Reviewed by Michael Schmeltzer
Much like the famous inscription in Dante’s “Inferno,” Rebecca Gayle Howell gives her readers a warning before they enter her prize-winning book of poems: “Without tenderness, we are in hell.” – Adrienne Rich.
Thus we are welcomed to “Render / An Apocalypse,” an ominous full-length debut that pulls readers deeper into and further from human nature (or human versus nature) as we recognize it. Of course, what makes this book so thrilling is the fact we indeed do recognize it, even as humanity morphs into something more instinctual than intentional, more animal than intellectual.
In Andrew Smith’s horror/YA novel “The Marbury Lens,” the protagonist is transported to a savage yet familiar world via a pair of glasses. In a slant way, Howell effectively transports her readers to a savage yet familiar world through her unique poetic lens. Unlike Smith’s book, however, “Render / An Apocalypse” isn’t a narrative but more of a how-to survival manual.
A majority of the poems are instructional with titles such as “How to Kill a Rooster” or “How to Be Civilized.” There are still the simple pleasures of “first milk / first light sweet cream,” but in order to access them you must “be mean.” There is a sense of foreboding from the very first page as if the very thing that could help us survive this new “(perhaps) unfamiliar world” (as Nick Flynn states in the foreword) is the very thing that could lead to our ruination. In the poem “How to Build a Root Cellar,” the speaker instructs us to “Call your own name until / you have one / You have one / You have one.” The repetition works as a reminder and a conjuring, a command. Our very identities seem to be in jeopardy.
The austere environment Howell creates and the very form of the poems themselves function much like the best works of horror. It is both a revelation and subversion of what we know, what we trust. It’s no surprise the blurbs on the back use adjectives such as haunting and frightening; it really is an urgent, somewhat terrifying vision she shares. There are familiar images of rural life: cows, pigs, and fields. But instead of clothes drying on a line we are given a rooster tied up “by his yellow feet,” his throat cut as we “Watch his blood drip / to the ground // Watch his wings spread / and flap and flap.” We are told in “How to Wean a Hog” we should “Bait her / from the warm teat // with cereal / powdered milk // sugar // After that she will eat / your waste.” Without embellishment and with a mildly sinister edge, we are told what we must do. We are given instruction on how to cook the lungs, the head, and the brain. Waste not, want not, as the saying goes, and within this wasteland it appears there is nothing but want.
Howell’s ability to unsettle the reader doesn’t begin and end with harrowing imagery. It isn’t even confined to the violence described against livestock. There is a much more subtle element at work, and as we read the book a curious thing happens almost below the surface of our consciousness. We go from poems titled “How to Be Civilized” and “How to Be a Man” to “How to Be a Pig” and “How to Be an Animal.” We are told a hog won’t see us coming “with her human eyes.” The animals are anthropomorphized while we, page by page, are driven by necessity away from our humanity. We become predator and prey. Our relationship to the natural world is distorted to the point we don’t know whether “The wet fog your breath” actually belongs to us or to some other beast. By the end of the book we are “the complicated animal hairless and shining.”
Not only does Howell twist our relationship with nature, but she also complicates our understanding of writing itself. The very form of her poetry, with its complete lack of punctuation (the exception being one very well-placed exclamation mark and some dashes), disorients us. When the usual markers of language are destroyed, we are forced to pay close attention to the language itself in order to navigate the passages. In every verse, however, the lines shift under our feet. Though a majority of the pieces are written in couplets, we are not sure from one moment to the next whether a line belongs to the roof or the floor; often it serves as both. Our foundation is taken from under us “As if the soil under // the soil was sold / while you slept.” As readers we are again and again uprooted by “Render / An Apocalypse” but the experience is nothing short of pleasure. Howell has given the literary world a truly unique offering, which finds the common ground between poetry, horror, and (human) nature.
Rebecca Gayle Howell is the author of Render / An Apocalypse, which was selected by Nick Flynn for the 2012 Cleveland State University Poetry Center's First Book Prize and is a finalist for ForeWord Review's 2013 Book of the Year. Howell is also the translator of Amal al-Jubouri's Hagar Before the Occupation/Hagar After the Occupation (Alice James Books, 2011). Among her awards are two fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center and a Pushcart Prize. Her homeplace is Lexington, Kentucky.
Michael Schmeltzer earned an MFA from the Rainier Writing Workshop. He has been a finalist in several contests and even managed to win a few. He helps edit A River & Sound Review and has been published in PANK, Rattle, Natural Bridge, and Mid-American Review, among others. Find him online at michaelschmeltzer.com.