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That Bird Has My Wings: An Acrostic Pantoum About Death Row Prisoner Jarvis Jay Masters

Listen to Carolyne Wright read her touching poem, “That Bird Has My Wings,” and don’t miss the author’s note below on why her acrostic pantoum vertically spells out the name Jarvis Jay Masters, an African-American on death row in a California prison.

Carolyne Wright reads “That Bird Has My Wings”

That Bird Has My Wings

By Carolyne Wright

Just look at that gull soaring over the yard,
All its feathers bright in the unfettered sun. It
Reminds me this prison’s not my home. My thoughts
Veer aloft with that bird’s wings. My wings.

Its feathers are bright in the unshackled sun. Its
Solitary flight shows me my destiny—
Just soar me aloft with that bird’s wings. My wings.
All season they lift me in breeze over the bay, and say

“Your solitary flight shows that your destiny
Marks the edge of many human circles.” Wings,
Always lift me in breeze over the bay, to say
“Stay your hand, that bird has my wings.”

They mark the edge of many human circles
Entering this prison, not my home, where my heart
Reminds me: Hand, stay — that bird has my wings.
So lift up your eyes to him, soaring over the yard.

Author’s Note: Jarvis Jay Masters (born 1962) is an African-American on death row in San Quentin. He arrived there in 1981, convicted of armed robbery, and was moved to death row after being convicted of taking part in the murder of a prison guard. In prison he has become a Buddhist and has written a book, “That Bird Has My Wings: Autobiography of an Innocent Man on Death Row.” The title comes from an incident that took place in the prison yard while Masters was thinking about life outside. Another inmate began to throw something at a sea gull, and Masters, without thinking, put out his hand to stop him. The other inmate angrily demanded to know why, and Masters replied, “I did that because that bird has my wings.” The other man was so startled by this unexpected reply that he did not retaliate. Other prisoners, who had gathered around hoping to see a fight, began to laugh, and tension was broken.

Carolyne Wright’s most recent collections are “Mania Klepto: the Book of Eulene” (Turning Point Books, 2011); “A Change of Maps” (Lost Horse Press, 2006), finalist for the Alice Fay di Castagnola Award of the PSA, and nominated for the Los Angeles Times Book Award; and “Seasons of Mangoes and Brainfire” (Carnegie Mellon U Press / EWU Books, second edition 2005), which won the Blue Lynx Prize and American Book Award.

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