Kelly Davio’s Burn This House is a book of music and silence, of transparency and borders. These poems simultaneously build a house as they bury it in its own ashes. In The Life of Poetry, Muriel Rukeyser writes that “The universe of poetry is the universe of emotional truth. Our material is the way we feel as the way we remember.” These are poems that understand—they rewrite histories, constantly searching for emotional truths and asking us as readers to do the same. The poem “Patience” instructs us:
When you hear the knock on the back door, wait.
Wait—this book is the knock, we’re asked to wait while it weaves together sight and sound, the persistence and ambiguity of memory, darkness and light. Burn This House is a study of the self within the communal. Take this passage from “Auguries,” the opening poem:
First, a gong at the window. Not the sparrow
who occasionally lobs himself at my smudged glass,
but a pigeon: a one-eyed feral with mange.
We are greeted by the gong, a hollow sound, resonating against its own silence. The glass window—despite its transparency—acts as a barrier between the speaker and the outside world; the self and the familiar omens of death. In this opening poem, Davio introduces us to the birds that frequent these poems. Our speaker, hollow like the bones of birds, longs for flight. She bears witness to the world without losing or finding herself:
I walk to the street, rubber-booted, make
appraisal of each static hurt. To what
significance such eroded things?
This question will stay in our minds throughout this collection the way a gong reverberates throughout a room. I love that Davio begins with a sound—it makes me feel as if I’m entering a real space, not just being shown a scene. All of the poems in this collection pull us deeper into their world, which we quickly realize is our own world. Davio explores emptiness—the emptiness of which we are made of. Davio brings together varying images of hollowness—glass fishbowls, human skulls, spines of trees, dollar-store Frisbees, houseboats—and listens closely to the bell ringing within each.
By examining the silence, Davio finds music. By questioning the unquestionable, she finds answers. Take these lines from “Trouble with Water”:
But if bodily sensation
is the taproot of consciousness, then bracing
the back under pelting water is pure
Memory becomes the physical. This collection echoes William Carlos Williams’s “The Descent”: “memory is a kind of accomplishment, a sort of renewal.” The speaker of these poems is constantly questioning memory, yet relying on it to understand her own story. In “The Way I Remember,” the speaker examines a memory of her sister, who was hurt walking barefoot on a railroad tie. Yet, years later, the speaker discovers the splinter scar on her own foot, creating an ambiguity around the memory: who walked the balance beam? This poem instantly brings me back to my own childhood. I find myself studying the scars on my own arms and legs, wondering how I earned each one, if my brother’s memories would differ from mine. What actually happened? I want to ask. Which should be trusted, the memory or the body?
Burn This House asks us to decide. Davio does not shy away from examining the relationship between the physical and the emotional. “Chastity” is a great example, and perhaps my favorite poem in the book. Take these lines, addressed to a loved one about the memory of religion and growing up:
Over pilfered cookies, between shots of whiskey,
you made a confession: you loved a woman.
The girl in the photograph tacked by your bed was more
than the friend you’d made your year abroad.
I held your hand, your warm blood asking no
absolution: you’d return to her in spring.
The distinction between the physical and the emotional breaks down with the beloved’s “warm blood asking no absolution.” Read this passage aloud—is it not the sound of church bells? For a celebration, or a call to confession? Does it matter which? I think Carolyn Wright says it perfectly by describing Davio as having “tongues of flame.” These poems lick, they burn. They soothe, they hurt. We gladly comply when the title poem urges us to:
Pull exhaled air back through the lips.
Hold each ember by your teeth in shelter.
Burn This House leaves us ignited, the way the best poetry should. To quote Williams again, this collection leaves us with “a reversal of despair,” one that, like these poems, is both “endless and indestructible.”
Burn This House
Red Hen Press