Helen Taylor wrote the hymn “Bless This House” in 1927. It begins, “Bless this house, O Lord we pray. Make it safe by night and day. Bless these walls so firm and stout, keeping want and trouble out. Bless the roof and chimneys tall. Let thy peace lie overall.” Open any church hymnal and you will find its familiar words and tune. Enter any home and you might find the title printed or embroidered or cross-stitched and hanging on the wall. So, when Kelly Davio titles her first collection Burn This House, I know she means business. Business with tradition, with family, with the God who is called upon to bless and protect what might more rightfully be torched.
The first poem in the collection sets Davio’s mission and tone. The end of the poem asks, “To what / significance such eroded things?” This seems to be the question at the heart of the book, one that the speakers struggle to answer in different ways. Davio explores the erosion of faith, time, memory, and love with clear speakers who are unafraid to expose doubts and question the world. The speakers are alternately compassionate and cruel, ironic and sincere. They speak in poems that sometimes pin us down like an older brother until we call uncle or whisper soft doubts into our ears, making us question our own mothers.
A stand-out poem in the first section of the book is The Eye on the Sparrow. The title alone, of course, reminds us of that other hymn, “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” but instead, Davio asks whose eye? In the poem, a sparrow flies into a window and the only ones watching are the speaker and her cat:
I don’t place the wayward missile
in a shoebox, safe from the prowling
of other half-domestic neighborhood pets,
despite common wisdom on the matter.
I don’t want to see the sparrow thrash
as I lift it, my hands inside lime green
latex gloves. I don’t want to hear it
rasp a sound like mom from its cracked beak.
I don’t want to see its death shudder
while I watch, worrying about exotic flu.
I stop looking. . . .
I found this a harrowing poem, given the title and what the hymn promises: even the sparrow matters to Him, we are not alone, do not be afraid. Davio turns this around. The speaker’s eye is on the sparrow, but then chooses not to be, not to rescue, refuses “common wisdom,” simply because she does not want to see. The repetition of “I don’t want to” pounds that moral and emotional refusal home and forces readers to ask if He does this too, sometimes—turns away, leaving only the cat to watch what happens to us next. As readers, we wonder if we should judge this speaker or other speakers in these poems who freely admit, “My mood is inhumane.” Davio doesn’t make answering that question easy. She recognizes that darkness and light move in ways that bleed into each other, that the border blurs:
When first I learned that dark
was a threat, that its tuneless
whistle signifies no good thing,
I slept with full lights,
burned candles in corners.
It wouldn’t go. The heavy
felt of it kept fuzzing the walls.
Now I stay at the window,
watch it seep past the ring
of streetlight on pavement.
I listen as it hums out blood
at its edges. Softly.
In two sections, Sin and Virtue, she titles poems with words for sins (Anger, Envy, Pride, Gluttony) and virtues (Charity, Humility, Patience, Industry), but the reader quickly sees the irony at work—we could almost switch the titles (Pride with Humility) and the poems would be the same. Sin and virtue, in the real world, are planks on the same table, the hinge and the door, twin sisters walking hand-in-hand, indistinguishable.
Davio carries this idea just far enough, balancing it with poems that inject humor and longing into this exploration of darkness and light. In places, the poems seem to rely on two-dimensional portraits of characters that leave me asking for more, for that other layer that would take me somewhere unexpected. As a reader, I felt like Davio sometimes didn’t trust me enough to let the image do the work and injected a “telling” line to make sure the point was made. This is something all poets struggle with—the desire for the subject of the poems to be clear in order to make room for the meaning, to say something both with image and with exposition.
The strength of the book is seen clearly in the title poem. In Burn This House, Davio acknowledges the necessity of destruction; that the safe, peaceful, firm, stout house of the hymn is too small a place for any whole human experience to live. It reminds us that want and trouble join us to the world and to the divine that is bigger than sin, virtue, and judgment. Instead of looking for rescue or water when your house is burning, Davio says to
Hold each ember by your teeth in shelter.
Allow each column of timber to stray
from notions of form and size, catching
flakes of fire on your tongue.