Rendering the Rural World Visible: A Review of “Render: An Apocalypse”
By Jeremy Dae Paden
Rebecca Gayle Howell’s first full-length book, Render: An Apocalypse, which won the Cleveland State University Poetry Center Prize for 2012 is beautiful. Its physical dimensions, long and slender, like an old quarto, and the design of the burnt-sienna jacket cover hearken back to old farmer almanacs, as do the poems themselves. With titles like “How to Build a Root Cellar,” “How to Kill a Rooster” and “How to Preserve,” the book calls upon the language and wisdom of the farm, a knowledge passed down through generations, relying in part on hard-won experience, on folk-tale and folk-wisdom and on the imagery and cadences of the Bible. These poems try to render the rural world visible to a cosmopolitan one that is blind to the daily slaughter and sacrifice that sustains life.
The first two poems are not found in the book but on the back cover where, as a means of guiding the reader, Howell defines the terms of her title. I cite only the first, for its definition echoes the second. “Render: to clarify by fire; to process what was rejected into what is necessary, usually by a woman who stirs; to offer judgment; to atone.” Fire, judgment and atonement all are traditionally apocalyptic.
Though not mentioned on the cover, two other key terms are allegory and apostrophe. Allegory (a veiling that is also a revelation, a speaking out in public through image and story) is the mode of apocalyptic literature. Apostrophe is the direct address of the reader by the speaker. I mention these explicitly because they let us know that the holocaust at the heart of this book is not about them, there in the past, but about us, here in the present.
A prologue poem and three sections comprise the book. Each of the sections are signaled by Arwen Donahue’s arresting pen and ink renderings that visually summarize the sections. These drawings also form the front cover of the book. Section one deals with general aspects of farm life, milking, fowl slaughter, preserving vegetables and planting. Section two centers on hog husbandry, everything from breeding and raising to the slaughter and cooking of the animal, the rendering it up for consumption. Section three, “A Calendar of Blazing Days,” is a long poem, divided into seven segments.
These are not poems that allow a cool and detached reading. From the prologue’s apostrophe, “Do you not work? Does your sweat not fall…” to the close of the last poem that instructs, “As you have been stolen from, steal,” the poems relentlessly address and implicate the reader in the inescapable and mutual domination and subjugation that the task of making “food of death” implies.
With the exception of a dash, a colon, the odd comma, Render remains unpunctuated. However, a strong music based on off-rhymes and sprung rhythms wobbles beautifully and surprisingly through the poems. In fact, the lines take full advantage of this absence of punctuation to keep up their teetering dance. For example, the prologue asks, “have you not been cursed? / Brother who is not keeping brother, tiller / of earth…” While “A Calendar of Blazing Days,” begins, “Machine not machine The aluminum shine / of self Breath the key-wound spring.”
In Render, Howell stirs the pot and stokes the fire. Atonement and clarity come hand in hand.
The Kentucky release party for Render/An Apocalypse will be Thursday, March 21 at the Carnegie Center in Lexington, Ky. at 6 p.m. Find more details at the event site.
Jeremy Dae Paden was born in Italy and raised in Central America and the Caribbean. He is an Associate Professor of Spanish and Latin American literature at Transylvania University in Lexington, Ky. and a member of the Affrilachian Poets. His chapbook, Broken Tulips, has just been published by Accents Publishing.