Rebecca Gayle Howell, a senior editor at the Oxford American magazine, has written a novel that strips the Southern working class’ condition of its veneer, exposing a future economic and environmental catastrophe.
Set in a locale that puts the “dust” in industrial decay, Howell’s broken passages recall the detailed descriptions of exhaustion and famine offered by the disenfranchised Depression-era voices in Studs Terkel’s “Hard Times.” That is to say, this book has happened before and believably could happen again. Before you conclude that “American Purgatory” only appeals to the most cynical of readers, though, know that the book is also a mosaic of subtle, extreme — and ultimately, beautiful — poetic language.
Composed of fragmentary poems, “American Purgatory” is structured as allegory, a vehicle for the lives of members of the local proletariat: Slade, the stoic preacher man; Little, the antisocial visionary; and “the Kid,” a disfigured field worker. Through the eyes of an unnamed narrator, the reader observes these three enigmas in end-of-time, after-work activities like minnow fishing, hunting practice and trying to locate drinkable water. The working conditions are poor at best — they include picking valuable cotton under crop dusters in an atmosphere “like breathing gasoline.”
“American Purgatory” presents a nightmarish vision born of water deprivation and fatigue. To grasp the book as dystopian, though, oversimplifies the current state of the worldwide working class. In an interview with “32 Poems” magazine, Howell says, “I don’t think it’s foolish to think about work. I think we are in real need of a conversation big enough to include globalized war capitalism, exploitation, labor and the possibility of neighborliness. It’s a necessary conversation, as necessary as our conversation about the global control of women or the brutalities of American racism.” Howell’s fabulist brushstrokes cover all of these heavy topics. Abusive relationships, thirst beyond hunger and the unfair vetting for the hardest of wage slavery plague these lives, as if they were a single square inch of Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights.”
I wish it meant something. I wish a moon could pull
so strong dirt would gush a well. I’d get my silver bucket.
I’d open my mouth. The fire — it’s a game; one guy sets it
from boredom and from boredom the other puts it out.
Personal bewilderment, more so than dialogue, enables the poetic narrative driving the story; bird formations are isosceles triangles, cotton field workers appear to be angels and the sky mimics an abacus tallying sins. The Bible weighs heavily on the book’s symbolism, as do magic and superstition; snakes are the summation of evil in this world, and water is its salvation — in an aurora borealis or ouroboros kind of way. The narrator’s elliptical interior monologues are mesmerizing meditations on natural life and existential terror — and the expression of “neighborliness” shared between the narrator’s retinue ranks among the most lucid since that in fellow Kentuckian Maurice Manning’s “A Companion for Owls”:
PLEASURE DON’T QUIT
Please that old song screams, and begs me,
Don’t go. I hear it in my head in a time
as this, when I am alone, and how Don’t go
has all my days been my low-ditch song’s refrain,
and how I have not known who it was a going,
and how, turns out, it was me. Touch is water,
when it’s kind, a cool pool I can drink and sink
down into, resurrect out, rise up, rise up.
But a heat vision won’t make it so.
The books and paintings I’ve compared to “American Purgatory” were authored by men, but Howell’s poems find power in the feminine; queen ants, a pregnant dog and the narrator all share a common bond in warding off an authoritarian offense. Linguistically, death from childbirth is placed next to the burden of a hard labor, and a vision of water in a cistern is interwoven with “this is how my water breaks.” As was the case for Shakespeare’s heroines, or C.D. Wright’s, everyday vulnerability is a prick in the side, and those who stop to muse are met with ironic overtures. For them, to dream is to encounter the brave new world, and an old one, too.
Howell, also the author of “Render/An Apocalypse” and a translation of Amal al-Jubouri’s “Hagar Before the Occupation/Hagar After the Occupation,” will read excerpts from “American Purgatory” in a book launch at 7 p.m. Monday, Feb. 20, at The Joint, where she’ll be joined by banjoist and fellow Kentucky native Brett Ratliff. Admission is free. “American Purgatory,” published by Eyewear Publishing, an independent British micropress, and distributed by Small Press Distribution in Berkeley, Calif., was the winner of the 2016 Sexton Prize for poetry.