Review by: Erica Kenick
Render / An Apocalypse By Rebecca Gayle Howell, Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2013, Paperback, 26 pages, $15.95
Rebecca Gayle Howell’s debut poetry collection, Render: An Apocalypse, winner of the 2012 Cleveland state University Poetry Center First Book Prize, takes readers to the rural American South where life is terribly lonesome. It’s a world where barnyard animals are spoken to, loved and then slaughtered for dinner.
Howell’s gruesome poems function as carefully constructed instruction manuals for survival in seclusion: “How to Kill a Rooster,” “How to be a Man,” “How to Plant by the Signs.” The poems’ directions are thoughtful and precise. In “How to Build a Root Cellar,” for example, we are told “Dig into the hill/ Dig on the hill’s north side.” The wisdom and assertiveness of the speaker keeps readers at his/her service, but also raises an enticing question: what happens if we disobey?
There is no exact explanation of the book’s title within the content of the poems so readers are left wondering whether these instructions, if followed, bring about an apocalypse or if the apocalypse has already occurred and we are the lone survivors among animals. Either way, our continued survival calls for the canning of food, cruel tricks and bloody deeds. The speaker of these poems demands action from readers with a repeated call to “you.” In “How to Wean a Hog,” we are instructed: “Raise the animal to trust you/ and it won’t matter what you bring her . . . when she doesn’t see you coming/ with her human eyes.” This line also speaks to the symbiotic relationship between humans and captive animals, a theme Howell explores throughout the book in terms of paradoxical need: animals depend on humans for food and shelter at the expense of their lives.
Render / an Apocalypse is separated into three sections by title images (also pictured on the book’s cover) by artist Arwen Donahue instead of names. The images work in tandem with the poems’ desolate setting. The first sketch is a farmer in a field near his cabin. The second is a slaughtered pig hung on a post by his hind legs, and the third image depicts a woman in a long dress doubled over, her fingers splayed open toward the ground where there is shattered glass as if she cannot believe her awful luck with mason jars or cannot contain some other grief.
The first and second sections of the book contain poems characterized by short lines (two to six words) in couplets. These poems hinge on the action prescribed by the aforementioned instructions for survival and a sense of loss or yearning to return to what was. The poem “Catalogue of What You Do Not Have,” for example, consists of one word: “enough.” Rather than despair, however, we readers press on, hoping for a metamorphoses, a rescuer or, at the very least, news of a good harvest.
The third section of the book breaks into a longer-lined form which allow Howell more space to experiment with figurative language. Here, Howell skillfully blends the mechanical and domestic with the organic: “The aluminum shine of self,” for example. The third section is also different in that each poem’s end line cleverly becomes the separated italicized title and first line of the next poem. “A Calendar of Blazing Days” ends with the line “These are the beasts of the field/ and you have called them,” while the next page begins:
and you have called them
Call tomorrow like you would a cow
and like a cow it will not come
Though the form changes, the foreboding tone remains throughout as does the speaker’s commanding voice. “Don’t miss,” Howell warns in “How to be a Man.”
Shoot her square
If you squeal her
you can’t shoot again
There are rules
In this excerpt and throughout Render/ An Apocalypse, Howell’s blunt language and descriptions of violent acts are reminiscent of the poet Ai who often takes on the voice of social pariahs and criminals. Readers of Ai’s and Howell’s poems must be fully committed to an experience of discomfort and foreignness before delving in. Part of the discomforting experience in Howell’s book comes from the speaker’s unflinching monotone, created by the aforementioned short lines and lack of punctuation. Howell’s ability to maintain such a hollow otherworldly feel throughout the entirety of the book is admirable, especially since the subject of the poems range from canning vegetables to killing hens.
Howell’s constant demands of action, her relentless call to “you,” the reader, creates an intense sense of isolation; it is almost as if her poems are a portal to a virtual reality or a video game in which we must become increasingly heartless and detached to reach each successive level. Howell suggests that we are more animalistic than our hogs, hens and calves when the animals watch us come in for our kill with “human eyes,” and we are encouraged to crawl inside an animal carcass: “step inside her/ your arms inside her/ death like it is a room/ your private room/ peculiar and clean.”
Despite the blood on our hands and the joylessness of a harvest, we are allowed no remorse or self-pity. Certain deeds are necessary for survival, and their completion gives the reader a sense of accomplishment. Though Render/ An Apocalypse is no light verse, it is peculiar and inventive. Howell successfully crafts a raw experience that lets us savor the conflicting instances of tenderness and brutality between humans and animals in new and exciting ways.