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Considering John Brown

Fall 2015 Epigram

Considering John Brown

Rebooting ‘Utopia’


Yes, Ol’ Cloudsplitter was

twitchy as a guillotine;

felt called to loose psychotic,

Old Testament, “God told me to” bloodshed.

The man produced homely crimes;

Caucasian historians eye him with cold Disgust

because he preached “Black” Liberation

was prophecy as irrefutable as sunlight.

So, John Brown earned repulsive Prestige:

He canted against a Federal army

as ridiculously as Don Quixote

assaulted Spanish windmills.

He got cut down, right with his boys,

because he couldn’t destroy everything

and kill everyone

backing Slavery.


Still, his Harpers Ferry raid was

nothing so vile as Frivolity.

His failed onslaught was no Kindergarten


of corpses bitten into, gnawed, mauled,

sprawled akimbo like toddlers’ crayons.

Brown saw Stagnation, Malaise;

The refusal to advance Emancipation

was, surely, he believed, Malice.

His murders were not for Murder’s sake.

While others could Slavery condone;

John Brown wanted it long gone.


Yes, he wanted to touch off Civil War –

involuntary cannibalism –

and sought out ‘liberators’ as energetic

as the guillotines Robespierre oversaw.

They prepared in well-equipped woods –

under garlands of sun or moon

or lamplight.

He had svelte pamphlets, a stout Bible.

He could see through even starless trees.

His shoes kept time:

Don em as the day dawns;

doff em to bathe or to sleep.


Yes, his was a private “firing upon,”

but for republican purpose;

his very sons wear sooty shirts,

crimson in spots.

Someone had to tender

tinder and dynamite;

it was he.

He got dragged to the gallows

and hanged in the wind;

now we drag ballads up

for a man

hanging close to Heaven.

[London (Ontario) 13 novembre mmxiv]


George Elliott Clarke is the E.J. Pratt Professor of Canadian Literature at the University of Toronto, and the Poet Laureate of Toronto, 2012-2015. His newest book of poetry is Traverse.


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