughout the poem, Moss uses fire to represent the soul's apotheosis:
Combustion likewise is marvelous, when the blaze
is spirit ever expanding, enacting some incredible reaching
before firefighters arrive to condemn something
it is a pity to destroy. There is disappointment
in water mastering glory thought too mighty to be extinguished
but this is not a defect in glory; it is a defect in water.
The odd thing is that many of Moss's examples of fire through the course of the poem involve the use of fire as a murder weapon, and she seems to make no judgment to differentiate this type of fire from the purifying, energizing, glorious type of fire she praises throughout the poem. This stanza about the Hindu ritual ofsati, where a widow suicides on her husband's funeral pyre, often under pressure from the community, does not condone the practice, but hardly condemns it either:
Occupied houses sometimes go up in flames; yes, the body is such
a structure. Sati is a ritual for widows. Charring of skin
is not meant to thrill or it would not repulse so many. But some marvel
at anything bright so intensely do they crave the luminous.
And later come these puzzling lines:
I don't mean to say embrace it, but if it looks when it detonates
like glory, then take no chances, fellowship with what little colored boys know
lashed and gasolined on the branches, im perfect crosses
with all the limbs intact, the wood undisciplined, the boys
a wild offering and given to God who could use them
since he's not the God he was in the past when he rejected certain
burnt offerings, clad his favorites in asbestos, outfitted the others
in salt; now he takes whatever he's given, revision into neuter
in the Oxford inclusive language new testament
without old biases, without tradition, and without passion.
Again the poet's tone seems oddly casual as she conjures the horrific image of "colored boys . . . lashed and gasolined on the branches." This strange detachment is compounded when the stanza easily turns from the lynching image to an offhand critique of Oxford University Press's infamous "inclusive language" New Testament. Like the turn from the brother-in-law with HIV to the circus freaks in "Sour Milk," the metaphorical connections here are not difficult to make. But Moss's habit of putting the emotionally devastating and the merely intellectually or historically interesting on equal footing leaves me uneasy, and uncertain of the poem's true concerns. I don't think Moss intends to sound callous in these cases; my suspicion is that she simply has an incredibly abundant imagination and a serious allergy to editing.
Throughout Last Chance for the Tarzan Holler I am impressed most of all by Moss's passion, or what she might call "glory." When I first read these poems, they reminded me somewhat of Albert Goldbarth, who like Moss writes long poems chock full of historical, scientific, and mythological detail. But where Goldbarth's poems are fueled by (and appeal to) the intellect, Moss's poems are essentially visceral and emotional: they run on blood, bones, mother's milk, and fury. This is not to suggest that Goldbarth's poems are merely brainy, nor that Moss's poems are not intellectual–her references to subjects ranging from art history to physics, and her uncanny way of connecting such disparate references to convey a larger point, clearly demonstrate the contrary. But in the end, you'll remember Moss's erudition less than her gusto. "If you don't feel like you'll explode if you don't say it, don't say it," a writing teacher once told me. At the time, this struck me as a ridiculously romantic idea, and for me, it still is. Last Chance for the Tarzan Holler, though, maintains that kind of zeal from start to finish. Such ardor may cause Moss to go overboard on occasion, but then sometimes going overboard is more interesting than staying in the boat.