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American Purgatory

American Purgatory

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By Rebecca Gayle Howell

American Purgatory is a story of the working class, a dystopia set in a near-future United States marked by severe drought, herbicidal warfare, and a totalitarian climate of poverty. This purgatory is populated by those who believe if that they work hard enough, they will be set free. Against this backdrop, three unlikely characters begin a journey that will take them away from work, belief, and even each other, until the protagonist uncovers the truth about this place and the people in it—a truth that indeed sets her free. Equal parts Dante and Cormac McCarthy, American Purgatory is a coming-of-age for capitalism written in the decade of tea-party terror.


Winner of the 2016 Sexton Prize, selected for publication by Don Share

Rebecca Gayle Howell is Poetry Editor of Oxford American and the author of two critically-acclaimed collections, American Purgatory and Render/An Apocalypse. Among her awards are fellowships from United States Artists and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, as well as a Pushcart Prize.

"deeply compelling" Poetry London, spring 2018 issue

'American Purgatory is a FORCE of a book. With striking passion, revelatory insight, eerie visionary turnabouts, haunting threads of hymnology, and a giant gift of precision and sensitive care, Rebecca Gayle Howell creates an unforgettably potent world in her poems—labor so often lived and borne, so rarely described.' —Naomi Shihab Nye

'What I can't stop thinking about, reading Rebecca Gayle Howell's haunting American Purgatory, are the ways our almost (but not quite) incalculably extractive lives, born of our extractive imaginations, will wither every last thing to dust if we don't confront them.  And it makes me wonder how we will confront them.  This book feels like one of the ways.' – Ross Gay

'In scriptural cadences and the earthen voice of a woman laboring under a sky of pesticides, Rebecca Gayle Howell imagines, with lyric ferocity and razor perception, a near-future dystopia lived by “persons held to service and labor,” in the wide, ruined fields of industrial agribusiness. It is a place of scarce water and thirsty cotton, with strong echoes of the shameful past of abduction and enslavement that built the wealth of the United States. In American Purgatory we meet Brother Slade, The Kid, a man called Little, and the chemically deformed “Brutes.” Howell is our twenty-first century Virgil, waving “the flag of warning,” on the precipice of a ruined world. Our world. The clear-eyed courage at work here reminds me of the honest power of C.D. Wright. She would recognize in Howell a sister poet. This is a poetic work for our moment and the time is now.' —Carolyn Forché

'Howell's broken passages recall 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.' - Jackson Meazle, Arkensas Times

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American Purgatory by Rebecca Gayle Howell

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