blackbirdonline journalSpring 2019  Vol. 18 No. 1
an online journal of literature and the arts
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Review | Brute
Emily Skaja
Graywolf Press, 2019

spacer Brute (Graywolf Press, 2019)

In Brute, Emily Skaja provides a sense of the ways brutality propagates and loops back on itself, how words can be weaponized, wielded by those we love, how the branches of the woods we thought we entered willingly can betray us, trap us. Brute is a recollecting, the speaker’s attempt to navigate life after a toxic, abusive relationship. These poems are its afterlife.

Here we find a speaker searching for herself in a post-relationship wasteland where the self—once so firmly attached to another person, snagged on his numerous abusive behaviors—now apart, must begin the painful process of remaking. Skaja’s poems illustrate that, yes, Daphne’s metamorphosis into a tree delivered her from the clutches of Apollo, but not without cost. Reading Brute, one may almost imagine certain speakers as Daphne, recently rebodied, attempting to piece back together a coherent sense of self, of belonging, in a brutal world.

The poems collected here serve less as a narrative guide and more as the speaker’s own fragmented attempt to find the way out. Throughout Brute, Skaja draws on imagery of wandering lost in a hostile wilderness. These images coalesce, relating the speaker’s need to extricate herself from the shifting, unmappable morass of gaslit existence.

Brute opens with Skaja’s speaker attempting to form a map of her past, to remember what happened and perhaps make sense of it all. But, as the fragmentation and wandering in these poems demonstrate, extricating oneself from the woods isn’t always as easy as following the bread crumbs. The voice in these poems shouts and challenges and asserts itself, but it loops back, too, questions its own agency. Skaja writes in the book’s opening poem, “My History As”:

When I tell my history, I can’t leave out
how I hit that man in the jaw,

Some twenty pages later, in “Dear Katie,” the speaker has begun to question what once appeared as concrete fact:

Pinnate, whorled. I remember too the accordion doors of the Blue Line train

& the way it spit me out piss-drunk on the O’Hare platform crying
because I wasn’t sure if I’d hit him or if I’d only wanted to.

I was trying to starve myself out of a feeling. Signals & timelines.

Skaja vividly pinpoints feelings of fragmentation, a sense of wandering lost after time spent in a relationship like a dark wood, where the branches of the trees block any outside light, forcing you onto a single, destructive path. These fragments, then, not only demonstrate the difficulty of recollecting and trusting oneself in the wake of gaslighting, but also the power in the process of reclaiming: “Understand I need these fragments. To tell it once is not enough,” she writes in “Dear Katie.”

And, really, in Brute, we see very little narrative of the speaker’s former relationship. Only fragments and images arise in the poems. They surface like specters from the river in a James Wright poem. In “It’s Impossible to Keep White Moths,” Skaja writes:

I hold a cold rag steady to his knuckles. I think I can love someone
who cares enough to bruise for me.

He touches his thumb to the corner of my mouth,
pulls back my lip to consider my teeth.

In addition to the speaker’s interrogations of her relationship with her former partner, Brute includes another thread, tracing the past from a different angle. Woven into the collection are a number of elegies and epistolary poems to women in the speaker’s life, and to herself. These poems, too, interrogate brutality, in conversation with the other women who know its figure intimately. At times these elegies reach back, woman-to-woman, toward a place in the speaker’s distant past outside the swamp, but it’s a place to which the speaker cannot return.

The poems in Brute reach out toward this once comforting natural world, but find no solace there: “Don’t tell me the sun is an exit / the sky is a clamp.” In “No, I Do Not Want to Connect with You on LinkedIn,” Skaja writes:

You once thought to make me afraid, to consider
what that might do to me. I think now:

how unimaginative. To kill a tree, any asshole

can hammer a ring of nails into the trunk.

In “Elegy with Feathers,” we see a speaker searching for a better country beyond the unnavigable swamp in which she finds herself. Reaching, like Dickinson, for that elusive hope but knowing such a thing remains far away. Turning again to the natural, Skaja’s poem recalls the safe, pastoral land of Arcadia, but quickly cuts that image down:

On the fourth day, notes on a disaster include water & water. A man on the boat follows me all day, just one question then I’ll leave you alone. There is nowhere a girl can go that a man like this won’t have a question.

Skaja’s declaration recalls the words inscribed on the tomb in Nicolas Poussin’s famous painting The Arcadian Shepherds: “Et in Arcadia Ego.” Even in Arcadia, there am I. Though, rather than death the “I” in Skaja’s poems might be men. No pastoral scene is safe, no Arcadian meadow or mythic woodland free of the brutality enacted through masculinity. Later, the poem turns further toward myth as the speaker prays for feathers to flee:

On my knees I ask to be turned into a gull. I shift into white gloss, feathers.

The moves in “Elegy with Feathers”—of a woman wandering in a hostile world—mirror the larger thematic moves of the collection as a whole, which winds through an ominous, anti-pastoral wilderness, encountering numerous women of myth and religious sainthood, women who have been both murdered and reduced to stories by men. Skaja writes, for instance, in “Brute Strength”:

Soldier for a lost cause, brute, mute woman
written out of my own story, I’ve been trying
to cast a searchlight over swamp-woods & parasitic ash
back to my beginning, that girlhood—

Much of the work in Brute, both its themes and central metaphors, feels distinctly reminiscent of Louise Glück’s second collection, The House on Marshland. Glück’s collection, too, details the mystifying disorientation of a toxic relationship, relying on the eponymous metaphor of finding one’s way and constructing identity in the midst of the quagmire. In the final poem of her collection, Glück writes to the man who has left her speaker and their child:

In the dark room your son sleeps.
The walls are green, the walls
are spruce and silence.
I wait to see how he will leave me.
Already on his hand the map appears
as though you carved it there,
the dead fields, women rooted to the river.

Brute attempts its own self-construction (or self-reconstruction) within an anti-pastoral framework that owes a great deal to recent works such as Vievee Francis’s Forest Primeval. In Evangeline, the epic poem from which Francis takes her book’s title, Longfellow writes, “Where is the thatch-roofed village, the home of Acadian farmers,— / Men whose lives glided on like rivers that water the woodlands, / Darkened by shadows of earth, but reflecting an image of heaven?”

Brute attempts to speak back to pastoralism—pastures infused with hegemonic masculinity—where the rivers of men’s lives flow unchecked, overrunning and engulfing anyone who stands in their paths. These are the rivers, then, that flood the forests and turn them to fetid marshlands. And these are the swamps out of which Skaja’s speaker pulls herself. In “Elegy with Sympathy,” Skaja writes:

Is it a system—if the water wants to drown us—is it? If I say it’s the water’s fault? Behind me in the dirt there are only wet prints leading back to your grave. I don’t want to take back all my trying. In the beginning there was a word for this. I carry it now like a bit in my mouth.

Brute reminds that if there is a system, it isn’t working, except to retain men’s power and turn the whole world to a brutal swamp. If Skaja’s speaker in “Brute Strength” has felt “written out of [her] own story,” then Brute as a whole demonstrates that even the effort of recollecting, of reconstructing the past and recording it in one’s own voice, can be a radical act.  

Emily Skaja is the author of Brute (Graywolf Press, 2019), winner of the Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets. Her poems have appeared in Best New Poets, Blackbird, Crazyhorse, FIELD, Gulf Coast, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of a 2019–2020 Creative Writing Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and is the winner of the Gulf Coast Poetry Prize, an AWP Intro Journals Award, and an Academy of American Poets college prize. She holds an MFA from Purdue University and a PhD from the University of Cincinnati. She lives in Memphis.

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