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Tale of a Sky-Blue Dress

Tale of a Sky-Blue Dress

by Thylias Moss

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Within my life's present unified theory of being, splendor divests itself of its own integrity, splitting to belong to everything that notices it, each part as effective as the whole splendid thing. It belongs to whatever wants it and is inexhaustible even as someone lays dying, even as someone else cries thinking there is none, their tears becoming prisms. .


Within my life's present unified theory of being, splendor divests itself of its own integrity, splitting to belong to everything that notices it, each part as effective as the whole splendid thing. It belongs to whatever wants it and is inexhaustible even as someone lays dying, even as someone else cries thinking there is none, their tears becoming prisms. . .

With these words, the acclaimed poet Thylias Moss proclaims a hymn to the power of light over darkness, both in her own life, and in the wider world. In this, her first prose work, the author of six books of poetry and winner of the most distinguished honors—including a MacArthur Fellowship Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, an NEA Fellowship and a Writing Award—delivers a brilliant, passionate, and utterly moving memoir.

It is the story of the only child of a maid and factory worker who moved to Ohio from the segregated South of the fifties. Raised with much love, she flourished until the age of five, when disaster struck, in the form of a girl in sky-blue dress. Her childhood was shattered by this girl, her babysitter, who took pleasure from infliction pain, and whose reign of terror, even after its abrupt end, would send poisonous tendril further into her life.

Yet ultimately, TALE OF A SKY-BLUE DRESS is about how a young woman retrieved her life from the grasp of darkness. It is about refusing to accept tyranny. It is about feasting on splendor. How can there not be pain in a world spinning madly, in the lovely calculable chaos. . .? asks Thylias. But, she says, I am saying that joy is too necessary to abandon.

Editorial Reviews

Paula Friedman
. . .Moss ponders large philosophical questions like the nature of good and evil. . . .her analysis of her own surrender is impressive in its depth and unwillingness to settle for the simple role of victim. . .
The New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
'Splendor is not defined by tyranny, for I knew joy before I knew anything else,' writes award-winning poet Moss (Last Chance for the Tarzan Holler), whose gift for language permeates her memoir. She explores what she calls the opposing forces of good and evil that dominated her early years. Her mother, who was employed as a maid, and her father, a factory worker, lavished love and attention on their only child. But after the family moved to Ohio from the South when Moss was five, she was subjected, over a four-year period, to brutalization from Lytta, her 13-year-old baby-sitter. Moss, who never revealed Lytta's sadistic behavior to her parents, coped by surrendering to this victimization and keeping it emotionally distant from the rest of her family life. According to her, this initial surrender was followed by her later willingness to submit to cruel treatment from a girlfriend and from her first boyfriend, who forced her into a sexual relationship that resulted in an abortion. Moss credits her emergence into a happy marriage and a productive writing life to the capacity for joy that was also nurtured in her childhood.
Kirkus Reviews
An elegant, forthright exploration of the effects of evil on a fragile life—the author's. Moss, a MacArthur-winning poet, was barely five when she first met her demon: a girl in a sky-blue dress named Lytta Dorsey. After the Dorsey family moved into the apartment just below her parents' own in Cleveland, Lytta offered to babysit the young Thylias, initiating a reign of terror that lasted for years. Emotionally disturbed and evidently a blossoming sadist, the older girl dominated the younger, abusing her charge with increasing fervor until her attacks culminated in a rape of the little girl. Moss told no one at the time, distancing herself not only from her loving, unsuspecting parents but also from herself and her body. The effects of her silence were long-term and profound: Lytta's cruelty was later mimicked by a succession of men while Moss was still in her early teens. Now, aided by the strength of perspective and the power of language, she revisits her past to examine her own silence and the formative effect of her trauma on her identity as a writer. Although her story is undeniably grim, it concerns victimization less than the dangerous interplay between life and death, creativity and destruction. Moss even suggests that she wouldn't be who she is were it not for her intimate knowledge of evil, oppression, and pain. 'I am not saying accept torment and tyranny—no,' she writes, 'stop such forces if at all possible, but if those forces persist, as I believe they will, splendor, however muted its form, can help console, can help one plot and execute escape.' Her escape—aided by a gentle, prescient man who fell in love with her when she was 16 and later marriedher—is remarkable. A stylish, well-wrought memoir that forgoes self-pity for redemption.

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.29(w) x 8.02(h) x 0.81(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Washing the StormOut of Cumulonimbus

In Wade Park, a girl no bier than a good-sized goose runs after birds, her parents watching, her skirt tail rising, it the color of the color coming into their cheeks. They sit on a bench that faces Mount Sinai Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio, where I was born during a blizzard that my mother says buried cars. Even the cab taking her to the hospital in the early morning's darkness supposedly tunneled through snow. Every winter she tells me that no winter has been like that winter, the tone of her voice sometimes impressed with my involvement in the severity for its proving the power of something half hers, and the tone sometimes critical of my apparently having caused it, the perfect timing of birth and storm not coincidental. The snow line rose as she looked out the cab window whenever contractions permitted, and soon the snow prevailed.

As she says this, I envision suds in the Laundromat's frontloading Speed Queen triumphing over filth. And I can see then that her washing diapers in the commode was like washing the storm out of cumulonimbus, then flinging plump white geese back into the sky. Every moment if I listen carefully, I can hear her telling me something, although usually we are two hundred miles apart. Mostly she tells me that I've been blessed. As if I had caught those pigeons, sprinkled salt on their tails and grabbed them. My father could turn his hands into wings; they flew away with him in 1980. Blessed.

A night of love in Tennessee in May made that birth and bird chase possible.

By the day of our discharge from Mount Sinai, the city of Cleveland was allplowed; snow piled high on both sides of the street, higher at corners, seemed, I've been told, the supports of bridges that had collapsed. She said I did not cry until wind shrill through an ill-shutting north-facing window of the attic where we lived stirred a feather that drifted down from the sill as if it had been lost just then in flight. First chance I get, a girl no bigger than a good-sized goose chases pigeons. First chance I get, I commit to a reunion of bird and feather.

In the park that day, two of us, Mama and Baby Girl, are there with pecan skin glowing and Rh-negative blood warm underneath it, but the woman, her hair in such excellent curls they are uncrushable, does not know that we share this blood feature. Her positive husband does not pass the Rhesus factor to me, but she doesn't know this. She decides not to have another child for fear her own Rh-negative blood would put it at risk, my blood having sensitized hers to the presence of a harmful protein. She's not that kind of woman, one who could deliberately hurt her child no matter what vile personage her issue might become. Imagine her own blood attacking, shooting antibodies across the cord, the baby's blood devastated, the child stillborn or born suffering when upon exposure to air and light, brown pigmentation should begin to surge; born needing a transfusion, risking damage of the brain, destruction of all the possibilities you want to hold no matter who you are, where you are, what you are. There was no Rhogam in 1954 to destroy these antibodies; just one injection after the miscarriage, abortion or birth of an Rh-positive baby and the antibodies disappear. Still, I am without sisters.

At the park again later in the year, ice and snow dazzle me so much I don't seem as interested in pigeons. My parents, watching as before, are so glad it doesn't take much to delight this girl still no bigger than a good-sized goose. In fact, her father is going to tell her that night, the story of a girl that geese will surround, their feathers locked as tightly as a snow house. Around her they honk, their circle tightening, their feathers brushing against her, some of the feathers working their way into her skin until, when the circle widens, in the center is the Goose Princess who prefers wings to crown, and whose movements become more balanced and graceful. At times, her feet skim the ground.

Then I am invited to finish the story. I tell him what she can do with the wings. The imagination soars colossal. Is that all? he asks. Of course not, I say, then try to push something else out of my brain. It shouldn't be this difficult if, as he's told me, indeed there are no limits.

Although he doesn't say so, I know this has been elevation of wing, not denigration of crown. I know from this that dark little girls can assert themselves and boost the power of darkness without despising the pale wonders like him. I know that it is fine to think myself fine, that his fineness and mine can coexist, that one fineness does not detract from the other although these finenesses may seem opposed. The goose princess's little preference, despite its amplification since it is also my preference, does not affect crown. Crown is whatever it was before his little demonstration of choice. Its status remains. My father's paleness is a tower that as the sun sets, at the blessing hour of slanted light, takes on a radiant pecan hue.

In my notebooks, I begin drawing feathers. After the jelly's gone, Welch's jars are stuffed with feathers that come into the windows and that layer the yard. Looking at them closely, quill feathers mostly, the down feathers looking too likely to melt, and I want things lasting; looking closely, I see ribs radiating from shaft and calamus that seem like closed plastic-toothed zippers. I learn that feathers are a hundred millions years old, that the first fossilized feather was found in a Bavarian quarry, set in limestone, as if an ancient flying reptile was first to try to make an angel by sweeping the ground.

Meet the Author

Thylias Moss is a professor of English at the University of Michigan. The author of six volumes of poetry and two children's books, her work has also appeared in many journals and in four editions of Best American Poetry. She has won numerous honors, grants and awards, including a MacArthur Fellowship Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, an NEA Fellowship, and a Whiting Award. She lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, with her husband and two sons.

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