The first line grabs you:
"Ada butcher boy, just seventeen, knew death well."
That's how Oklahoma historian and writer begins his new poetry book, Hanging Men
, about the vigilante hangings in Ada in 1909. It's one of the latest publications of Mongrel Empire Press www.mongrelempirepress.org
that Okie poet and publisher Jeanetta Calhoun Mish enriches our state's literature with.
Abandon your stereotypes of poetry books. In 41 poems, The author tells the story of the hangings in poetry, but footnotes the events. Then he includes a historical afterword of explanation. The only other poetry I can think of based on unembellished historical facts might be Benet's John Brown's Body
. Kipling's Charge of The Light Brigade
is too romantic. Turner, a PhD, member of the Oklahoma Historians Hall of Fame, and retired history dean at East Central in Ada must have spent hours working on this book...the amount of research and depth involved staggers the imagination and world of creativity.
Back to the book. After the first poem sets the tone of the book, the poet takes you on a narrative journey leading up to the hanging of the four men, and then almost to the present with its consequences.
"the line between law and outlaw, blurred
as subject to change as the prairie winds."
--Pontotoc County, Chickasaw Nation, 1890
"B.B. Burrell had died inside
before he ever felt the rope."
--Four Men Hanging
"The poet carried scars
from his hard, hard life
shuffling from one place to another... ."
--Scarred Poet: 1968
The poet includes the perspective of much more recent events in Ada, including questionable practices by local DAs in convicting men while seeking the death penalty. Those stories were told in Robert Mayer's The Dreams of Ada
, and John Grisham's The Innocent Man
. You can tell the author is a historian. He criticizes Grisham's book: "marred by careless research and reporting with little attention to the nuances and contradictions in the story he told." And Turner writes about the culture and consequences of the lynchings and the more recent events in the afterword.
In one poem, Hangman
, he writes:
"There's an oft-quote jest in these parts
about giving me a fair trial and
then hanging the guilty bastards.
..."leave one DA's life and career
hanging, in the wind."
(and this was footnoted)
It's not dry history, and the author notes his imagination at work on fictional characters in the poems. There is a sense of humor and irony sprinkled throughout the book. You'll find it in his poem, "Historians"
The closing lines:
"The historian knew wrong when he saw it
but was thankful for the luxury of professional expectations
--suspended judgment and such--
leaving him among the hanging men."
This is the third book of Mongrel's TwinTerritories series of historical perspective on Oklahoma, and typical of Mish's pioneering work. I don't like the overused word "groundbreaking," but this 64-page volume is a unique journey into the Oklahoma mind. You can order it on the Mongrel website.