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State Killing and the Poetic Series

George Elliott Clarke’s ‘Execution Poems’ and Jill McDonough’s ‘Habeas Corpus’

Birte Christ

Pages 279 - 300


In their book-length works ‘Execution Poems’ (2000) and ‘Habeas Corpus’ (2008), George
Elliott Clarke and Jill McDonough engage readers in questions surrounding the death penalty.
Both employ the form of the poetic series and confront the reader with historical executions and
their contexts. In this essay, I analyze the poetic strategies through which ‘Execution Poems’ and
‘Habeas Corpus’ engage the reader and how, specifically, they use the form of the poetic series to
do so. ‘Execution Poems’, I argue, performs a racialized cycle of violence that state killing is part
of. The poetic series itself transcends the cycle of ‘physical’ violence, as it replaces actual killing
with words that “execute.” ‘Habeas Corpus’ offers readers structures of poetic condensation that
allow for epiphanic insights into the humanity of executed men and women and into the inhumanity
of capital punishment. Both ‘Execution Poems’ and ‘Habeas Corpus’ use the form of the
series to carry past executions into the present and future and to thus impress upon the reader
the “ongoingness” of state killing—thereby functioning as propaedeutic to political change.


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