burninghouse by Deborah Stiles

Trying to write a review of this book, one that’s tall and thin (compared to most poetry collections) with fewer than 40 pages of poems, presented a few challenges. My first stop, perhaps mistakenly, was at the website of the publisher, The Anchorage Press. It came as no surprise that this establishment is committed to fine design, creating books that are as beautiful to hold and look at as they are to read. But that site offered no information about burninghouse or its author, Deborah Stiles. Fortunately, the book itself led me onward.

The paper, creamy and textured, invites the eye; the words – and especially the names – on those pages prompt investigation. Stiles calls up the work of early feminist writers, Judith Sargent Murray and Margaret Fuller, names lost in my own tangled memory, but ones I was grateful to be reminded of, as they provide a kind of falsework for the poems she constructs.

These range from elaborate long poems such as “hold fast” to tautly-written prose poems to pieces that barely darken the page with letters, they’re so pithy-short.

That long poem, “hold fast” with its transit through the seasons, is where that we get the first taste of matters at the heart of this poet’s quests. It’s a piece that blends deep questions about life with everyday mundanities: coffee cups and the kitchen sink. There are even occasional smatterings of phrases en francais. If that seems picky to mention, I’d be quick to defend the thought, as one of the distinctive traits of this book is that it feels like it has deep roots in New Brunswick (the only officially bilingual province) and Nova Scotia (where Stiles worked at Dalhousie’s Faculty of Agriculture for two decades). The soil, the language, blood, birth and death.  

In contrast to the formalism intoned in “hold fast” is the light-hearted and filled with white space “pms poem” which I quote in its entirety:

I’ll do my bit for

world peace later

right now I want redmeatfriedchickenpepsichocolatesexand


in that order –

no, wait:

I’d be doing an injustice to Stiles if I were to let you think her take on women’s issues verges on the frivolous. Anything but. Domestic abuse and the fear it leaves in those who’ve experienced it. Breeding – whether of sheep or women. Sterility. Motherhood. Peace-dreamer that I am, my favourite poem might perhaps be “a minute reflection on women’s general aversion to war” in which she asserts that our familiarity with menstrual blood has given us a better perspective on the absurdity of war.

And even though I’m not enthralled by all of the poems, a few of which leave me scratching my head, I keep finding small treasures, like the beauty of imagery in “texas pecans” with its description of getting the pecans from their hard shells, saying “[I] pull out the nut meats, long, like tanned hands pressed together in prayer” – a vision that will stay with me forever.

While tradition dictates that we not judge a book by its cover, in this case, the cover illustration is so integral to the book’s content that it must be taken into account. It’s from artwork the poet’s son created when he was four years old. The title poem, the final piece in this tidy little book, riffs on it. Another of the prose poems, it ends:

             The houses he draws are always on fire. The firefighters are always there. There is always the crucial act of rescue, saving somebody, nobody hurt and they can build another house as long as nobody dies. Burning. Rescue. Save.                                   

Following on the heels of this comes Deborah Stiles’ note of dedication: “…to all women, past and present, working for change…that house (distorted patriarchy) is burning, and it’s time to leave.” To that, I can only add my nod of strong agreement.

Deborah Stiles was a tenured humanities and rural studies professor at Dalhousie University’s Faculty of Agriculture from 1998 to 2019. Born and raised in Appalachia, she has made Atlantic Canada her home (with occasional forays to West Virginia) since 1994. The author of the collections Riding Limestone and Movement Catalogued, Stiles has also published on regional, rural, and gender cultural studies and environmental humanities. She lives in Pictou County, Nova Scotia.

  • Publisher : Anchorage Press (Oct. 27 2020)
  • Language : English
  • Paperback : 48 pages
  • ISBN-10 : 189548846X
  • ISBN-13 : 978-1895488463

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Heidi Greco lives and writes in Surrey, BC on the territory of the Semiahmoo Nation and land that remembers the now-extinct Nicomekl People. Her most recent book, Glorious Birds (from Vancouver's Anvil Press) is an extended homage to one of her favourite films, Harold and Maude, which celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2021. More info at her website, heidigreco.ca

(Photo credit: George Omorean)