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Review: Burn This House

DavioBurn This House
Kelly Davio
Red Hen Press

Burn or bless? What’s the difference? Why do prayers contain echoes of threats and how do sin and virtue intertwine? These are questions you will find yourself asking as the narrator wanders through darkness lit by moon and lamplight, pierced by the scream of a barn owl. We are in the realm of discord and memory and our guide refuses to bear a burden. Kelly Davio will not turn the other cheek, and in sections from Signs to Judgment, Davio uses the lens and language of religion to question existence, family, and herself.

Everything is scrutinized: religious dogma, blessings and platitudes, family, story, sex and desire—these are all fair, and familiar, territory. But Davio goes further, and concepts of right and wrong, sin and virtue, become topsy-turvy. Like in Greed, where shoes and desire (first rubber boots and snow) turn into a statement of strength and individuality in the midst of imperfection.

Desires don’t end when a poem does—the wish for snow finally manifests pages later, but in a tragic snowfall of paint flakes from a fatal car accident. So prayers and desires are fulfilled, but in a much darker and heart-wrenching manner, a kind of warning to be careful what you ask for.

Betrayal is personal and Biblical, and insight is brutal. In Sympathy, two sisters glimpse their future lives through the Story of Rachel and Leah, envisioning . . .swollen eyes, her body/used to plow the fields, arms dragging a furrow/ or . . .the one used as sacrifice, the one/filleted, chopped, stewed for a meal. And Biblical imagery appears in unexpected places: an intersection of roads becomes a St. Andrews cross, tongues are burned by salt. But the Biblical references are not literal, nor easy. Instead they are an element of Davio’s psyche, the sign and symbol she uses to interpret and break free of her doubt and fear, as she pushes against the limits of prescribed existence.

Don’t let Davio’s inquisitive and sustained tone fool you; these smart and witty poems are the vehicle for a raw examination of how things work, although sometimes I felt I wanted more—that the intimacy and candor present in poems examining the first person “self” wasn’t pushing far enough when considering others. The exceptions are the sister poems, (which consider siblings, and nuns, in tender and brutal focus) and the poems about lovers (often written in second person). But what these poems achieve that the others don’t is connection, and even brief moments of comfort in the struggle for autonomy and purpose. I suspect that it is precisely the inherent discomfort in this struggle that makes me want more, not just as a reader, but also for the narrator herself.

The fire in Burn This House isn’t solely destructive, but cleansing, a renewal, sloughing off the body’s burden. For Davio, this catharsis has been a long time coming and the rescuers are not wanted. This narrator can stand alone and walk away.


Read Kelly Davio’s poem “Senescence” in Contrary.