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

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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.

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