On Wings of Song: A Journey into the Civil Rights Era, by Molly Lynn Watt


Molly Lynn Watt’s latest poetry collection is a memoir of her work in the Civil Rights movement in 1963. It compellingly captures the time and the emotions surrounding it, the dangers and the innocence.

The book opens with a few poems describing incidents from her childhood that introduced this New England girl to racism and Jim Crow. The bulk of the book is made up of poems describing a time in the pivotal year of 1963 when she and her husband and two toddlers went to Tennessee to lead the new Highlander School, dedicated to training interracial volunteers to register voters in the South.

Traveling through the South, they are exposed to Jim Crow in chilling incidents. Their integrated caravan is refused service at restaurants and gas stations. Worse, they learn that trying to register voters can have fatal consequences.

She captures the fear in terse, direct lines. From “Tonight”, describing their first night at the Highlander School.

fireflies spark by the window
cans rattle in the alcove—
Mr. Tillman Cadle is arriving

we’re weary fake sleep
feel Tillman hover
sense his shotgun over us
throughout the night
Tillman stumbles and mutters
there’s going to be trouble

As it turns out he is the owner of the land, which he’s provided to the school. He’s there to guard them, not harm them, but as the author says later in the poem “Tillman Cadle/knew trouble when he smelled it”. The young family and their friends are about to meet trouble first-hand.

The final section of the book ponders the changes since that time, from her elderly mother’s apology for refusing their phone calls back then to her granddaughter’s refusal to vote, not understanding how fragile and incomplete this armistice is.

Watt says that she chose to write this memoir in poems “to limit my discomfort” in reliving that terrifying time when hatred and prejudice bared their face to her. For a memoir to matter, for it to grab the reader and not let her go, you have to plunge back into the storm, the one you thought you’d come to terms with long ago. The emotions are still there for you to find if you dig deeply enough.

Watt does. Each poem rings true.

There are plenty of other reasons for using poetry to write memoir. Poetry’s concentration of experience into a few lines makes the reader pay attention to every word and has the power to shock us into experiencing a revelation or moment of deep emotion.

Too, poetry’s use of imagery can assuage the author’s fear of revealing too much. Wrapping secrets in metaphor and motif not only gives the reader a tantalizing challenge, but also offers the author a semblance of protection. And a poetry collection, by breaking the story into fragments, mimics the way our memory works: an image here, a bit of dialogue there, a certain smell or glance of light.

Watt’s book is something to treasure, capturing a time and a body of experience that too many now forget. It’s a valuable resource for anyone curious about using poetry to write memoir. Most of all, though, it is a collection of powerful poems that leap from the page.

Have you read a memoir written as poetry? What did you think of it?

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a digital copy of this book free from the author, who is a friend of mine. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

On the Threshold of Winter, by Michael Hersch


Not a book this week, or rather a production that started as a book. In 1996, Romanian poet Marin Sorescu died of liver cancer. Earlier that year he had been nominated for a Nobel Prize in Literature, and he did not stop writing after his diagnosis. In the last five weeks of his life, he wrote a searing collection of poems, later published as Puntea (The Bridge), much of it dictated to his wife, Virginia.

Taking these poems as his libretto, composer Michael Hersch created On the Threshold of Winter. It is a monodrama, that is, an opera for one voice. I heard it performed by soprano Ah Young Hong and the NUNC ensemble conducted by Tito Muñoz.

I not only heard it, I drowned in it. This stunning performance seized me from the start and immersed me in its tides of emotion. I was swept up in these last cries of grief and despair and anger and longing. Pulled this way and that, repeatedly ratcheted up and released, until reduced to the final letting go, the quiet liberation.

Hersch’s works have been performed around the world by acclaimed conductors with major orchestras and chamber ensembles. He also teaches composition at the Peabody Institute, where Ah Young Hong also teaches voice. Hong’s performance was astonishing. I cannot begin to calculate the physical and emotional strain of singing and enacting such a strenuous role for two hours. She received a well-deserved standing ovation, sustained for some time through repeated curtain calls. The audience simply would not let her go.

Full disclosure: I am acquainted with Ms. Hong. But I defy anyone to experience such a performance without being overwhelmed with awe and admiration at her achievement.

But let’s get down to business. I had not previously encountered these poems, but reading over the libretto before the performance I was horrified on Sorescu’s behalf to read that Hersch had broken them apart and rearranged them. After some thought, though, I realised that such intervention was needed.

A monodrama—or any other theatrical production—calls for a drastically different structure from that of a poetry collection. Hersch repositioned the fragments of poems to create a sustained narrative, with rising and falling action, with dramatic scenes, with a resounding climax. And we still get the power and beauty of the lines (from the translation by Adam J. Sorkin and Lidia Vianu), such as these:

I balance on something frail . . .

Blasted apart by the spasms
Of a fierce whirlwind
A bridge between nothing and nothing
I have not asked to cross.

I’m not a musician, so I cannot comment on the music, though it certainly supported and enclosed the singer and the song, as one dancer supports another through intricate lifts and catches her when she leaps.

I do want to credit the stage director: James Matthew Daniel. The imaginative set, while spare, gave the solo performer much room for action. Large erections of scaffolding were hung with fabric and plastic. Ms. Hong at times climbed them or arduously pushed them into new positions. Statues, a bed, flowers, and a few other bits and pieces each served its purpose.

Ms. Hong’s costumes enhanced the role. Starting with an enveloping hooded bathrobe, each change revealed a bit more, even as the character’s last self was stripped as she approached the end.

When we write, we are limited to the page, hoping to evoke in readers the kind of sounds and visions delivered directly by a stage production. But there is much to learn here about pacing and setting and blocking and how to use such a limited palette to stun your audience.

What stage production have you seen recently that knocked you sideways?

Netherland, by Joseph O’Neill


This is one of those books that I appreciated rather than enjoyed. Sure, there are beautiful sentences and sentences whose intelligence, perception, and depth of emotion require no ornamentation. There are quick, deft depictions of character, such as this one of our narrator, Hans:

“Let me introduce myself properly,” Chuck said. “Chuck Ramkissoon.” We shook hands. “Van der Broek,” he said, trying out the name. “South African?”

“I’m from Holland,” I said, apologizing.

Boy, are there characters. Chuck hails from Trinidad but is 100% American, with his handful of shady businesses, his huge appetite for life, and his outsize dream of saving the world by establishing a cricket club in an abandoned field on the edge of the city. Through him, Hans meets and becomes a part of a subculture of cricket clubs, made up of émigrés, himself the only white one.

Much as I appreciated the writing—more about that later—I have to admit that I was bored. So much so that about halfway through I set the book aside for two weeks, and debated whether to finish it or not. First off, I don’t share the fascination those who live or have lived in New York seem to have for novels about what it’s like to live in that city. Surely they know already. I am more fascinated by The Hague and deeply enjoyed the brief flashbacks to Hans’s youth. I was also fascinated by his enigmatic mother, by far the most interesting character to me, though barely present.

Secondly, the plot is not an attention-grabber. We learn in the first few pages that Chuck’s body has been found in a canal and that Hans and his wife have been estranged but are now back together. The exploration of cricket and Chuck’s world are somewhat interesting, but the story of yet another middle-aged man, estranged from his life and feeling disconnected from his fellow humans doesn’t excite me. At least there are those beautiful and penetrating sentences.

Some people have no difficulty in identifying with their younger incarnations: Rachel, for example, will refer to episodes from her childhood or college days as if they’d happened to her that very morning. I, however, seem given to self-estrangement. I find it hard to muster oneness with those former selves whose accidents and endeavors have shaped who I am now.

A little background: Hans, who grew up in The Hague and lived in London before moving to New York, is a successful equities analyst for a large bank. In the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Center, he and his wife and young son take up temporary abode in the Chelsea Hotel. The dislocation and the danger prompt Rachel to take the child and move back to London. Her refusal to let Hans come with them signals her intent to end the marriage.

If this almost casual use of the 2001 attacks is one of the successes of the novel—for once they are not used to ratchet up drama and sentiment—Rachel is one of its failures. Presented as active in contrast to Hans’s passivity, she is a mass of unexplained contradictions, secrets, and sometimes seemingly random decisions. While such a depiction makes sense given that we are being told the story by the mystified, miserable, and angry Hans, it turns Rachel into a chesspiece designed to move the story along rather than a person.

I liked the depiction of the fellowship Hans forms with his fellow cricketers, the way they watch out for each other even though their lives only intersect in this one area. I was not particularly charmed by Chuck, whom some reviewers have compared to Gatsby, and questioned why Hans became so involved with him. I derived some amusement from random oddball characters—no, I don’t want to give them away—but after living in Baltimore, they seemed mild to me.

I’m left with the beautiful and unexpected passages, such as this one:

The business world is densely margined by dreamers, men, almost invariably, whose longing selves willingly submit to the enchantment of projections and pie charts and crisply totted numbers, who toy and toy for years, like novelists, with the same sheaf of documents, who slip out of bed in the middle of the night to pitch to a pajama’d reflection in a windowpane.

I appreciate the transnational perspective brought by O’Neill, who is of Irish and Turkish descent, grew up in The Netherlands, and now lives in the U.S. His memoir, Blood-Dark Track, should prove interesting.

Have you ever set a book aside for a few weeks and then gone back to it? What did you end up thinking about it?

Fierce Attachments, by Vivian Gornick


In The Situation and the Story, Gornick’s classic writing craft book, she describes the difference between the two as the situation being what happened—the plot—and the story being “the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.” A memoir includes both the experience and the author’s perspective on it. She goes on to say, “What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened.”

Gornick’s highly praised memoir, Fierce Attachments, explores her relationship with her mother. In the introduction Jonathan Lethem calls the book “mad” and “brilliant”, but it is more than that. The story of these two women, and the other men and women drawn into their orbit, drives forward with an intensity and, yes, ferocity that I’ve rarely encountered.

It starts out in an all-Jewish apartment building in the Bronx, where Gornick’s mother reigned over her neighbors by virtue of “the certainty of her manner”. Supremely self-confident, riding on the myth of her perfect marriage to a man who adores her, she exercises her authority, giving advice and arbitrating quarrels.

She seemed never to be troubled by the notion that there might be two sides to a story, or more than one interpretation of an event. She knew that, compared with the women around her, she was “developed”—a person of higher thought and feeling—so what was there to think about?

Gornick powerfully describes that world of women, the world of the kitchen that looked out on the alley in the back of the building, the gossip exchanged and schedules arranged while leaning out of the window hanging wet clothes on the line. But she also shows us how limiting that world could be, how her mother despised it, channeling her restlessness and boredom, like a torrent confined to a narrow gulley. “Passive in the morning, rebellious in the afternoon, she was made and unmade daily. She fastened hungrily on the only substance available to her, became affectionate toward her own animation, then felt like a collaborator.”

The structure of the book brilliantly reinforces this double view; like a stereoscope we get the experience of the past and Gornick’s present-day perspective on it. Chapters alternate between stories of the past and current interactions with her now-aged mother during their marathon walks of the streets of New York.

I read recently, though I can’t remember where, that the tension created by these two sometimes conflicting views of the past is one reason memoirs are so fascinating. Even in a memoir written entirely from a child’s viewpoint, we know that it is the adult author who is selecting and arranging incidents for us.

In her craft book, Gornick delves into memoirists “whose work records a steadily changing idea of the emergent self.” And it is Gornick’s self, forged by encounters with her strong-willed and much-loved mother, who finally captured my attention in this book. As in the best memoirs, Gornick wastes no time on complaints, but rather treats her mother with love and respect, even if sometimes also with exasperation. Gornick doesn’t spare herself, but admits her own mistakes. And I think we all know that moment when we look in the mirror and see our parent’s face looking back at us.

Gornick goes on to say of the memoirists in her craft book, “But for each of them a flash of insight illuminating that idea grew out of the struggle to clarify one’s own formative experience; and in each case the strength and beauty of the writing lie in the power of concentration with which this insight is pursued, and made to become the writer’s organizing principle. That principle at work is what makes a memoir literature rather than testament.” (emphasis mine)

Fierce Attachments is truly literature, and a story you will not forget.

What memoirs do you recommend?