A Review of Rebecca Gayle Howell's American Purgatory By Shaun Turnerby Green Briar Review on 03/02/19
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.