“Learn your lesson/from the calf”: Rebecca Gayle Howell’s Render / An Apocalypse

John James

Cleveland, OH: Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2013. 88 pages. $15.95.
(Click on cover image to purchase)

A brief glance at the back cover of Rebecca Gayle Howell’s Render / An Apocalypse offers a significant, if unusual definition of the book’s title: “apocalypse” is a “literary genre informed by hallucination, grief, and a long view of history (primary concerns: the past, the present, and consequence).” The genre dates back to early Hebrew writings, which tender visions of divine revelation, usually concerning a final judgment wherein good triumphs over evil. The English “apocalypse” derives from the ancient Greek apokálypsis, meaning to “uncover” or “reveal.” The definition provides a moral framework for these poems, many of which are composed in the imperative, lending an acute urgency to Howell’s sparse, unpunctuated lines: “Enter the night coop / whistling,” she commands. “Through your teeth / sing.” Most of the titles are instructive—“How to Kill a Rooster,” “How to Wean a Hog,” “How to Build a Root Cellar”—but the poems are never didactic, fueled instead by an implicit ethical vision that remains instinctual rather than cerebral. Howell’s attention to sound, evidenced in her paratactic constructions and skilled alliteration, enhances the urgency of the book’s rural setting. Render / An Apocalypse implores readers to acquaint themselves with the natural world and acknowledge the strictly human perspective through which we view its complexities.

The opening piece, “How to Wake,” begins with a command: “Learn your lesson / from the calf. // Look how he rams his head / into the cow’s sack // when she does not drop / when she holds her drink.” Howell demands that readers closely investigate the natural world to better comprehend our position within its many cycles and hierarchies. Even within this imperative grammatical structure, readers easily forget they are being addressed, focusing attention instead on the calf, rendered so vividly as it awaits its mother’s milk. Howell describes the milk’s dropping as an active process, over which the cow exhibits conscious control. (As any nursing mother will tell you, it’s quite the opposite.) Notice the subject-verb agreements above: she (the cow), not it (the milk), drops; she holds her “drink,” as if the choice is purposeful. Rendering the cow in these terms, Howell underscores the division between the natural world and our own—the cow is ostensibly more in tune with her body than we are with ours—highlighting our need to intimately observe that world to better attune ourselves to it.

Howell’s command also functions metatextually, begging readers to survey the poem’s rhythmic and syntactic organization. Howell pairs an authoritative voice with brief, declarative statements, emphasizing the gravity of her subject matter. No sentence spans more than a few, short lines, most of which consist of only three or four syllables. Howell manipulates the poem’s already taut syntax to suspend grammatical and semantic meaning, first establishing an expectation of innocence, only to undermine it with pragmatism, then cruelty, in subsequent lines: “If you want first milk / first light sweet cream // first chores done […]” Howell enumerates human intentions behind milking the cow, which consist, first, of pleasure (the “light sweet cream”), and second, of necessity (“first chores done”). Howell follows the subordinate clause with yet another terse imperative, “be mean,” suggesting that, in order to manipulate the natural world to achieve our own purposes, we must exert some level of violence upon its inhabitants. It’s when we overexert our privilege as rational beings that such violence becomes troublesome.

In “How to Be Civilized,” Howell abandons parataxis in favor a more complex rhetorical structure, explicating the division between humanity and nature merely implied in “How to Wake.” The poem begins:

Because she once ran forest and field
but came to you when called—loyal beast—

because her hooves are formed
for soil fallen leaves long rains

for earth that gives way
beneath foot and weight at foraging

because she did come
but might go astray

we now keep the pen
keep control

Building one subordinate clause upon another, the sentence slowly accrues meaning, climaxing in the independent clause, “we now keep the pen,” only to be intensified in the qualifying one, “keep control.” Howell’s rhetoric evinces the poem’s causal logic: the ancestors of our farm animals were once wild, and though domesticated, might easily turn feral; thus, to curb their instincts, we must devise ways to restrain them. As the title suggests, humanity measures civilization by the extent to which we exert control over natural resources, especially animals. Only by revising this perception can humanity treat our animals, and our environment, ethically.

The collection ends with a long poem, “A Calendar of Blazing Days,” a formal departure from the instructional pieces described above. A crown of seven densely lyrical, free-verse poems, “Calendar” urges readers to notice both the cyclicality of nature and our dependence upon a careful manipulation of those cycles. At the center of that manipulation is time, which Howell notes in the poem’s first section as she meticulously, if cryptically describes the mechanics of a clock:

                […] What more than automata
        Than the pull of bronze wire
rigging the saw blade rigging the bellows
        the valve the spiral cog that moves
the leg’s knee to step or the mouth’s wood jaw
        to drop and sing

Just as the growing season depends upon myriad factors for success—on ample sun and rain, on proper seed-sowing methods and the timing of that sowing—every spring and cog within the clock must work synchronously in order for the unit to function as a whole. Of course, Howell reminds us that the clock itself is a mere instrument—“Machine” and “not machine”—used to impose an artificial system of measurement on nature’s organic cycles. The hour, the minute, the day, the year, these uniquely human temporal units dictate our relationship to the natural world, and we go to great lengths to abide by their demands.

Given our tendency to overexert our power and exhaust the earth’s resources, Howell’s “apocalypse” becomes clear. Explicitly, these poems charge us to observe the natural world, but implicitly, they urge us to question our perceptual structures, deconstructing the power hierarchies we impose and dispelling the infallibility of the systems we use to organize our understanding of it (i.e., time). As Howell states, “This is your hour / These are the beasts of the field / and you have called them.” Only by acknowledging the unfortunate necessity of violence to our sustenance and the careful balance that must be struck to avoid depleting the earth’s resources can we temper the impact of our overreaching appetites and ensure a clean, moral future for the generations that follows us.

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