YesYes Books. 2020. 110 pages.
Reviewed by Heather Myers
Kelly Grace Thomas, in her first full-length poetry collection, Boat Burned, writes, “She told me: pain needs a witness.” This line from “Storm Warning” lingered with me long after I finished the collection. After all, why do we write what hurts? Apart from personal trauma and pain, the collection looks expansively at racism, America, and the societal expectations imposed upon women. There is also love and tenderness to be found within this work. Boats, and the seas upon which they ride, shimmer and burn throughout the collection, taking on different meaning and tone such that the metaphors never become dull or overdone.
Thomas discusses Boat Burned in an interview with Hannah Lazar in The Penn Review, stating that “The Boat of My Body” came to her when she wondered, “’What if every woman took off her clothes and there was something that wasn’t human underneath?’ and then I thought ‘I’d be a boat.’” The idea of defamiliarizing the body, or the body taking the shape of something else more expansive, is a significant thread throughout the collection—revealing, I think, of the ways the speaker balances the tension of seeking comfort and familiarity within the body while also reconciling with its strangeness and discomfort. The body, then, is written malleable and vessel-like, heightening awareness of how we are to perceive our own conceptions of image and what constitutes beauty. In “The Polite Bird of Story,” Thomas turns inward to the rooms that make her, and what they house—the interior life is very much constructed by the familial. The poem acknowledges that this is part of how the body is formed—through another’s shaping and rearing. Thomas’s skill for writing intimately into the self shines here:
Take flight, against God or the sky.
We are always open domes looking for rest.
The linoleum stung with spill.
The cabinets full of hard parts.
I have been thinking about the shells
of Russian Dolls snapping like twigs.
This moment echoes an earlier moment in the collection, from the poem, “We Know Monsters By Their Teeth,” “The small death of letting / go. Rest a four-letter word.” Incidentally, monsters are also mentioned in “The Polite Bird of Story” (and in other moments throughout the collection). The lines, “Sometimes there is too much female—they call it monster. I roil a tiny teakettle behind these picket teeth. Perfection” examine anger at society, and how femininity constructs the speaker. All of these portraits within the poem culminate in the final lines, “Food is just another ghost story / the starved like to tell.” The examination of eating disorder is integral to the collection, and to femininity and body image within this work—how to inhabit the body, especially when it is a ‘vessel’ we do not want to be contained within.
Womanhood presents and nesting-dolls itself into the speaker through generations of women before her. The women in these poems often show and tell the speaker how to think and behave, particularly when the speaker regards her body. I was most drawn to the moments when the body is defamiliarized or becomes something else entirely. The poem in the form of a word problem, “In An Attempt To Solve for X: Femininity as Word Problem” grapples head-on with the central conflict of the collection: the ways in which women deal with shame. The opening lines in this poem examine femininity’s ties to shame and highlight the difficulty in addres