Render / An Apocalypse by Rebecca Gayle Howell

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Rebecca Gayle Howell’s manuscript Render/ An Apocalypse was selected winner of the 2012 Cleveland State University Poetry Center First Book Prize. The collection is a stirring almanac of the macabre and the hard-wrought. The 22 “How to” poems guide a reader through acts not commonly seen or committed outside of rural settings. However, these are also poems of witness. The chores, which are quite common on a farm, take introspective and meditative turns. Like these last lines from “How to Kill a Rooster:”

Take a blade
Cut his throat

Watch his blood drip
to the ground

Watch his wings spread
and flap and flap and

while you watch this desperate bird
and think to yourself

I will never be like him

remember in the end you will
drop him in boiling water

pluck each of his oily feathers
between your fingers

Remember in the end
you will taste him

for good

In a gripping and eerie voice that becomes more one’s own inner voice with each poem, Howell invites us to witness death, objectification, need, hunger and maybe even—murder? Note the speaker’s cryptic but veiled response to “I will never be like him.” Hidden in the enjambment “remember in the end you will,” complicates the poem nicely and points to how we cling desperately to life until the very end.

As much as the poem’s titles imply instruction they also embody social criticism. The titles “How to be civilized,” “How to be a man,” and “How to build trust” are indicative of social norms and constructs but pushed to their ugliest limit. It is wonderful that these poems demonstrate how easily the man-made rules applicable to livestock mirror socioeconomic policies. The following lines are from “How to be civilized:”

we now keep the pen
keep control

Build it tall with walls
Build it deep

with indoor outdoor

Make the pig think
she has a choice

The poems also ask questions: How do I decide what to keep? What don’t I want to know about what I reject? How do I reject what I don’t want to know? The answers become clearer as we swim through feathers, blood, and the calculated calm required to lead these animals to slaughter. After all, anything can be learned, no? And aren’t we all made up of bone, sinew and fat?

In “A Catalogue of What You Have” the speaker details the most basic possession: flesh.

The offal

the slop, swill—pitiless
river—the beak the bone

newspaper pink
with sinews oil

piled up on the kitchen floor
cumulous and close

the air of drippings
the wet air of fat

How when the animal opens
the naming begins

kept not kept

The response poem “A Catalogue of What You Don’t Have” is simple but powerful:


HowellHowell renders a sensory depiction of flesh, its hunger and how messy it all can be. The diction is lean and direct but weighted by the tactile imagery it creates. These poems can move in and out of our own political and relational landscapes quite easily but the ‘place’ of these poems is the South; most likely Howell’s home state of Kentucky.

The last section of the book consists of a seven-part poem called “A Calendar of Blazing Days” and Howell is at her best in these wrenching poems of sacrifice and hard work.

As they are—In this house
with windows in this house with doors
you come to the counter
you come to the linoleum killing floor
Carrying a female made to roost, a womb
Your womb before yolk and time took the shell
You are not a machine
Though on days like this—

The entire book squeezes the breath from your lungs as you’re invited into the grueling chores of the poem’s central character. And suddenly, the dots become more fluidly connected, the entire litany of cutting, hacking, gutting and bleeding out are interconnected. We know these acts of breaking, sacrificing and killing. We commit them everyday to varying degrees. We decide what we will give, what we will reject, what we will keep and what is necessary. We do it whether we know it or not and whether we like it or not.

Roberto Carlos Garcia's work has appeared or is forthcoming in 5 AM Magazine, HTMLGiant, Connotation Press- An Online Artifact, Wilderness House Literary Review, Poets & Artists Magazine, and others. HIs chapbook, "Amores Gitanos (gypsy loves)" is available through Cervena Barva Press: A native New Yorker, he now lives and works in New Jersey. Roberto holds an MFA in Poetry and Poetry Translation from Drew University. His website is More from this author →