Execution Poems by George Elliott Clarke

Winner of the 2001 Governor-General’s Award for Poetry

I have had the pleasure of seeing George Elliott Clarke read his poetry on several occasions; the first time in 2002 at a presentation he did for a Canadian poetry class I was taking at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax. Clarke is definitely one of the most entertaining readers I have seen. He does more than just read, he performs, he puts his heart and soul into the presentation of his work. In his 2001 collection, Execution Poems, this passion leaps off the page. In this short book, only around 30 pages of writing, Clarke tells the story of brothers George and Rufus Hamilton, who were actually Clarke’s cousins, who killed a taxi driver in Fredericton in 1949 and were hanged for their crime only a few months later. This book has been on my “to buy/read” list for a long time so when I finally ordered it a few months ago I was very excited. The street I grew up on, Hamilton Street, is actually named after the Hamilton family of which George and Rufus were a part of. Clarke in this small collection looks at racism, desperation, and examines whether things really have changed almost a half-century since the hanging.

This book has a strong narrative arc with most of the poems told from the point-of-view of either George, Rufus (or Rue), or both. The writing is done in a conversational tone which greatly enhances the desperation of the characters circumstances. The central pair seems to be fairly well-education, or at least well read, in comparison to their socio-economic contemporaries. The author sets a scene of fear for the pair: beginning with a fear of starvation and eventually ending with fear of the consequences of their actions. The poem “The Killing” is my favorite in this collection, and I think this is actually one of Clarke’s best poems in his entire library. Clarke has the power to paint a vivid picture and expose a man’s deepest feelings with only a few words. Here is a power example from this poem:

Rue: Here’s how I justify my error:

The blow that slew Silver came from two centuries back.

It took that much time and agony to turn a white man’s whip

into a black man’s hammer.

 

Geo: No, we needed money,

so you hit the So-and-So,

only much too hard.

Now what?

 

Rue: So what?

In nine lines Clarke manages to embody generations of the African-Canadian experience.

The actual book is work of art as well. Published by Gaspereau Press, publishers of this year’s Giller winner The Sentimentalists, this paperback has thick paper with a pronounced grain, a dust jacket, and the paper blocks are sewn as well as glued, you can tell that a lot of love went into making these volumes. In 2005 George Elliott Clarke released a novelization of this story entitled George & Rue; this novel was released to much popular and critical acclaim, being nominated for several prestigious awards. For anyone interested in the African Canadian experience of Atlantic Canada, or as Clarke has dubbed them, Africadians (combination of African and Acadian), then this book, along with his best known collection, Whylah Falls, should be on top of your list.

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