Thursday Feb 22

Render Render / An Apocalypse
by Rebecca Gayle Howell
88 pages — Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2013
ISBN-13: 9780986025730
Reviewed by Julia Bouwsma

I read Rebecca Gayle Howell’s brutally gorgeous book, Render / An Apocalypse, while the March wind howled outside my cabin in the woods of western Maine. I sat in a rocker by my cast iron Glenwood cook-stove, wiped the potting soil and wood ash from my fingers onto my jeans, and stroked the slender, burnt orange cover with its simple, terrifying pen and ink drawings. I read “How to Preserve” while five gallons of maple syrup simmered on my stove, and the canning jars clanked in their boiling water bath. I read “How to Kill a Hog” sitting fifteen feet from my bathroom, where the shower curtain is still stained with piglet blood—the residue of a terrible night three years ago involving my dogs and a young piglet just learning about electric fences. What I mean to say is that I came to this book thinking I already knew Howell’s world of rural, subsistence farming; that I already knew its muddled mash of labor and pleasure, of mercy and cruelty, of idealism and meat, of beauty and brutality, of giving and taking and needing; that I had already learned its language.

But such close connection comes with a price, and it didn’t take me long to realize that I would not be allowed to adore this book unequivocally. Even though Howell’s poems are everything I crave in poetry—direct, hard poems that knock the reader in the teeth yet twist with the elegance of a swinging hatchet blade—they were going to challenge me. Knowing how to swing a hatchet doesn’t mean you can’t get cut. These poems were going to make me confront every pastoral myth, every hypocrisy, every lie. Howell immediately rips to the heart of the problem by way of epigraph—with Adrienne Rich’s line from “Twenty-one Love Poems:” “Without tenderness we are in hell.” And that, of course, becomes the book’s central question: Well are we? Is this hell? Before I even arrived at the poems themselves, my personal connection began to feel dangerous. Would the narrator form a poetically “clear” answer to this question? And if it turned out to be “yes,” did that mean I myself was living inside this hell? Would this collection, ultimately, be making a moral, if not spiritual, judgment about my own subsistence existence? With so much at stake, I found myself examining Howell’s approach to tenderness with a needle eye.

In Render / An Apocalypse (particularly in the book’s first section), the rules of farming are so clear, so cold, as to border on cruel. From the beginning, Howell’s is a world in which survival is a constant fight, in which “you are / the predator / And you are the prey.” Yet the brutality is also deeply emotional, human in all its complexity and variety. Cruelty is spurred by necessity—yes—but also by greed, as in the very first poem, “How to Wake:”

If you want first milk
first light sweet cream

first chore done
be mean

Cruelty comes in the form of vengeance too, as in “How to Kill a Rooster:” “Because he’s spurred you / grab him by his neck and his legs.” Or it comes tempered by mercy, tinged with guilt in “How to Kill a Hen:”

Over your head
a breaking neck

For this is your gift to her:

You can hear your savior calling
barefaced and feather red

The brutality of the natural world allows living beings to, in turn, become waste: “Let the bounty rot…” One learns to become cruel to the self: “Let your stomach bleed / Work…” And in “How to Be a Man,” cruelty becomes tradition:

               There are rules
               You’ll be made

to chase her
and she will run

in black-dawn air
cold and clean

And you will run
And you will hear her

And always—for human and beast alike—the cruelty of wanting, of never being satisfied. “Squeal   Squeal for more,” says Howell’s ambiguously identified speaker in “How to Cook the Brains;” or, even more succinctly, in the single-word poem “A Catalog of What You Do Not Have:” “Enough.” As the final, section-length poem of the book, “A Calendar of Blazing Days,” reminds us, brutality is at the heart of rural existence, underlying every action because “You have to not care / how you get what you get…”

Amid so much pervasive, multifaceted hardness, tenderness can, of course, be difficult to find. And when it is present, these poems wonderfully, admirably, required me to make distinctions. There are two primary types of tenderness to be found: “human” tenderness—with its affection and gentle touch, its unwillingness to kill, its unbridled emotion—and the quick, sharp instinct of “animal” tenderness.

The most easily recognizable example of human tenderness comes in “How to Build Trust:”


what a simple thing
her head wrenched toward light

your fingers thick with her wire
hair as you think about

the work ahead
its musk and hazard

how this is not about love

The above lines are the closest we get to what most people would call tenderness. Physical touch is used affectionately, and the reader is allowed to experience the animal’s pleasure at such interaction. But the moment is brief. It doesn’t take Howell long to remind us that this is just a moment—that there is still work to be done, and “this new stew requires simple parts…” While we can delight in this scene, we must understand our delight as animal comfort—as perhaps even a ploy to make the inevitable task easier—and not blur it into human sentiment.

But these poems contain another type of tenderness too, one that runs very subtly throughout the book and shows Howell’s keen awareness of the animal mind. This tenderness is more animal than human—more linguistic than descriptive. My own experience training working dogs has taught me that contrary to human instinct (which seeks to soften, to comfort, to explain, to prolong), the greatest kindness to an animal can be quick, clear direction (and/or correction). Howell has absorbed this philosophy into the very diction of these poems. Line by line, she offers us the simplicity of curt direction. Inside lines that seem crude at first read, there lies a tenderness for the comfort of boundaries and limitations, of restraint—the taut perfection of animal instinct is itself domesticated to quick understanding. And Howell’s world, then, becomes one in which lack of hesitation is the ultimate kindness: “Act / Act like you know what to do.”

This tenderness in simple action evolves into the hardest act of all: owning what you have done. Truth becomes the greatest gift and tenderness becomes not flinching as you accept your own complicity. In “How to Kill a Hog” Howell mirrors the intimacy she captured in “How to Build Trust,” but this time the gift—the touch—the human must give to the pig is very different:

Then step inside her

Your arms inside her
death like it is a room

your private room
peculiar and clean

Gather her organs up
into your arms

This then is the tenderness not just of acknowledging, but of almost literally entering into the death one has caused, of literally embracing it and asking it to embrace you. This is atonement, the only way to achieve it. Howell demands of the “you,” of the reader: “just once / do not turn away.” And we comply. And so poem by poem, seeing, speaking, and touching become the only ways to make right, a course Howell echoes again in the concluding section of Render—which is as I mentioned, a single poem called “A Calendar of Blazing Days.” “Look at me now says the bird without a neck / Look at me now…” we are told, then, “Recite it: Hell is Real…” Each demand escalating until both poem and book culminate to inform the ultimate demand, touch:

                             The chicken’s blood stains everyone’s hands
                Everyone’s hands, stained      (and so cleansed)
                             Walk off   Or don’t
                Tomorrow comes on its own
                             Call instead to your regrets
                Your chiggers your ticks   Each nail-head body
                             Crawling you, your length a blade of grass
                Watch how it labors to bury its biting head
                             To find the wet night it knows is there
                This is your inheritance:
                             To be the singing blood meal, unaware
                                                               That nimbus   That choice

When I arrived at these final lines of the book, I was briefly troubled by the word “choice” and its prominence as the last word. My aforementioned wariness surfaced, my concern that I might be being preached to—was Render / An Apocalypse then saying that being part of the cycle of life and death, of eating and taking, was a “choice” after all? But the “You” that is Howell’s narrator is never, fully, one voice—rather it weaves through the book more as a composite of multiple experiences than as anything capable of condemnation. It moves from treachery to guilt, from human to animal and back, touching every individual emotion, but never fully unifying into a single stance. Instead, “The chicken’s blood stains everyone’s hands.” And if we are all complicit no matter how directly we engage, then “choice” here means instead the choice to confront, to touch, and so be cleansed. So I took a deep breath, and exercised the choice Howell so generously gave me to interpret her words as I must in order to keep living the life I continue treasure and have willingly and knowingly not just “touched” but embraced.


JuliaBouwsma Julia Bouwsma’s poems and reviews have appeared in journals such as Colorado Review, Cutthroat, The Progressive, Puerto del Sol, Sugar House Review, Weave Magazine, and Wisconsin Review. Bouwsma is Book Review Editor for Connotation Press: An Online Artifact, Co-editor of Shape&Nature Press, and Poetry Editor for New Plains Press. She lives in the mountains of western Maine.