With lead type and a hand press: that’s how Gaspereau Press originally produced this collection of poems, in the old-fashioned way.
Even the trade edition is the sort of book which makes you want to run your fingers across the page, not simply hold it by the edges, and, yet, simultaneously, it makes you want to put it under glass to keep it unmarked.
But George Elliott Clarke’s poems are not meant to be under glass. They are beautiful, yes, but they are meant to get under your skin.
They are meant to wriggle into the recesses of your reader’s brain. To rouse your fury, your passions.
It is a book that makes you feel as though you should read it while standing. You can feel it pulsing.
It was inspired by the lives and deaths of George and Rue, who were tried for the murder of a taxi driver in New Brunswick in 1949.
This is explained in the collection’s second poem:
“They were hanged back-to-back in York County Gaol.
They were rough dreamers, raw believers, set out like killers.”
“They were my cousins, dead a decade before I was born.
My bastard phantasms, my dastard fictions.”
The last line gives a hint of the kind of energy that infuses the poems. There is a love of language that saturates this author’s work, which a few lines cannot adequately represent.
(You need to read it or hear it; if you read it, you will hear it. No matter if you don’t normally read poetry: you will tugged along in the tow of these words.)
Here is a glimpse of the kind of sensory detail that infuses this collection, this in George’s voice:
“My words collide with walls of fists,
Collapse, my teeth clacking like typewriters.”
And here is a snatch of Rue:
“I got out of Dorchester Pen so I could crush violets and butterflies.
My destiny was always murder and to be murdered.”
The poems create episodes of George’s and Rue’s childhoods; they draw connections between violence endured and violence wielded, between injustices survived and those perpetrated. The reader forgets that these are the author’s imaginings, as the lives take shape just in time to end.
George is mixed up; he lives in a world that is mixed up.
“I was so mixed up, my mind bent crooked.
Silver’s neck, face, and hand bleached cold.
Inside the sedan 19-black-49 sobbing Ford.
Outside, snow and ice smelling red-stained.”
Rue says (in another poem):
“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.”
There is, throughout the work, the sense of a dialogue between these two men.
But, even more impressive, there is a dialogue between storyteller and reader.
This is not a work that lies flat on the page; it requires that the reader step up and recognize that this isn’t just about 1949.
(Have a listen to Bryan Stevenson’s TED Talk on injustice and incarceration if you have any doubt.)
This was true, too of Whylah Falls (a book that I thought was so astonishingly good, that I could barely articulate the sense of wonder it inspired), so true that George Elliott Clarke is now on my list of MRE authors.
Because aren’t books supposed to get under your skin?