One must have the courage to not only say what one sees, but to see what one sees. —Charles Peguy
Just as I do not want to be pitied for living in a rather plain town in the belly of the Midwest, and think that a good life is possible in anonymous, unheralded places, I don’t fetishize (or pity) the people and places in the south. My own family hales from Louisiana—N.O. to be specific—but who cares? For every beautiful, low building in the French Quarter, to Walker Percy’s “Elysian Fields,” you can find someone dying on Decatur Street, someone falling down in dizziness and despair in the suburbs. Rebecca Gayle Howell, editor at The Oxford American, has made a book of lyrical and narrative poems that, while centered in the South, should hold the attention of any reader, anywhere. All of us. All of us who are interested in poetry and truly concerned about it. I haven’t encountered such a reading experience like American Purgatory since I was first introduced to the novels of Cormac McCarthy. Howell’s work elicits that type of excitement and delight in language, language that is gritty, scriptural, sacred, and ultimately, mysterious. From characters such as a preacher keen on the Apocalypse named Slade, to a grotesque and intriguing figure known as The Kid, the reader can sense these figures nearly skeletonized by life and by hard, dry winds. The end isn’t coming. It’s here. We discover in these poems a space in which it feels as if the last generation is already moribund, and industry has died, and the cotton fields aren’t yielding very much.
American Purgatory begins with the poem, IT’S LIKE THIS, an overture that roots the reader firmly in places where work is going on unnoticed, save for those that have the courage to see what they see. In Howell’s world, men and women work above the invisible graves of the past, and American Purgatory feels as if it’s a prayer that might summon the dead back to join in a polyphony of voices, as if the voices of the departed truly mattered and could save us if released:
No one was born here. We are persons held to service
and labor. We are the ones keeping it going. And under
us, others keep us going.
Later, Howell shifts the reliability of the narrator’s voice. It turns out that generations have been born in Purgatory, but “no one gives birth anymore.” While it seems Slade is salivating at the idea of the end times being ushered in, the narrator’s voice betrays a deep concern for the reckonings and disasters around her. Airplanes drop chemicals over the fields. “No one gives birth anymore.” Drinkable water is a commodity in these parts. “No one gives birth anymore.” Brother Slade claims that “We’ll be delivered / but we must utterly destroy all the places.” It seems as if his dire wish is coming true or has already arrived, while the narrator beautifully expresses the futility around work and hardship itself:
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.
Water arrives in the end of American Purgatory. It’s the water of new life, of fecundity, a surprising sign of birth and renewal. Howell’s fragmentary, novel-in-verse is a masterpiece for what it refrains from saying, for leaving fissures and deliberate pauses intact. American Purgatory is, to my mind, not only one of the finest books of the year, but one of those books that will be remembered and read long after the winds have vaporized us all. Upon my fifth reading, I got it. I got that I was no longer getting at anything, that the spaces and people in this book require that I broaden my sympathies, that I hold inside—much like a prayer—a silence, a mystery.
American Purgatory (February 10, 2017 Eyewear Publishing) is available at local bookstores, or online through the publisher's website.