canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Execution Poems

by George Elliott Clarke 
Gaspereau Press, 2000

Review by Geoffrey Cook

This is the black before the blue: so popular that it has hit the presses twice. George Elliott Clarke’s Execution Poems were originally - and very beautifully, I’ve heard - issued in a hand-printed limited edition of 66 books in December of 2000. The foreword explaining the details of this hand-printing may be, for some, as interesting as the poetry: 25” x 19“ sheets were folded and trimmed to make a 12”18” paperback or leather-bound (hand sewn, both); and an original woodblock was engraved for the frontispiece by Wesley W. Bates of Ontario. The expensive limited edition sold out in a month. Luckily for us, Gaspereau Press, under the energetic and astute direction of Andrew Steeves, has issued a smaller, less expensive, but also very attractive edition.

Execution Poems is a black chapbook about Mr. Clarke’s cousins, George and Rufus Hamilton, who were hanged in 1949 for murdering a taxi driver with a hammer. The chapbook reveals Clarke’s huge talent with language: the trademark alliteration is as revved up as in the poet’s first collection, Saltwater Spirituals and Deeper Blues; lines and stanzas move confidently among free verse, prose poetry and the traditional structures of song; metaphors are righteously original; and the language of the art is given greater range by cocking an unsentimental ear to the words of the street: “slup”, “uglified” , “ruck”, “scarepriest”, “sliggery”, the ubiquitous “ain’t”. Here’s street language given its proper place beside any other:

Haligonian Market Cry

I got hallelujah watermelons! - virginal pears! - virtuous corn!
Munit haec altera vincit!
Luscious, fat-ass watermelons! - plump pears! - big-butt corn!
Le gusta este jardin!
Come-and-get-it cucumbers - hot-to-trot, lust-fresh cucumbers!
Voulez -vous coucher avec moi?
Watermelons! - Go-to-church-and-get-redeemed watermelons!
O peccatore, in verità!
Good God cucumbers! - righteous pears! - golden Baptist corn!
Die Reue ist doch nur ein leuchter Kauf!
I got sluttish watermelons! - sinful cucumbers! - jail-bait pears! -
Planted by Big-Mouth Chaucer and picked by Evil Shakespeare!

With all this language, you get, of course, a defiant, exuberant, provocative black-on-white (titles-in-blood-red) spirit dance of politics, racism, religion, psycho-sexual song and grumble, all whipping the reader on. Shocking, comic, controversial, a liberation of both fact and fiction for the sake of song, “Execution Poems” gives a nastily clear image of “how history darkens against its medium” (from “Childhood II”):


XXXLe nègre negated, meagre, c’est moi:
A whiskey-coloured provincial, uncouth
Mouth spitting lies, vomit-lyrics, musty,
Masticated scripture. Her Majesty’s
Nasty, Nofaskoshan Negro, I mean
To go out shining instead of tarnished,
To take apart poetry like a heart.
XXXMy black face must preface murder for you.

“My speech? Pretty ugly,” says George in “Trial I”:

My English is like fractured China - broken.
I really speak Coloured, but with a Three Mile Plains accent.
See, I can’t speak Lucasville and my New Road’s kinda weak.
Ma English be a desert that don’t bloom less watered by rum.

Or as Rue retorts to the Crown, complimenting the murderer’s “almost perfect English”: “But, your alabaster, marble English isn’t mine: I hurl / insolent daggers at it like an assassin assaulting a statue... My duty is to make narrative more telling...”

While we are made to empathize with the murderers, certainly these fellows expose a history of ignorance, racism, violence, poverty, and, well, desire: as much to overcome as to be buried in this tragic destiny. The entertainment of Execution Poems never lets a reader escape the horror which bred such beauty: instead of a proper education in literature, which Rue dreamed of, he witnesses (in prose):

A boy’s right arm stuck to a desk with scissors; a father knifed in the gut while shaking hands with a buddy; two Christians splashed with gasoline and set ablaze in a church; a harlot garroted in her bath; a bootlegger shot through the eye in a liquor store; a banker brained in a vault; two artists thrown into the Gaspereau River with their hands tied behind their backs; a pimp machine-gunned to bits outside a school; a divine getting his throat slit; a poet axed in the back of the neck; a Tory buried alive in cement; two diabetics fed cyanide secreted in chocolates; a lawyer decapitated in his office.

In Rue’s world, sex-education opens Pandora’s (black) box of desire:

Hatchets of sunlight; a horse’s black ass; a decayed dreamer in a cell of dung; Ma in an attitude of licking my bum; grotesque, gaudy insects; disgusting infants with snakes’ heads; me inside a drum hammered shut, cringing; vomiting; statues with eyeholes bandaged over; reptiles’ puncturing fangs; plush cockroaches crawling and crawling into and out of my mouth; red stench of ass blood; a priest being shat on by a dog; a vague idea of flaps of flesh from incisions made during sodomy. I hear comparisons of me to a pig, a monkey, a cow. I am alone much. The burden of bitch-birthed bastardy.

The lives rendered in Execution Poems only seem cheap; the book is; immerse yourself in it - as black, deep, fast, strong, fatal, and fun as Nova Scotian water.

Geoffrey Cook is one of The Danforth Review's Poetry Editors.







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