I read American Purgatory in the midst of a power outage caused by a hurricane. My fridge was full of slowly spoiling food and I had to walk to the library to charge my phone, which was my only way to maintain contact with the outside world. It was the closest I have ever been to an actual purgatory, which made it a great time to read Rebecca Gayle Howell’s work. I say “work” because that is what all poetry boils down to, and because one of the main underlying forces of American Purgatory is its examination of the value and nature of all work; how it transforms the worker and their environment.
The Catholic notion of Purgatory is not merely Limbo or a timeless nothingness, like my time spent in my apartment without power. Instead, it’s about working off your debts to the world before you can move on to Paradise. In the world of American Purgatory, everyone has a specific job and for some that job is tied directly to their physicality, their strength, their power, or lack thereof. The work that created this dystopian environmental hellscape is perpetuated in these narrowly defined roles, but is also reflected back on the workers in a visual and visceral way. The goodness and righteousness of work is a distinctly American concept; from the Puritan work ethic (“Idle hands are the devil’s playthings”) to the rags-to-riches stories of Horatio Alger Jr to the American Dream ideal of today. What Howell recognizes is that this concept of American work is itself a purgatory, one that is constantly reinforced as an uplifting myth by our political and spiritual leaders.
Even after the breakdown of our current society, one of the main characters, Brother Slade, harkens back to those ideals in several poems: “The first will be last,”The last will be first,” “It’s prophecy… We’ll be delivered but we must utterly destroy all the places.” “Amazing Grace” is sung as solace between shifts in the poem “Same Song, Second Verse,” just like it was sung by enslaved people, mill workers, children, and any one caught in the jaws of unrestrained American capitalism.
It’s also not just manual or physical work Howell confronts; she also breaks down the emotional and psychological labor that is thrust upon women, and the work that is childbirth. The speaker’s pregnancy over the course of the book, in a world where no one can bear children any longer, demonstrates that even though some forms of work are a means of constraining and controlling a population, other forms can liberate and cultivate prosperity. Work is not inherently fused with meaning; it only becomes so when other forces use it to their own ends, for good or ill.
Even when the work is assigned to the main characters by the authoritarian government, there can still be joy found in the work itself. In the poem “Only Hell Has No Limits,” the speaker realizes that she “like[s] the way [she] feel[s] when Little finds a spring,” and The Kid rides his bike “… ever pedaling to the living/ green pond he knows, and it’s safe to swim there.” The Kid “rides as hard/ as faith,” knowing that he is good at the work involved to ride a bike. The joy is real, both for The Kid and for the speaker, but “none of this story is true,” we learn. Though the work can bring happiness, or at least relief, it is fleeting and illusory. Ultimately, “…The Kid knows/ what he was born to.” The work will never transform the worker into anything above their current station in life, a feeling that contemporary Americans can readily identify with.
Howell has a knack for piercing imagery. Most of the poems in American Purgatory are short but anchored; their arguments continued by the ever-present landscape of a disfigured America transformed by the work of a previous society and upheld by the one in the book. That landscape’s power becomes the story of the main characters, of Slade, Little, the Kid, and the unnamed speaker. Indeed, the landscape is a character unto itself, acting as both villain and accomplice as the narrative progresses. The story of the landscape, and the story of the speaker, are both haunting and eerily realistic, and it doesn’t take much imagination to see them coming true in our very near-future.
Post-apocalyptic poetry is a thrilling idea, because while we are inundated with fiction that concerns itself with survival of a way of life in a transformed world, poetry has always been about survival of the self. American Purgatory separates itself by combining the setting and scenery of the former with the immediacy of the latter. We get as much world-building as we need to understand the interior lives of the three main characters, how their labors shape their notions of themselves, and not an iota more.
Howell asks what it means to do work as an American, even as it physically alters, wounds, and destroys the world around us. What are the societal norms we attach to who does or who is supposed to do, from where does their power derive, and what is an individual’s responsibility, or complicity, in defeating or sustaining them?
There are no straightforward answers to these questions, but it is better to understand the full scope of a problem before trying to fix it. Howell offers the best summation of this quandary in the poem “Destroy All The Places,” which begins with the chilling statement: “The economics will satisfy.” The speaker asks us to question her place in the fictional post-apocalypse, but in language that makes the reader reconsider our place in our own time. “Best to get up now/ and forget; you can erase today if you practice,” the speaker commands, and then goes a step further:
I have work to do, but no more hope we make it
out of here than living will let us die. That’s what
it means to owe a thing. It means you are owned.
And which are you, now, the owner or the owned.
The last statement, which takes the grammar of a question but refuses to be one, confronts the reader and forces them to take stock of the privileges they have. If we can, in our own moment, use these advantages to create a fairer system, then perhaps Howell’s future will not come to pass.
There is a place for hope in American Purgatory, but it is small and easily-forgotten, like in Pandora’s Box. The book ends with the speaker giving birth to the first child born for many years in this wasteland. There are no flash-forwards or prognosticating on the part of the speaker, other than to say, in the final poem “Everyone Was Born Here,” that “we will float and drink years of rain.” But the mere fact of the child’s birth indicates that there is some chance that at the very least life will continue, and a future generation will learn from the mistakes of its ancestors. As the title of one of Howell’s poems says, “Every job has a first day.” Our work will have one too.