Welcome to This Week in Books, where we highlight books just released by small and independent presses. Books have always been a symbol for and means of spreading knowledge and wisdom, and they are an important part of our toolkit in fighting for social justice. If we’re going to move our national narrative away from one of hate and fear, we need books that display empathy, that help us understand different points of view, that show us we aren’t alone, that feed our spirits.
This week, we’ll look at American Purgatory (Eyewear Publishing, February 2017) by Rebecca Gayle Howell, a near-future dystopian collection of narrative poetry. The collection received the 2016 Sexton Prize for Poetry, Eyewear Publishing’s annual publication prize for an outstanding American poet. Howell’s manuscript was chosen by Don Share, who is the editor of POETRY magazine.
The Sexton Prize isn’t Howell’s first ride on the prize rodeo. Her other honors and awards include a Pushcart, a Library Journal Best Book of Poetry award for 2011, and fellowships at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown and the Carson McCullers Center, among others.
Dystopian fiction is a dime a dozen (not that I’m complaining about that—I happen to love it), but dystopian poetry is much less common. This particular dystopia predicts severe drought, widespread poverty, and “herbicidal warfare.” One doesn’t have to look at very many headlines to see echoes of these themes in the present-day.
The poems themselves are often short and atmospheric, living things crackling with dangerous energy. They look into the darkest parts of humanity and force us to look with them. In “Every Job Has a First Day,” the narrator describes catching minnows out of a river reduced to puddles:
I listened as he taught me to relax the hand just enough.
They can smell, he said, the oils our pores release
when we tense to catch. You have to believe it,
he said. You don’t mean any harm.
Another important theme in the book is that of hard work, and the belief that if only you work hard enough, you’ll attain the American Dream. The book’s cover, featuring an aerial shot of a neatly ordered suburb, twists the image by showing it in a monochrome blood-red. The streets look like devilish arteries, delivering poison to the houses and their inhabitants.
“What Doesn’t Kill You” encapsulates this theme, describing how even ants struggle in this new climate:
Every day a queen eggs thousands,
new resin bodies twisting
out of the underground, lined up
with the rest of us, looking for work.
Award-winning poet Carolyn Forché compared Howell’s work to that of famed poet C.D. Wright:
Howell is our twenty-first century Virgil, waving “the flag of warning,” on the precipice of a ruined world. Our world. The clear-eyed courage at work here reminds me of the honest power of C.D. Wright. This is a poetic work for our moment and the time is now.
Logo art by Max Winter.