Get our latest essays, archival selections, reading lists, and exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox.
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 the mind 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 often enough.
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.
Thylias Moss’s most recent collection, Wannabe Hoochie Mama Gallery of Realities’ Red Dress Code: New and Selected Poems, will be published this fall by Persea. Her eight previous books of poetry include Last Chance for the Tarzan Holler, a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist, and Slave Moth, named Best Poetry Book of 2004 by Black Issues Book Review. She is is Professor Emerita in the departments of English and Art & Design at the University of Michigan and lives in Ypsilanti, Michigan. A video piece based on “Wannabe Hoochie Mama Gallery of Realities’ Red Dress Code” can be found here.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
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.
Robin D. G. Kelley on the midterm elections.
Austerity is not the only way to save our overextended planet. A simpler life might be both more pleasurable and more equal.
We must reject the legal liberalism that attempts to cordon off constitutional questions from democratic politics.
The United States ranked first on health security; then came COVID-19. In place of technocratic hubris, we need robust new forms of democratic humility.