Winner of the Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of Poets, Brute peels back the tight layers of personal trauma, exposing the complications that come with attachment, tragedy, and the body. Emily Skaja’s debut collection was selected by Joy Harjo, who praises Brute as “one long elegiac howl for the end of a relationship. It never lets up.” Emily Skaja’s work can be found at the intersection of poetry and Womxn, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. Her pages are hypnotic, visceral, and brave—a voice studying the broken pieces of all she thought to be true about a man, love, and herself.
Brute was recommended to me by a friend and fellow poet who found Skaja’s writing stirring and similar to my own in terms of play with form and content. Naturally, I was excited to not only read, but also learn on a craft level. Writing about a past relationship, especially one in which both positive and painful memories are blended together, oftentimes indistinguishable, can easily fall into the sentimental or cliché. Brute is incredibly unique and engaging, functioning like a well: the deeper you go, the harder it becomes to turn back or remember any expectations you may have had. Each page turn is propels you forward, down; it didn’t take long for me to empathize with the speaker, as I found her distinct and tangible, inventive and vulnerable.
In “Letter to S, Hospital,” Skaja’s confessional tone wastes no time, cutting straight to the heart of her concern. She starts:
Does it take a fever to recognize a fever
Is it true you can’t love a man
Against his will & get away
Without a scratch
This language immediately elicits a physical response from the reader, and presumably S, demonstrating both Skaja’s ability to intertwine the corporeal and the mental, as well as her ability to use conversation as a means to her own self-reflection. When she asks “is it true?” she’s asking “did this really happen to me?” In a time when womxn are pushing back against the silencing patriarchal systems in place, often the first person she needs to convince of her reality is herself. Speaking with Sarah Cozort for the Los Angeles Review of Books (LARB), Skaja says that speaking to her friend group allows her to find empowerment in her own memory. She continues, “So many of these poems are addressed to them because they were so helpful in helping me think about my younger self more tenderly.”
Another remedy to self-gaslighting is to seek out physical sensations and details of the past. In prose poem, “Elegy With Feathers,” the speaker puts her own hand to a hot stovetop when her abusive lover is away. Shortly after, the poem takes flight, bringing readers to a seascape, with a man, a boat, and an avian shapeshifting. Still, the catalyst for this imagined space and escape is heat—the burn, the callouses.
Skaja also experiments with form in Brute to enhance and mold her own relationship with painful memories. “Dear Katie,” another epistolary poem, makes a plea:
Understand I need these fragments. To tell it once is not enough.
I have a hundred holy objects, everything looked upon, to break.
Time will pass, time will pass me[…]
By oscillating between couplets and single lines, Skaja explores how best to feel whole: alone, or with another. This undulation allows for her desperation to have its own space, and be highlighted to Katie and the reader. The weight of the couplets creates juxtaposition, adding perspective on the danger at hand. She’s begging herself to accept something to be true while also not accepting that same truth and insisting time will make the bad pass her by.
Earlier in the collection, just before Section II: Girl Saints, “The Brute/Brute Heart” begins with, “The facts are:”. After that moment, there is no punctuation in the poem, opening up the language to interpretation and the wildness that is inherent in memory recall. I read the poem as a list, but when does it end? How true is each item? What constitutes each item? By the end of the poem, we have been transported to “100 years of winter.” This is the risk of memory, of abuse and trauma. Moving through it is no easy feat, and Skaja expertly navigates her psyche in Brute with particularity, recklessness, and tenderness.
While organizing her poems into this collection, Skaja considered the gendered nature of the word brute, telling Christine Guarano of the LARB,
brute means ‘lack of tenderness’ in men…tenderness is always the attractor for an abusive relationship. Abusive relationships are equals parts: tenderness/caretaking and, also, manipulation/violence.
Brute proves that it’s possible to heal, even if the process is not fully complete. Skaja combats tragedy and the internal repercussions with refreshing language, specificity, and most importantly, care—towards the past, her past-self, and her current self. The pages are filled with both violence (implicit or explicit) and tenderness, mirroring her reality and showing bravery to craft honest writing.
In Italian, the phrase “in boca al lupo” is used to wish someone good luck; it literally translates to “in the mouth of the wolf,” implying that you need luck to have your hand in such a position. As illustrated by Walton Ford’s cover art, Glenípnír, Emily Skaja puts her hand in the wolf’s mouth on purpose, knowing that she’ll need more than luck to survive, but also that the reward will be a path towards recovery and inner peace.
Livia Meneghin is a current MFA candidate and writing instructor at Emerson College. She is the author of the chapbook Honey in My Hair. Her individual poems and reviews are published or forthcoming in The Academy of American Poets, tenderness lit, The Rockvale Review, CALYX Journal, So to Speak: A Feminist Journal, Whale Road Review, and elsewhere.