Book Reviews, Features

Billie Swift: “Dear viscera, – Kelly Davio’s Burn This House”

BurnThisHouseCATrgb506f1af2d8a2aBurn This House
Kelly Davio
Red Hen Press, 2013

Burn This House, Kelly Davio’s debut poetry collection, is peppered with visceral images so precise they evoke poetic contemplation during even the most humdrum of moments. While walking to my car, I suddenly find myself considering the way “leather fits / at my calf with the native snugness / it must have had on the heifer.” When I’m lying in bed listening to the routine shift and rustle of my husband as he settles in to sleep, the lines “I feel your skull move against / my pillow” bring a renewed intimacy to the moment. Davio’s attention to—and deft handling of—her craft extends to the smallest details, as evidenced in the wonderful pacing and lineation of her epigraph for the poem “Gammelfleisch”: “Literally, ‘spoiled meat.’ Also used by German youth / as slang for people over thirty.”

These “people over thirty” populate a great many of the poems in this collection, throughout which Davio explores and challenges the constraints of the body, often from the decidedly middle-aged perspective of someone who still wants and expects the body to provide freedom even as the elasticity of skin slackens. In the collection’s titular and final poem, release arrives, though paired with annihilation. The speaker’s imperative voice directs “you” to stand inside a burning house, “Tell the rescuers they are not wanted,” and be consumed—from eyes to lips to wrists to bones—“sloughing off the body’s burden.” For many of these poems, this burden appears as the constantly shifting fine line between our private and public bodies.

In “I Come to You, Thirty-Six Hours by Train,” we are treated to a train ride so replete with snores and smells and lewd touches—between the passengers; directed at the speaker; emanating from the speaker’s own body—that the efforts toward physical self-composure in the final lines, “I turn back, / careful not to brush knees with the man beside me,” are as comical in their earnestness as they are hopeless. We can’t possibly keep our bodies to ourselves. In the jostle and tussle of our inevitable proximities, we’re constantly leaving behind bruises, flakes of skin, even the impression of our lips. As the speaker of the poem watches a bottle roll “unclaimed” along the aisle, “the plum at its mouth” betrays its rightful owner, whose body, even in sleep, provides this public announcement in the shape of a “bottle-sized stripe of fleshtone.”

In “One in Four of Us Is Marked,” a “sun-worn butterfly lined / by a shaky hand trembles on a back / gone fat,” exemplifying the very public manner in which our bodies often display and contort symbols of our youthful indiscretions. But Davio does something else in this poem as well. She flips the equation, for a moment, wondering what it would look like if we were forced to make public those qualities and traits we keep private in order to maintain the inaccuracies of our public persona. “But imagine body as canvas,” she writes, “ideal for a list / of critical information.” Diseases, perhaps. Compulsions. Or, even better, “instructions / for handling and care.” What if, Davio muses, a man came with “complete / disclaimers printed behind the ear,” so when his lover undressed him, “she would find a list / of contents, know what small changes / might seep out if she gave him a cold / cup of coffee.”

In Davio’s poems, our bodies are as much flesh and viscera as means to communicate.

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.
The heft of his belly meat shudders the pane
before he drops, bent-feathered to the ground.

This passage, from the book’s opening poem “Auguries,” feels good rolled along the tongue, pressed from our lips, rocking our bodies. In the passage above, Davio heightens the physical intensity of this scene with a mouthful of rhymes and sounds, not to mention the pleasing meter and thick consonants of the final two lines. Likewise, in this beautiful opening passage to “Maybe I Am Gold,” Davio’s speaker details the work of a speech therapist in terms that render the very mechanics of human speech a marvel of physical engineering:

My student visits this moldering classroom
twice a week, learns mysteries of English
prepositions, toothy differences between six
and sick. Today, he works the tongue, the lip

and the throat to practice the guttural: exhibit.

Clearly Davio is a skillful storyteller, adept at using sound and rhythm to their fullest potential, as she does in the poem “Patience”: “When you hear the knock on the back door, wait,” the poem begins, before moving on, a few lines later, to the wonderfully evocative image: “You will be // as a spider’s nest, squatting, moving only / in a threat to crack.” Indeed, the poems throughout this book are like nests of spiders, seemingly compact collections of words from which images and associations emerge, then scatter.

Billie Swift is currently enrolled in the Rainier Writing Workshop MFA program at Pacific Lutheran University. She lives in Seattle, where she co-curates the Beacon Bards poetry reading series.