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Render

Rebecca Gayle Howell’s debut collection was selected by Nick Flynn for the 2012 Cleveland State University Poetry Center First Book Prize. In his foreword, Flynn writes: “To enter into these poems one must be fully committed, as the poet is, to seeing this world as it is, to staying with it, moment by moment, day by day.”

Rebecca Gayle Howell’s debut collection was selected by Nick Flynn for the 2012 Cleveland State University Poetry Center First Book Prize. In his foreword, Flynn writes: “To enter into these poems one must be fully committed, as the poet is, to seeing this world as it is, to staying with it, moment by moment, day by day.”

The poems in Render see the world sharply, see its patterns and its violence, the roles played by humans and animals. The poems are based in a rural setting and detail the moment by moment, day by day chores that must be done on a farm. Beginning with the first poem, “How to Wake,” the speaker addresses the reader directly. “Learn your lesson / from the calf,” she advises at the beginning of the poem before giving further advice on milking, the chore that must be done upon waking.

Two poems that pair together in the book are “A Catalog of What You Have” and “A Catalog of What You Do Not Have.” The first lists “The offal // the slop, swill – pitiless / river – the beak the bone,” all the parts of the butchered body (what type of animal the reader doesn’t know), the parts separated and broken down until, at the end of the poem, “what is there to name / but the lye and the burning clean.” It’s a rather bleak list of possessions; the second poem emphasizes this. It reads simply, after its title, “Enough.”

This sense of lack, of missing something, continues through the book, even during periods of abundance. In “How to Preserve,” the speaker details the process of canning:

Sterilize
Scald

before packing the jars
with glory

But it is not an easy glory; the produce has not grown itself, as the poem emphasizes at the end. Shifting from the direct address, the final lines turn to the fruits of the speaker’s labors, an utterance of gratefulness, exhaustion, and awe: “O Harvest, / Hard won // and terrible,” which rings familiar to any farmer or worker of the land.

As is evident in the four lines quoted above, Render is an extremely spare book, reflective of its subject matter. The short lines, sparse punctuation, and straightforward language fit perfectly with the raw natural world represented in the poems.

Although in a literal way, Howell’s poems are clearly about the labors of survival, they also see the world of human society as well. In particular, “How to Be Civilized” and “How to Be a Man” reflect social conditioning as well as animal. “Make the pig think / she has a choice,” the speaker says in “How to Be Civilized.” And in “How to Be a Man,” we are told that “There are rules,” resulting in “the other men / jeering at you.” The poem ends with the inevitable victory of man over animal in the

black dawn air
cold and mean

The wet fog your breath
Or is it hers

The boundaries between human and animal continue to blur, and a dialogue develops. In “How to Be an Animal” Howell writes, “Forget you are an animal,” and a few lines later, “Forget you ran with them.” This poem opens the door, and the pig begins to speak in italics in the next three poems. Although she is dead and we are instructed how to cook her, it is she who gets the last words. “How to Cook the Brain” ends with an address that could apply to every living creature: “Squeal Squeal for more.”

Render concludes with the multi-part poem “A Calendar of Blazing Days.” Haunting and harsh, this poem maintains the tone and subjects of the book while appearing on the page in longer, more regular, lines. One section offers a description of the human that seems to sum up the vision of the book. “But you are / the complicated animal hairless and shining / You are the one with reasons.”

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