Get our latest essays, archival selections, reading lists, and exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox.
Slave Moth: A Narrative in Verse
Persea Books, $24 (cloth)
The complex success of Thylias Moss’s Slave Moth lies in how three genres—slave narrative, romance, and Bildungsroman—are fused into one narrative through a powerfully-drawn protagonist. Varl Perry, a young slave taught to read and write by her mother, imagines herself a “larva drawing its silk back and forth” as she stitches verse into stolen cloth to make “a cocoon I can wear under my dress / these first squares pinned / across my chest to change my heart / the next ones to be the underside / of my scarf those days I choose to / tie up my hair to change my mind / and then keep it from changing back.” The book’s revisionary central conceits—that not Christian salvation but authorship is the slave’s road to freedom, and that Varl’s talents, not just her body, pique Master Perry’s libido—render each of these genres a metaphor for the others. While Varl’s stitching, “the most useful / thing for thinking,” yokes slave narrative tropes to those of a writer’s education, the verse beneath her dress disturbs the plantation’s erotic power dynamics. Thus Slave Moth is not simply a romance but a study in triangulation. It is also a parable of reading: when in a climactic scene Varl’s writing draws her mother and all the narrative’s male characters around her in judgment, she asks herself, “What did this look like to them?” An inviting flirtation with Master, insulting the white women’s inferior powers? A love song to her fellow slave Dobbs? A coming into her own that her mother made possible? It is the achievement of Slave Moth that Varl’s writing is each of these. However, Moss’s prosody beats quickest with critique: in traditional resolution—which in slave narratives means freedom; in romances, marriage; and in Bildungsroman, education—her imagination slackens, and Slave Moth concludes in a vague embrace. What freedom Varl finds with the flatly drawn, near-speechless Dobbs unfortunately lacks the passion of the fraught erotics of mastering Master Perry’s language.
Brian Teare, a 2020 Guggenheim fellow, is the author of six critically acclaimed books, most recently Companion Grasses, The Empty Form Goes All the Way to Heaven, and Doomstead Days, winner of the Four Quartets Prize. His honors include the Birittingham Prize and Lambda Literay and Publishing Triangle Awards, as well as fellowships from the NEA, the Pew Foundation, and the MacDowell Colony. After over a decade of teaching and writing in the San Francisco Bay Area, and eight years in Philadelphia, he’s now Associate Professor at the University of Virginia, and lives in Charlottesville, where he makes books by hand for his micropress, Albion Books.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
The vast hinterlands of the Global South’s cities are generating new solidarities and ideas of what counts as a life worth living.
Protests in China are shining a light not only on the country’s draconian population management but restrictions on workers everywhere.
Support us with a donation this giving season.