Friday, January 31, 2020

Kelly Grace Thomas, Boat Burned

Bay Area, California poet Kelly Grace Thomas’ full-length poetry debut is Boat Burned (Portland OR: YesYes Books, 2020) a collection of lyric, first-person poems that play off, from the offset, a quote by Sun Tzu (which is also included as epigraph): “When your army has crossed the border, you should burn your boats…” For Thomas, the borders of which she refers are that of the body, and female agency, as her poems examine her physical and emotional self against trauma, toxic cultural expectations and body dysphoria. The poems in Boat Burned move through family and first-person experiences of trauma, violence and loss, and family relationships to that of the body, writing direct or slant or even redacted. In a recent interview conducted by Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach, posted at [Pank], Thomas responds:

I come to the page to break the silence. Of course, there is always the hope that healing will occur but more than anything I think I need to talk about what’s hurting.  Poetry offers companionship and comfort that most other things do not, it takes you into a room of your own and holds your hand until what needs to pass passes. Or processes.

Most of my life, every experience I’ve had has an aftertaste of loneliness, even during the happiest times, surrounded by so many friends and family, there is still this feeling of isolation. The only way to fight it is through connection: to others, to myself, to nature. Poetry gifts me that, it builds a bridge.

Women’s bodies are a paradox of pleasure and punishment. Women are lusted after for their curves, breasts, even compassion; but when it comes to anything from menstruation to miscarriage there is this echoing silence, often cloaked shame. This past summer, I was granted a fellowship for the Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing, while there I was sitting with a group of women writers this topic came up. I asked them how they learned about their bodies.


Not one of them could point to someone who had tried to teach them how to know their body or more importantly how to love their body.

This past year my husband and I have been dealing with infertility issues. I have never experienced something so painful in my life. To try and process I looked into counseling and support groups, but there isn’t much out there. Yet another issue about a woman’s body that is seldom discussed.

Poetry works against the silence, to grant permission, offers companionship, and talk about all these hard and lonely things: my father leaving, my family’s bankruptcy and foreclosures, another negative pregnancy test. I make a deal with myself:  get the grief out, write the poem, put it into the world. Poetry helps me be brave. It is the easiest way for me to approach my darkness and my joy.

Thomas utilizes the lyric to write out the body in a clear language very different, say, than a writer such as Toronto poet Margaret Christakos’ work, which is far more physical and language-based. Thomas explores the body through exposition and narrative, writing out her physical distances and discoveries, such as the opening poem, “VESSELED,” begins:

Here’s how it happened:
I burned each boat
but first they flamed
me. I knew what I was:
a vessel he could float

Inside. He boarded me.
I burned. He hammered
my hips. Violence: a type of marriage.
Maybe I wanted to be owned.

I won’t tell you
about the anchor.
How it rusts
like a fist. He became
my gravity. If I am not boat
then what?

In another life, I stood
treetall. Growled at every axe.
It started when Noah
made an ark of me.

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