the deeper I drink the heavier the song.
Now the ocean only means goodbye
a patchwork of stanzas and troubled sails.

from “Replay”

Boat Burned, the first full-length collection from Kelly Grace Thomas, centers its titular metaphor as it navigates themes of domestic abuse, body shame, and family dynamic. Images of boats and bodies of water permeate the poems, emphasizing the immensity of the experiences through which Thomas writes. This is not a light-hearted collection by any stretch; it is heavy and fraught and often overwhelming. I found myself walking away from it often, not out of discontent but out of a need to process the full brunt of the emotions laid bare by the author.

“Here’s how it happened:/I burned each boat/but first they flamed/me…” the book opens in, immediately signaling that this is a journey of survival, of reclaiming the strength and power that has, until now, been used to hold the speaker down. By the end of the first poem, she proclaims: “The ocean, my witness/watches the body cross/itself. I hold a match/to everything I no longer am.” These lines resonate in the pages that follow as the speaker refuses victimhood, instead acknowledging moments of intense powerlessness and grief from a place of perseverance.

One of my absolute favorite poems in the collection is “Where No One Says Eating Disorder,” a painful look at a mother and two daughters, each of whom struggles with a different eating disorder. The mother, who “[bunkers] her body/so no one [can] leave it,” confronts the speaker of the poem after she finds diet pills, telling her daughter that she “[has] wasted/[her] money trying to disappear.” The shared trauma unites the women, and it is presented as a root cause for the willingness to stomach abuse in their respective relationships because they are “so hungry/for anything/to love us back.” This poem alone contains enough for entire conversations on body politics, but Thomas peppers the collection with others that further enrich the theme.

For me, the one noticeable drawback is that there are many forms employed throughout the book, many of which feel forced or borderline gimmicky. I often felt that the more formal poems would function just as well as free verse, which ultimately frustrated me as I read. Some will likely appreciate Thomas’ ability to employ numerous forms, and she certainly demonstrates a keen mastery of these forms, but they just didn’t work for me.

Overall, I found Boat Burned inconsistent, but I enjoyed it thoroughly nonetheless. Thomas has done well with her debut collection. It is a poignant and visceral addition to feminist poetics.

Purchase your copy of Boat Burned from YesYes Books.

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