Richard Lemm is one of PEI’s best known poets and English professors. Burning House is his fifth volume of poetry and first release since his 2007 short story collection Shape of Things to Come, winner of the 2008 PEI Book Award for Fiction. PEI has a rich literary tradition; starting with the world-famous author of Anne of Green Gables, Lucy Maud Montgomery, and being kick started in the mid 20th century by Milton Acorn, and in the last 15 – 20 years we have seen an explosion of incredible writers (mostly poets) like John Smith, Hugh MacDonald, Brent MacLaine, Deidre Kessler, and of course, Richard Lemm. Lemm’s poetry has always been punctuated by a subtle narrative and strong colloquial voice. Burning House is a return to what this author does best: reflects, comments, and eulogizes on either past memories or the changing world.
This collection contains four sequences: “Heroes”, “Patriots”, “What I Wanted to Be”, and “Berlin Follies”. The first part looks at the people in life that as children you look up to as heroes set in the late 50s when the author was still a young boy. This is my favorite sequence. All of the poems have a strong yet calm narrative quality to them and the very serious themes of the poems are examined through the very believable innocence of childhood. Both “Patriots” and “Berlin Follies” fall a little flat for me although they are both still very well written. The second part of the collection are Dr. Lemm’s personal musings on the current global conflicts and their parallels to the Vietnam era when he was a young man. I think part of the reason this section didn’t connect with me was simply my lack of personal involvement with Afghanistan or Iraq and the fact that I am far too young to have any connection with Vietnam. “Berlin Follies” was, as I stated previously, well written but it didn’t seem to have a solid focus like the other three sequences did; it seemed to be more so the leftover musings stuck at the end of the book. The third section, “What I Wanted to Be” was very good; it provided a good antithesis to the the opening group of poems. Where “Heroes” looks back at those external characters “What I Wanted to Be” contains those inward looking reflections on the dreams of youth and the turning points in a young man’s life.
There are a number of poems in the collection that I can see being anthologized in the future as they are some of Richard Lemm’s best work; the ones that jump out at me immediately are “In the Fifties”, “Peril”, “Heroes: The Drill”, “I’ll Be Gone”, “What I Wanted to Be”, “Pilgrimage”, and “Alamo”. I had the pleasure of taking a class from Dr. Lemm about 7 years ago at the University of Prince Edward Island and I was amazed at his ability to take a complex idea, metaphor, or image and break it down into it’s most simplistic form so that even the most non-literary types would understand. This is the same thing he does in his poetry; because of his casual use of everyman idiom it is easy to not notice how well crafted his poems are. Using this type of language is in fact a testament to Lemm’s crafting ability; every word, line, and stanza are very deliberate. You are not lost in overwritten language searching for a meaning or point to the poem. His poetry is simplistic but yet is of very high literary quality. Burning House is a fine addition to the PEI and wider Canadian literary scene and would be a great addition to anyone’s poetry library.