Green Briar Review: Blog
American Purgatory by Rebecca Gayle Howell
Winner of The Sexton Prize for Poetry
Selected by Don Share
Price: £10.99/$14.49 | ISBN: 978-1-911335-44-3
By Shaun Turner
A Kentucky poet who thoughtfully considers her relationships to Appalachia and the Deep South, Howell takes advantage of her deep knowledge of the region to render its landscapes in the root injustices in which the region consists. American Purgatory, in all its beauty, does not forget this relationship between the poet, the sentence, and the reader—but fundamental to the conversation is how the sentence works as a primary building block: how Howell's relationship with poetics balance and consider the beauty of how to make and artfully break a sentence.
In fact, Howell's third book of poems is all about that artful and considered breaking—the lines, yes, but American Purgatory also considers the fracturing of landscape within the context of time—the historical and environmental imperative. Howell draws a keen line from American capitalism's cardinal sin of slavery to industry's ravaging of the Southern environment. In one poem, the industrial harvest of cotton is "...every inch; a reap of what / we have for what we want. / Thirsty, but it sells (16)."
Led through this apocryphal faminescape, we meet a preacher named Slade, an individual referred to as The Kid, and a man named Little—all of whom are constrained and guided by this post-capitalist world in steep decline—a world with many losers and few winners.
Howell creates a layered dialogue between the written word, this and its inhabitants, and continues shifting the reader's journey through the collection by interspersing her written poems with visual poems winnowed from colonial images provided by The British Library. In "Map #5: Detail of Little's Heart (please)," an ouroboros circles the end, but is trapped inside an abacus. In this collection of poems, commodity is the snake eating itself, and we are all part in navigating this journey between apocalyptic Southern townships and hyper-processed fieldplains:
You'd get signs in town: auto pawn, bail bond, payday
loan, Give up what you need for what you want. Don't ask
the interest rate. The town's time clock will suck your record
right out of your hand to punch the day closed... (50).
Even the search for water is more than just a never-ending battle for resources: water is also a promise of resurrection, something to guard and hold onto. In another poem, Little dowses for water and the speaker acknowledges, "When a well does dry up, some people/thirst; others drink dirt (37)."
In her master class at Berea College that late summer day, Howell also quoted Octavio Paz: "Every text is unique and, at the same time, it is the translation of another text." In American Purgatory, Rebecca Gayle Howell channels Dante and takes the reader through an Inferno of our own collective making: how the scope of our all-or-nothing culture of capitalism has always been about enslavement and slow, measured decay.
But Rebecca Gayle Howell never leaves the reader hopeless and thirsty. Instead, she offers us a refreshing clarity, as vital as water—and the ability to learn from the mistakes and misdeeds of our shared past. Howell understands that purgatory is itself not a hell—it's a moment in space and time to get one's heart straight, to prepare before that awesome and final moment of supreme reckoning.
Shaun Turner is the author of "The Lawless River" (Red Bird Chapbooks). He serves as Fiction Editor for Stirring: A Literary Collection and co-editor at Fire Poetry Journal. His fiction, nonfiction, and poetry can be found in Bayou Magazine, storySouth, Fourth River, and the Southwest Review, among others. Shaun received a 2019 Emerging Artist Award from the Kentucky Arts Council, where he teaches writing.
What We Stand to Lose: A Review of Jeanne Althouse’s Boys in the Bank
By LeeAnn Adams
Fiction; 40 pages; $12
Red Bird Chapbooks
A love letter, a thunderstorm, a fragrance: these things remind the characters in Jeanne Althouse’s Boys in the Bank of their most heartbreaking losses. The collection, published by Red Bird Chapbooks, consists of eleven brief stories. While the voice varies widely in these fictions, each installment has a conspicuous and endearing sincerity that wins over its reader.
The title story, “Boys in the Bank,” begins with a motorcycle-riding mother-in-law and a son-in-law pondering a vasectomy. It’s written in dialect with short, clipped sentences and words. The son-in-law endures his mother-in-law’s “jawjackin,” contemplating her advice to “‘put some boys in the bank, just in case.’” Over their shared uncertainty of the future, the two unexpectedly connect. Meanwhile, the story’s morbid humor strongly hints at the potential loss of loved ones.
Loss is a motif that binds the rest of the stories together. In “Goran Holds His Breath,” Goran Pettersson must decide between letting his wife suffer a long, drawn-out death and fulfilling her wish to end things quickly at the end of a gun. As a child, the protagonist in “Uncle Seth” accidentally shoots his cousin. Other stories move away from the idea of loss as physical death, venturing into bittersweet, even whimsical, experiences. In “Good Luck Feet,” the protagonist is distressed to learn the girl he’s attracted to has curly toes, “‘a genetic trait,’” just like him. Mei kisses the steering wheel of her metal and leather ballet partner before parting in “Dancing with the Car.”
These glimpses into the lives of her characters provide a platform for Althouse’s sincere prose to shine. Reinforced by vivid sensory details and often heartrending subtext, lines like, “Having an elephant was beyond cool,” from “Elephant in the Room,” for example, feel earned. This type of honesty is especially poignant in “Namaste,” where Beverly, an older woman, longs for the sexual satisfaction of which her husband deprives her. While the tone of each piece differs—melancholic, playful, serious, humorous—the collection’s authenticity is consistent throughout.
Boys in the Bank proves to be as warm and as fleeting as a summer breeze. Althouse’s lovely writing is well worth the read.
LeeAnn Adams writes under the pseudonym, L. N. Holmes. She is the author of the micro-chapbook, Space, Collisions (Ghost City Press). Her writing has appeared in F(r)iction, Newfound, Vestal Review, Fathom, Crack the Spine, and other magazines and journals. Her story, "Pheonix Fire Fight," won the Apparition Lit Flash Fiction Contest in April 2018. You can follow her on Twitter (@LNHolmeswriter) and learn more about her at lnholmeswriter.wordpress.com.
The Habits of Highly Effective Authors—and Me
By Dan L. Miller
The writing process crushes souls, and writers seek solace in habits and paraphernalia to help them through the struggle. Writing comforts me, though, when I enter my home office and settle into the current project. I’m insulated from the outside world of tension and discord. My wall of books, shelved souvenirs, artwork, fresh flowers, and music playlist energize me as I toil at a task normally fraught with frustration.
I work at a slanted, hardwood writing desk with my keyboard settled against the bottom lip—easily movable for the grunt work involved in pencil and paper planning or revision. The writing desk sits atop my prized possession—an antique oak table fashioned in the 19th century from a square grand piano passed down through generations.
I struggle with choices—an agreeable ambiance, ideal illumination, the proper pencil, and music or silence. Franz Kafka needed not the solitude of a hermit but the silence of a dead man to write. Surroundings resonant with cherished music sustain my writing, but only chamber music—Bach, Vivaldi, Mozart—benefits deep thinking.
Sylvia Plath wrote on pink, lovely-textured Smith memorandum pads. Me? I prefer to scrawl on the backs of rejections printed on finely-textured stationery from all the best publishing houses. E. L. Doctorow wrote in his attic at a desk facing the wall, while John Cheever preferred the darkened basement of his apartment building, writing next to the furnace. I need sunshine through my window and a view of my neighbors schlepping their backpacks and briefcases through the harsh, winter snow, digging out their cars, and starting their office commute.
Friedrich von Schiller kept a rotting apple on his desk because the odor stimulated him. Drugs and alcohol fueled the writing of the classics penned by Thomas De Quincey, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Edgar Allan Poe. No drugs, no alcohol, no disgusting fruit, but only the delicate scent of vanilla essential oils waft through my home office and sustain my sense of tranquility as I write.
John Steinbeck used only round pencils because hexagonal pencils cut his fingers after a day’s use. Round pencils shift in my fingers and lack the gravitas of the hexagon. I use only hexagonal pencils for notes and outlines—red pencils for revising words and blue pencils for editing grammar and phrases. Edmond Rostand wrote Cyrano de Bergerac in his bathtub, but I doze, so my manuscript would be rejected not by a publisher but by bathwater.
Catherine O’Hara wrote most effectively at nighttime when everyone else was asleep and she was alone with her ideas. I only revise at night, while I tackle my hard-core thinking at midday after my morning wake-up rituals and before my evening fatigue.
Ray Bradbury believed an author should stuff oneself with “poems, essays, plays, stories, novels, films, comic strips, magazines, music” in order to explode every morning and never dry up. I follow his recommendation, and I’ve never lacked the motivation to write or the need to search for projects. Writer’s block? To me it’s like boredom. It simply doesn’t exist.
I write also when not in my home office, and it’s usually at social gatherings or events—I’m writing in my head. My wife is the one to nudge me and tell me to stop writing. I jot notes on playbills, I wake in the night to record brilliant ideas delivered in a dream, and I dictate to my iPhone while at a ballgame the plot for my next story. My world of writing unfolds most effectively, however, in my home office. I thrive in my sanctuary closed to reality and open to the world of imagination.
Dan L. Miller (danlmillereducationauthor.com) writes on education-related topics and is the author of the young adult thriller Snowballs and Sinners.