George Elliott Clarke is Canada’s seventh Parliamentary Poet Laureate. He is an established name brand in Canadian literature. I know that, at least in part, because I was an avid CBC radio listener in the 1990’s and early 2000’s – and frequently heard him interviewed. I can’t say that I’ve spent a great deal of time reading his literature. He caught my attention in 2016 when he expressed frustration for the lack of attention paid to him by politicians. It appears the situation has sorted itself out, currently the official page shows that he’s been much more productive in the post in 2017. Great.
The first work of Clarke’s that I read was Whylah Falls. I’m not going to review it now because I haven’t attempted to read it since it crossed my attention about twenty years ago. My wife had been reading it for an Canadian literature course she was taking through Carleton University. I know that I read it, but unlike other poetry I read at the time, there was nothing to convince me to return.
Execution Poems, on the other hand, does have content that I expect to stick with me. The book deals with interpretations of the social environment and particulars of the crime(s) and punishment of two men who happen to be relatives of Mr. Clarke’s. A kind of tragic family digest which involves several varieties of life’s available ugliness.
In the sense of an exploration of darkness, violence and tragedy in a Canadian setting, I’m reminded of the several literary explorations that are available of the Donnelly’s in Ontario. The stories are different but, at least for me, carry similar themes of a murkily understood, or murkily presented past. These kinds of stories present a prelude to a Canadian Gothic aesthetic. There is an ugly complexity at play that is simultaneously engaging and repellent. It is the dirt to be found in Tragically Hip songs such as “New Orleans is Sinking” or “Locked in the Trunk of a Car” – or perhaps Faulkner.
Reading Clarke’s family story, I am not certain what his thesis is – or if he has one exactly. I sense, however, that at least part of Clarke’s sentiment is seated with the words he as attributed to Rue:
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
I suppose the passing of a few decades can whitewash the hammering of a man’s head open into a justifiable error. Dostoevsky seemed to put his character (and readers) through a great deal more in Crime and Punishment . I am interested to note that Clarke put some different sentiments to his other relative, Geo:
Geo: No, we needed money,
so you hit the So-and-So,
only much too hard.
Ah, indeed. Not really all that different from Raskolnikov, when it comes down to it. Punishments ensue.
Just so…..a couple of centuries can play any manner of tricks with cultural recollections and perspective on complex abominations such as slavery and justifiable violence and the like. I don’t know what Clarke wants to have achieved in this book….but it is a valuable (and effectively written) contribution to Canadian literature and this one will stick in my memory. It has an adequate dosage of ugly complexity to be memorable.