The format of Render: An Apocalypse by Rebecca Gayle Howell reminds me of a survival manual. Or a religious tract. Or both. Thin, with a cover that looks like it has been made out of cardboard, this collection contains poems with such titles as “How to Kill a Rooster,” “How to Wean a Hog,” and “How to Build a Root Cellar.” Indeed, these are directions for survival. And much more.
Certainly, at first glance, the content of the poems sound practical, if not a bit brutal and violent. But hey, afterall, with a collection title containing the word, “apocalypse” one may expect a bit of brutality. For instance, in “How to Be Civilized,” the poet states, “Make the pig think/she has a choice//she can defecate/away from her feed//she can still be clean.” In another poem, “How to Kill a Hog,” the poet explains the directions for after the kill: “Gather her organs up/into your arms//like you once did your mother’s robes/when you were a boy who knew nothing//but the scent of sweat and silk.”
Taken at the literal level, the poems could be seen as mere instructions for physical survival. But they are more — metaphors dug from the dirt and grit of farm life that explore all aspects of our daily lives. In “How to Be an Animal” the poet cautions us saying, “Forget you ran with them//Wild among trees/wild in your cheer” as if telling us that mere survival means distancing ourselves from what we once were. In “How to Build a Root Cellar” the poet juxtaposes the physical act of digging with finding and struggling with our own identities: “To build a root cellar//burrow cold from the ground” and “Call your own name until/you have one.”
Render: An Apocalypse was the winner of the 2012 Cleveland State University Poetry Center First Book prize. You can read more about Rebecca Gayle Howell and her work on her website.