Book Review: Burials by Jessica Drake-Thomas

Book Review: Burials by Jessica Drake-Thomas


Burials, by Jessica Drake-Thomas, is a poetry collection that unearths story at its heart. This book blooms with darkness. Drake-Thomas lights a candle as we wander through the graveyard of each poem. The beauty of sadness is nestled in the gothic folds of language as line and verse become a shroud pulled back to view those that have been forgotten. These poems thin the veil between the living and the dead with a request for remembrance.


Stories from the Stake

“Every day, he gets up
to burn witches.
He doesn’t know
or see
the woman
in front of him–

Only a body.”

Queen of Sticks, Jessica Drake-Thomas, Burials

From the moment we read the first poem, it is cleared that no emotion will be spared. It could be easy to dive into the darkness in a way that is overwhelming, but Drake-Thomas steers clear of that. The poet gives us the clarion call from Catherine Monvoisin. La Voisin will not be forgotten and we are privy to her very last moments as she is burned at the stake.

Last year, I did an astounding amount of research on the trials of accused witches that spanned history from Europe to the United States. Those in colonial America found themselves at the end of a hangman’s noose. But, many of their predecessors faced flames on another continent. Research like this often gives us the salient facts. I read historical documents about those accused, tried and ultimately put to death. However, finding personal information was more difficult, as these souls are counted in number and records of them as people may be lost. This stripping away of personal details robs history of its humanity. It is much harder to connect with, or feel empathy for facts and figures.

This poetry pulls us directly into the fire with Catherine. The last person she will see is her executioner and he has ceased to see her as a person. She will just become one of many put to death in the course of his daily work. The brilliance of this poem is in the conclusion, because not only does the executioner see ‘a body’, this is also what Catherine might become if we don’t humanise her. As history continues, the body count rises.


Bella Returns

“I remember, she says
to no one, for
who listens
to a pile of bones?”

Bella and the Wych-Elm, Jessica Drake-Thomas, Burials

Ever since my move to the United Kingdom last year, Bella has been visiting me. What I mean is that this story from Hagley Wood in 1943 keeps cropping up in my reading. One poem after another culminated in me finding an entire manuscript based on conjecture about Bella and her death. The central question is always: who was she? As I turned the pages of this book, there she was again. This time speaking with me and pleading with me to remember that once she was a real person with hopes and dreams.

I listen to a lot of true crime and like to read detective novels. Bella’s story is a mystery that no one can seem to pin down, with more than one factor at play. The first is simply in understanding what happened to her and the second is in knowing her. After all, Bella isn’t even her real name. In one of my favourite podcasts about true crime (Crime Junkie), the hosts are continually reminding listeners that these aren’t just cases, they’re people. They also champion the fact that a lot of people they talk about are still missing and ask for the audience help if they have any tips on the case. Every person is important.

With advances in technology, it’s not often that a body remains unidentified for long. But in 1943, things were different. Drake-Thomas gives Bella her own voice, beyond all of the conjecture when she states “…I remember when I had…to do lists…long drives…wine…warm blankets.” This pulls away the sensationalism that shrouds Bella and helps us to see her as a woman. She was a daughter, a friend and perhaps a sister. The poet, through Bella’s voice, asks me to look around and maybe even in the mirror to find the memory of this lost woman.


Listening to the Dead

“At twenty-nine, I know
what Frida Kahlo meant
when she portrayed
herself as a deer
with a woman’s head,
her deer body
pierced through by
long arrows.”

Kindred, Jessica Drake-Thomas, Burials

In this poem, we are introduced to the narrator who is less than impressed with Frida Kahlo’s “La Venadita“. As a child she has no patience, frame of reference or life experience to ponder this piece of art. It is simply part of an assignment.  I am reminded of how simple my youth was when I did not know struggle or suffering. One of the many downfalls of privilege is that it shields people from reality. This can disable the ability for understanding and compassion.

However, this poem is a journey and as our narrator ages and has life experiences, her understanding of this painting expands. Kahlo is one of many incredible artists that left us powerful messages with her art. There is a sweet irony in the fact that though she is buried, she will always have a way to reach any who want to listen and see. In a time where art education and communities face cuts and question their long-term sustainability, Drake-Thomas gives us one more reason to support art; it is bigger than this one life we have on earth.

As a visual artist, I have often found that paint, colour, line and composition can express feelings where words are just not enough. To view “La Venadita” is an exercise in understanding that. I also know that once my art is exhibited, it becomes part of someone else’s story. However, I’m still there with my own messages. This is how art can start a conversation between viewer and artist. In this one poem, Drake-Thomas takes us through that experience and allows the narrator to open up and listen to what Kahlo is trying to express beyond the grave. Kindred conjures a spirit that unites the dead and the living.


In Conclusion

The irony of Burials, by Jessica Drake-Thomas, is that it brings forth life. Each poem is a detailed portrait of the dead and the deft use of language along with brilliant storytelling makes the reader feel as if they could commune with ghosts. There are moments of profound sadness and anger coupled with moments of clarity and tenderness. In a season where the veil between the living and the dead becomes thin, and where Autumn portends the coming of winter’s hibernation, this collection is a reminder that remembrance can keep people alive.

Burials, by Jessica-Drake Thomas, is available for purchase through Clash.


About the Author

JESSICA DRAKE-THOMAS is a poet and fiction writer. She’s the author of Burials, as well as two other unpublished books. Her work has been featured in Ploughshares, PVSSYMAGIC, Coffin Bell Journal and Three Drops from A Cauldron, among others.


About the Publisher

CLASH BOOKS is where high and low art meet to make something fresh, new, and exciting. We publish literary fiction, non-fiction, poetry, horror, sci-fi & genre-free fiction.