Review: Adam O. Davis’s Index of Haunted Houses

by Eric Stiefel

Adam O. Davis’s Index of Haunted Houses (Sarabande Books, 2020) explores the spaces that contemporary America has left behind, from abandoned homes from the 18th century to dilapidated motels and empty trainyards.  While Adam O. Davis’s debut, hybrid collection of original photography and poetry, Index of Haunted Houses focuses on ghosts and the places where they linger, its spectral figures never appear overtly.  Davis leaves their presence to be sensed by readers as they explore the spaces of the poems in this book, which is often filled with white space and possibility. 

Most of the photographs depict empty spaces or dilapidated buildings, empty trainyards, crumbling motels, an empty road and an open field with a sign that reads “PRIMITIVE ROAD, CAUTION, USE AT YOUR OWN RISK.”  The eerie tone of these black-and-white photographs resonates with the poems in the collection—something in America has been lost, though that something hasn’t truly left us.

Ultimately, Index of Haunted Houses appeals to the type of reader who enjoys digging through poems for clues, the type of reader who finds the cryptic inviting rather than frustrating.  The sparse “Slow City Bones,” for example, ends on the lines “Memory / a thing / that devours // things / that will devour / things.”

These last six lines consist of a little over half of the poem, which takes the space to let its lines ring out against koan-like silence.  Nonetheless, “Slow City Bones” (p. 16) raises a question that resonates throughout the rest of the text: What does America’s subconscious consume, and what’s left behind in America’s underbelly?  

Other poems, like “The Body of New Jersey” (p. 5) present environmental concerns with lines like “The air is empty, // as it always is. // The air that has no voice though we bully it / with flight and forest fires.”  A few lines earlier, we catch a glimpse of the people of New Jersey, one of the few times humans are directly portrayed in the poems, with the lines “They weep openly in their backyards, beneath / their smokestacks and overpasses, all sweetly candid under / the fast sorrow of the tax collector’s case.”  

In contrast to the lines I quoted from “The Body of New Jersey,” the next poem in the collection, “Manifest Destiny” (p. 7), opens with the lines “This house will / outlast / me and all those ghosts / I know.”  When considered altogether, the collection’s narrative portrays humanity as having failed itself, damaging the world it inhabits beyond repair and leaving this litany of haunted houses behind like a series of alien structures.  

More often than not, the poems offer space for uncanny but meditative reflection, ending on a puzzling image that invites the reader to explore the haunted spaces the poems create, as if the collection leaves its ominous array of parts in front of us to assemble at their own leisure.  There’s an archetype of reader who might find this frustrating, as I mentioned before, but there’s another kind of reader that delights in this kind of open invitation for exploration that Davis provides.

Still, some of the most interesting poems are the poems that flesh their ideas out, like the six-part sequence “Stetson in Retrograde” (p. 37) which begins “If a house is haunted like a radio/ is haunted    If a body is a radio / of blood     If a body of ghosts / hums like blood over a valley of / bone…” and so on, this rhetorical device an attempt to understand the string of unseen ghosts that linger in the land of the living.  In longer poems like “Stetson in Retrograde,” Davis takes the space to explore the effects of the human on the world, as the world of finance and loans collides with the worlds of love and belief to striking effect.

In that same spirit, I’m drawn to another long poem near the end of the book, this one called “National Anthem,” a poem that seems to take us to America’s afterlife, collecting vestiges of the past.  Index of Haunted Houses is a book that wants to make something out of the relics of the past, stretching across a fading American landscape trying to find the remnants of life that America seems to have lost.  Ultimately, the collection is made of vestiges of the past: places the world’s forgotten, people that it’s left behind, haunted landscape after haunted landscape.  But, like any good ghost story, Index of Haunted Houses leaves just enough room for readers to investigate for themselves.

Eric Stiefel is a poet living in Athens, Ohio with his dog, Violet.  He teaches at Ohio University, where he is also pursuing a PhD.  His recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Apple Valley Review, Prism ReviewPainted Bride QuarterlyTupelo Quarterly, Frontier Poetry, and elsewhere.

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