I’ve often thought of “Indian Camp,” Ernest Hemingway’s short piece of prose from his very first collection of stories, In Our Time—the brief piece of writing where young Nick witnesses a birth while the father quietly commits suicide in the bunk above, slicing his throat with a razor—as one of modern literature’s best pieces of writing in illustrating birth and death together in one brief work, the artfully wrought, conjoined pain of the most crucial events of our existence. Rebecca Gayle Howell’s debut collection of her own poetry (she has published translations), Render: An Apocalypse, delivers that and more in a compelling sequence of 23 poems that is impressive for its craft, its scope, and its brilliantly executed framing of the violence and struggle for what is human and animal, together, incontrovertibly linked.
Howell is rendering for us a field guide, a manual: the poems that aren’t titled “How to…” are calendars, atlases, catalogs. And it is manual, noun and verb, the guide and the work. We’re on a farm. We’re moved to the most rural of locations, the reader is plunged into the farm of the heart, the heart of the blood, the love, the innards, and offal of what is mammalian, animal, beating as it can to live amid dying.
The first poem of the book “How to Wake” brings us to the milking of the mother, to the calf’s violent demand for food, the farmer at the cow, but this is a love poem with nothing less than the physical love of driven desire, desire that is love, but is also angry, is rape, is taking, is selfish, is both necessary and chore:
If you want first milk first light sweet cream
first chore done be mean
We are woken to Howell’s style, her depicted world—our world—in this first, gorgeous poem. “Learn your lesson / from the calf // Look how he rams his head / into the cow’s sack” she writes. There is little punctuation in these poems (one or two commas, a few sets of parentheses, some colons) and the breath comes as it can with these short imperative lines, almost all of which are couplets. There is love here—“Take charge / Tell her your secrets”—and there is violence:
Shout her name Force her leg back
Her tail swatting you Your fist pounding her
You are alone here, milking and mounting, for “. . . who is there / to see you No one No one” so even our participation is, in a sense, isolated. The reader is guided, working, possessing in a horrible and inevitable solo act. Even our partner, in refusal, in submission, turns her head.
But she’s not helpless. We’re not in a world of gentle maidens:
Watch yourself You’ll get shit on
or kicked in the head.
The magic in Howell’s work, the craft in these poems comes from the landscape, the careful paring of language, the implication determined by voice, and the brilliant choice of format. This guide is instruction and demonstration, both, and the You in these poems demands participation. You will kill the hog, you will cook the brain, you will build the root cellar because you have to, because you’re drawn into a rural world whose engine is need. Need and choice are not bedmates.
One thinks of Wendell Berry’s work, of Nathaniel Perry’s recent debut, Nine Acres, of the stark world of Dorianne Laux’s poetry. Howell’s book is all of those, perhaps, but with a shovelful of Sharon Olds. This is poetry of the farm, of the land, but ratcheted up a notch, or sliced deeper, perhaps, both butchered and rendered.
A transformation occurs as we move poem to poem. Howell brings us deeper into what is animal. In fact, the voice of the animal appears, and the You of the second person that’s drawn us in so close makes us animal before we realize what’s happened. We are what we are killing, and the revelation of this, as it occurs in these poems, is transformative and deeply emotional.
Go mad in pens … Let the hard black rock of want tear the skin of your prized intestines
Squeal Squeal for more
And even when we gain the lyricism of the abstract escape:
. . . loneliness like black snakes dropping
we must return to the tragedy of the inevitable.
When the herd arrives you will be lost
in the field without the cover of trees
smelling blood- guilt seeped underneath
how they will not leave what was abandoned
So weakness appears as it must. We are kneading the flesh of the hog just slaughtered, curing what we love to sustain us. “Each blazing day counted / by every pound of flesh // you own” Howell writes. And so Shakespeare is referenced in a pound of flesh so real as to be our own, no metaphor but desperate truth, our necessary food.
There is a baptism at work here (how they circle you / mother tongues // upon your forehead,) and as we learn how to cook the lungs, Howell acknowledges not knowing how the “breath of god” cooks down to mash. The language becomes biblical, reminiscent of the commanding of some of our most ancient and holy of chapters:
Let him cut my ears off My tongue, out
Cleveland State University Poetry Center must have known it had something special at hand. Even the design of the book is arresting. Taller than the usual poetry collection, slightly narrower, with a yellowish-rusty brown thick cardstock wrapper, the book is a complete object, the cover etchings and Chapparal font simple yet engaging and classical. There are no page numbers, the only thing this reviewer found curious, but the poems are numbered and the intention of the design makes the omission unimportant.
Howell has written a field guide that will stay with and inside the reader. It is the best book of poems published in the last year. Should you push forward a challenger, Howell’s book will go to battle in the mud of the yard for the title. Take note: Render: An Apocalypse will win the contest.
Andrew C. Gottlieb is the Reviews Editor for Terrain.org. His work can be found online, in many print journals, and in his poetry chapbook, Halflives, (New Michigan Press.) Find him at www.andrewcgottlieb.com.