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NONFICTION: Prison Cages, Death Rows

Jarvis Jay Masters
That Bird Has My Wings: The Autobiography of an Innocent Man on Death Row
(Harper One, 2009)

Both law enforcement officials and readers the world over have a fetish for incarceration. There are now roughly 2.3 million people behind bars in this country, five times more than in 1978. With so many imprisoned individuals there is sure to be a proliferation of prison memoirs and a readership hungry to live vicariously in the confines and conditions of an existence they may know cinematically, but generally not by experience (a recent statistic suggests that one out of every hundred Americans is now in a municipal, county, state, or federal prison, so perhaps the experience deficit will alter).

The prison memoir is a multifaceted form, dispensing chronicles, confessions, defenses, and declamations. Its tonal register is vast. Like any pressurized form of writing, the memoir can either explode in under-narrativized expostulation and tedious commentary, or else concentrate and distil its function and purpose into a coextensive examination of social condition and subjective experience. Prison writings in the past century by Countess Markiewicz, Alexander Berkman, Sacco and Vanzetti, Antonio Gramsci, George Jackson, Wole Soyinka, and John Henry Abbott—to list an eclectic few—employ various methods to incorporate the extremity of prison existence and reflect differing levels of attentiveness to that existence. But while the carceral imagination is potentially vast, the literary form which reveals it is not.

San Quentin inmate Jarvis Jay Masters’s That Bird Has My Wings reads like a standard prison memoir, incorporating the narrative of his pre-prison life, familial and criminal, and his death penalty conviction and Buddhist conversion. But no one experiences a standard-issue life, so this
tracking of urban poverty, drug addiction, adoption, violence, race, justice and crime is a harrowing social dissection of contemporary America. Instead of dwelling on the death penalty issue, Masters’s account focuses on prison conditions, personal privations, and the capacities for intellectual and imaginative resolve to persevere.

Some episodes of this memoir ramble tediously while others are compressed temporally and descriptively so recalled events are ill-defined. Historical dates are used so sparingly that the time frame is usually uncertain. While clichéd phrases do not abound, they do crop up and distress the narrative’s often engrossing development. Moreover, the decision to use dialogue throughout works to dramatic effect, though such effect is not needed with such a powerful story (besides, anyone who can recall every situation of their life should be headed to a psychiatric institution, not a correctional one).

Despite these shortcomings, That Bird Has My Wings remains a chilling, effective testimonial. The curious redemption Masters enjoys through Buddhism could have been conveyed to seem eccentric or, worse, shot through with the over-wrought enthusiasm and advocacy of the newly converted. Fortunately, the spiritual dimension of his experience is elaborated with elegance and insight. So too his guilt for a criminal career, and this particular apologia pro sua vita is proof-positive that prison made this writer, and it would be another indictment on the law to unmake him by murdering him.


Jon Curley

Poet and critic Jon Curley is a New Englander currently living in New Jersey.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2009

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