Make Holy What You Can: A Review of Kelly Grace Thomas’s Boat Burned

Maybe I wanted to be owned.
from “Vessel”

In Boat Burned, Kelly Grace Thomas revisits many of the themes that are familiar to poetry written by women as well as about women’s lives, such as marital expectations, body image, self-loathing, romantic desire, and parent-daughter connection. In her own skilled language, Thomas likens her speaker to a vessel, or boat—a female body that “has always been a window [she] can’t throw [her]self from,” against which “[g]enetics is a mean hammer.” The speaker is “a board in a fence that waits for men to kick it in” until she becomes “the smallest vessel [she] can steer.” Each poetic phrase remembers how women are often altering their physical and emotional selves to conform to the shape of whatever force gales them away in its powerful opinions and needs—an often explored feminist theme.

So, what makes this book different? The fact that Thomas (a white woman), as understood through her book’s speaker, married someone from the Middle East—a Persian named Omid—and this makes her journey through these female themes decidedly unique, since their narratives converge in shared trauma. As a Persian in a predominately white culture, Omid is viewed by his surroundings as a possible threat. In this same white culture, Thomas’s speaker is quickly assessed for her flaws, failures to measure up to American ideas of womanhood and associated physical expectations. Together, they understand what it is like to be othered in white American mainstream. 

“Persians are poets” says the speaker of these poems after suggesting her Persian lover shave his beard because “[h]alf this country / sees beard and thinks / bomb. Thinks Muslim / means murder.” “And that half,” she admits, “looks just like me.” And what does the speaker look like? She looks like “[h]unger,” she says, “which is never pretty.”

 She looks like a woman “at the dinner table” that eats herself “empty,” maybe still “too much female— / so they call [her] a monster”, “part stomach / part swallow”, “searching for food. / Diving head first. Eyes / open: suicide / ... starv[ing] into myth.” Like many women, the speaker tries to adapt to her culture via hunger and eating disorders just as Omid is encouraged to alter his appearance to better suit cultural norms. She tries to look less “Doughy” like “a kneaded / rising loaf” because, as her great-grandmother explains, she’s “only as good as what [she] can please.” Omid should also “consider [his] surroundings,” a friend says, referring to his full beard and how others in their neighborhood might react. “[A]ll I hear,” says the speaker in response, “is you’re surrounded.”

Both the speaker and her lover have been “caught in the crosshairs / of a white man’s gaze.” The books story of struggle with female self and identity is also the story of how we form alliances through shared trauma and how those alliances can steady our ship, help us repair the voyage, and even enlarge our territory until we “name ourselves sea.” Through this alliance, Thomas reveals that socialized expectations are not the problem of a particular culture—not a white problem—but a human problem. “Every fourth of July,” says the speaker, “we stay ...


          with Omid’s family
in Tahoe. They do not eat
          bread. Their Persian bodies
thin as branches. We celebrate
          a country no one wants
to love. The first time
          his father saw my photo
He called me chubby.
Suggested his son


The speaker and her lover find themselves in a universe of unmet expectations that span generations and cultures—an important complement to current conversations on femininity and xenophobia. Thomas does not look backward or forward with judgment; rather she gives voice to pain, examines messages received, and reconstructs her narrative of self with generosity and compassion. She asks her audience of family, friends, loves, enemies, and unknown readers to let her own her own narrative, to “let [her] speak / this sadness. Build these poems.” And, she demonstrates that outside labels and ideals become internal wrestling highlighting the reality that her American culture exacts more ownership over her body than does her Persian lover hailing from a nation that we presume to be less free, less just, and less sensitive to a woman’s welfare or equality. These ideas, as this book reveals, are not national or cultural, but personal. We each have a choice concerning how we respond to an other.

There are likely many other ways to read and enjoy this beautifully crafted gloss-covered 5 x 5 book of mostly free verse poems hugging the left margin of each page. Thomas has kept her style tight and concise, massaging metaphors that revisit themes of sailing and sea, houses and boats, kitchens and fences, a body flooded and bordered, tampered with and torn, bloated and starved. These poems pass like soft pastries and worn beach glass between the teeth asking the reader to consider their own emotional cravings. “I will not kneel / for a man’s affection” the speaker declares concerning her own; “Women,” she admonishes, “keep / this world bloomdizzy. / Teach these teeth / to tender. We are swollen / with tomorrow. It’s time to holy / one another instead.”




Kimberly Ann Priest is the author of Slaughter the One Bird (Sundress 2021) and the chapbooks Still Life (PANK, 2020), Parrot Flower (Glass 2020), and White Goat Black Sheep (FLP 2018). Her poetry has appeared in several literary journals, including The Laurel Review, RiverSedge, and The Berkeley Poetry Review, and she is a winner of the 2019 Heartland Poetry Prize in the New Poetry from the Midwest anthology by New American Press. A former book reviewer for NewPages and intern with Sundress Publications, she is currently Assistant Professor of First-Year Writing at Michigan State University and an associate poetry editor for the Nimrod International Journal of Prose and Poetry and Embody reader for The Maine Review.