Original publication can be viewed here.
Brute by Emily Skaja
April 2, 2019
Reviewed by: Cori Bratby-Rudd
Selected by Joy Harjo as the winner of the Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets, Emily Skaja’s Brute is at once terrifying and hypnotic, strange and yet profoundly meaningful, as she tackles the subject of her abusive relationship with a man as it is ending. When asked why she wrote Brute, Skaja responded: “I wrote Brute as a way of processing what happened to me, to try to sublimate grief into art and tell my story on my own terms, as I came to understand it. The trauma I experienced made it feel impossible for me to continue being the person I had been. I felt I had to create a new person out of the ashes of the old one…That’s what readers can see in Brute: the rough and painful invention of a new person, a survivor and a warrior where before there was someone who was willing to throw herself into the fire.”
In the first poem of the collection, titled “My History As,” readers are immediately introduced to a controlling man who says things like, “you fucked up your own life,” and “I could never love someone so heavy.” As such, we at once know this is a relationship that is controlling, and that it is a relationship that will end. In this four-sectioned, 74 page collection, Skaja has a talent for documenting her naked emotions post a significant and crushing breakup, though Brute is not a typical breakup or abuse story. There are no tragic tears of a longing for a lover, nor is there a story of regret nor simple odes, nor is their pure victimization. No, this a story where the writer acknowledges she hit him too, where the author takes accountability for her own actions while simultaneously calling out the failings of others; an author who knows how to address multidimensionality. We see greed and we see generosity. We see violence and we see brutes. This is not a story of violence, this is a story of processing violence.
The collection is thus one that unravels. We see Skaja mental wheels turning as she first tries to explain and understand this partners’ behavior, as she discussed her own sin, as she tells us, “When I tell my history, I can’t leave out/how I hit that man in the jaw.” Skaja has a particular style throughout this collection. It is both abstract and vivid, descriptive evocative and vividly bizarre. For instance, when she “drops [her] hands into the sink/they come up feathered.” And when she has “been standing all night in the woods near Necedah with [his] name etched in red on [her] tongue like a boxelder wing,” readers get invited into compounding bizarre and enigmatic scenes. We see a hole in the center of her hand, we see a woman in pain. There is an odd sort of logic about Skaja’s style. It is both illogical and the most logical collection I have ever read. Of course, a woman who is rebuilding herself has a hole in her hand, despite the impossibility of having an actual hole in her hand. These poems about longing do not need to use the words longing in order to convey their meaning. Skaja skillfully invents words like “birdward” (as in head towards the direction of the birds). She is confusing in a way that evokes the emotion in her stories, in the way a reader can intuitively understand the context without perhaps understanding the exact narration. Each poem has a moment of clarity. As readers, we are given just enough to understand, but also we can taste and imagine the pain for ourselves. Despite the tragic content, there is a strong sense of play in Skaja’s work. For instance, she calls one piece, “Elegy With A Shit-Brown River Running Through It.” Here we see her humor, her pain, her abstraction, and her specificity. Likewise, in this same poem with a successful comedic pun, Emily simultaneously floods readers with deep mourning emotions.
Content aside, this collection is written by a poet with a mastery of form. Her expertise in even tools like enjambment thoroughly enhance the already carefully crafted content meanings behind her pieces. Not only are the forms successful, but they are also varied yet clearly in sequence. They alter shapes, lengths, and forms, and yet Skaja’s style is identifiable in each piece. Skaja is both sparse and overwhelming, with poems that take up the entire page and other poems told in short one or two phrase couplets, she clearly has a mastery of poetic techniques and she employs them quite successfully.
The text continually circles back to pieces about “Brutes.” At the final section in the collection, Skaja inserts an epigraph of a Sylvia Plath quote, “Every woman adores a Fascist / The boot in your face, the brute / Brute heart of a brute like you.” Suddenly, the title of the collection itself becomes ever clearer—while at first the title seemed to be indicating violence, the layers and contexts of these pieces continually develop. Skaja is not afraid to take accountability for her own brutish violence, but she does not cast herself as a sole perpetrator, she is a victim too, as is her brute of a partner.
Skaja’s strangeness is emotive and as such her complex poetry demands attention and easily enchants readers with the need to know more. Satisfied and panting, the reader is hooked—this collection is nothing short of phenomenal. Perhaps even phenomenal is the fact that Brute is Skaja’s first published collection. Skaja is a poet to look out for; her ability to break down complexly personal, political and gendered concepts is evidence of her expertise in the craft of poetry.
Cori Bratby-Rudd is a queer LA-based writer. She graduated Cum Laude from UCLA’s Gender Studies department and is a current MFA Candidate in Creative Writing at California Institute of the Arts. Cori enjoys incorporating themes of emotional healing and social justice into her works. She has been published in Ms. Magazine, The Gordian Review, Califragile, among others. She recently won the Editorial Choice Award for her research paper in Audeamus Academic Journal and was nominated as one of Lambda Literary’s 2018 Emerging Writers.