In the first week of the stay-at-home orders, while an unprecedented pandemic and a thunderstorm ravaged the world outside, I started reading Kelly Grace Thomas’s debut collection of poetry, Boat Burned, in the bathtub. My body was made strange by quarantine life, simultaneously exhausted and stretched tight as a wire, floating in tub water with all its roundness. In the baths of Thomas’s poems, the speaker regards her body and says, “I feel sorry for myself in bubble baths”; she tries to scrub America from under her fingernails.
Thomas’s poems are full of women’s bodies, hot, damaged, and angry, reimagined as thunderstorms and fires. While reading, I thought about how women’s bodies collectively carry much of the trauma of the COVID-19 crisis, in the forms of increased domestic violence and unemployment, in becoming primary caregivers while schools are closed—and on top of all that: unending dishes. In a list poem titled “Reasons I Haven’t Done the Dishes,” one explanation offered is “Because people don’t know how to say I know this is hard / when this is hard is hard to say.” I could have read this collection at any time and found its poems to be in conversation with both the broader events of the world and my own internal struggles, but I happened to read them at this particular time, while grieving in a bathtub. Thomas’s poems ask: haven’t women’s bodies carried too much already?
In this collection, women are “vesseled,” carrying the burdens of our culture. Their bodies become boats, “conditioned to heel. / Throw my body / lopside at wind. A salty / bride.” Different poems piece the metaphor together, expanding and exploring women’s bodies-as-boats. Thomas’s writing is intimate and speaks to the weight women bear through her speaker’s experiences of family, marriage, and her own body. The boats of women’s bodies begin naturally, as a trees, “born / half forest. Still think about that axe. // I want to smell like mahogany / again. I want all those hands / out of my cabin.” Their bodies are hewn, lacquered, and shaped by cultural inheritance, then set out to sea to carry what they’re given. They are always storm-tossed, but sometimes, they are also the storm.
Disorder, in the literal as well as psychological sense, and sickness plaque women’s bodies from the beginning. The collection starts its exploration of the feminine body-as-vessel metaphor in “Mal de Débarquement,” a poem that moves through diagnosis, symptoms, causes, treatment, and cure. We are “seasick with the ways / you were taught to woman.” This poem suggests there is something inherently sick, disorienting, and unnatural in how women are required to move through the world. The meaning of this sickness unfurls and expands from that poem, exploring inherited ideals of beauty, American misogyny, and disordered eating.
The poems that explore disordered eating are frank and find their roots in family, particularly in the ideals of beauty we inherit from our mothers. “How the Body Is Passed Down” begins with a daughter inheriting from her mother a body that doesn’t fit and can’t be natural: “My mother unzips the body. / Passes it down. // The dress tailored / too tight.” She continues to feel constricted by these ideals but cannot escape them: “My body has always been / a window I cannot throw myself / from. Breasts stomach thighs / dimpled and swollen.” While many of the poems in Boat Burned envision women’s bodies surrounded by water (bath, rain, ocean), the poems about disordered are shuttered in the home, domestic and hungry. “In this world there are kitchens and there / are mothers. Both cold like the sky left waiting. // Food is just another ghost story / the starved like to tell.” These poems are full of emptiness: empty fridges and empty stomachs, memories of what is gone and lost like “fingerprints of flour,” ghosts, what we don’t say, what we need and are not given, forests felled for the making boats.
The repetition of disappearance and hunger throughout these poems mirrors the cycle of self-harm, and the sheer effort needed to climb out of it. The poem “Where No One Says Eating Disorder” indeed does not name the disorder, outside of its title, but instead shows how it manifests differently in the mother and her two daughters, all “so hungry / for anything / to love us back.” Thomas’s speaker does not blame her mother or family, but identifies this disorder, these sick ideas of beauty and lovability, as a cultural inheritance: “I come from a house / made of women. / Taught that men / would be their shelter.”
While women’s bodies are the wooden boards which build the boat and home, their dependence on the male gaze sets a flame to the structure. Thomas wrestles with the impossibility, the timelessness, of how societal expectations of femininity disorder and destroy our bodies. In one poem, femininity is posed as a mathematical word problem: “Possible steps to solving for y (you) / 1) Give back the rib 2) Eat every apple until you are fat with orchards 3) dress in snake and dig a grave.” Thomas does not accept the expectations placed on women’s bodies; she’s actively seeking an escape route. Her poems are written from a place of understanding and deconstruction, but their speakers are still grappling and living with their trauma. The collection asks us how to exist as a burdened vessel—or, how to burn the whole vessel down and escape this fate entirely?
Throughout the book, Thomas explores how American culture affects women’s relationships with their bodies, for example, by conflating the fabric of the flag flying at half-mast for unspecific and constant tragedy with that of a discarded dress: “I’m not sure I want to wear / America anymore. // What to do with things that used to make us / feel beautiful?” These poems refuse to look away from the grief that toxic masculinity causes, and often allude to or directly reference the cultural context in which they exist: Trump’s election, the Kavanaugh hearings, and a collective traumatization of sexual assault: “It’s hard for a body / to prove anything / once it’s been erased.” And while the lens of these poems is largely focused on the female body, women’s bodies are not the only bodies under threat in America. In several poems, the speaker’s loving relationship with a partner named Omid reveals how threats imposed by racism and Islamophobia affect us all. Conversations about Omid’s identity happen in bed and other intimate spaces, where love makes the speaker’s voice tender, concerned, hurt. Together, she and Omid build a domestic space where he can feel safe and she can feel beautiful, where they can be separate from the destructiveness outside.
The boats that are women’s bodies carry sickness and sadness foisted on them by a culture and country that goes against their natural grain. Thomas’s poems, however, are not as weighted as their subject matter. Verbs often transform nouns, giving each poem action and movement. The feminine is often personified, as a thunderstorm or fire raging: “Female: a storm / I first noticed / in the clouds. // It has taken all / of me / to rain / this hard.” Though Thomas addresses disordered eating and hunger, her work reminds me more of a starving lion; Thomas’s poems are “dangerous with thirst.” The final section of Boat Burned is particularly filled with this feeling of vengeance. Here, the speaker literally sets fire to the boats: “Burn myself brighter / The boats that built me / smoke on shore.” The collection concludes with the voice of a woman who reckons with her toxic cultural inheritance and doesn’t just reject it—she rages like a storm to extinguish it entirely, noting that “there is no retreat.” In a particularly lovely line from the poem “How to Storm,” Thomas writes, “Learn to rage. To rain so strong the oil of a lover raises to the asphalt.” Ultimately, Thomas’s collection is a call to action, welcoming women to set fire to the systems and structures that restrict, disorder, starve, and harm them: “They cannot bury us deep, call us things of war and be surprised / when we landmine.”
During the endlessly stormy first month of the pandemic, when I took countless bubble baths to feel soothed, Thomas’s collection made me think also of the hope that comes from rage, from a rejection of the status quo. As COVID-19 highlights and heightens existing inequalities, and protests in support of Black lives spread across the country, I feel hope in our collective anger. Boat Burned urges us to get out of the water and let our rage become a storm. The last lines of the collection are a message for all of us who feel weighted down by this country: “They can’t sink us / if we name ourselves / sea.”