We might say Emily Skaja’s Brute is an intense take on the breakup poem, but that hardly begins to cover it.
This collection, which won the Walt Whitman Award, examines grief, anger, trauma, and abuse through a variety of poetic techniques. Skaja’s poems are powered by emotion, but they’re also highly analytical, with a frequent focus on gender politics. They feel especially relevant at a time when we’re still learning how to have public discussions about the everyday ills women are expected to endure in their professional and personal lives.
Brute can be repetitive in terms of theme and content, but this repetition feels necessary. Reading Brute is a little like walking down a hall of mirrors. Each mirror shows the speaker from a different angle, and it’s only through the collection of these two-dimensional images that she’s able to grasp at reality. The person in the poems, who often appears to be recalling moments from an abusive relationship, also seems to be trying to recover a lost self. In “Brute Strength,” she longs for a faraway childhood:
unafraid of anything, flea-spangled little yard rat, runt
of no litter, queen, girl who wouldn’t let a boy hit her,
girl refusing to be It in tag, pulling that fox hide
heavy around her like a flag? Let me look at her.
We have to love how Skaja casually challenges sexist norms here, especially with “flea-spangled little yard rat.” The narrator isn’t dreaming of an innocent and unspoiled girlhood, as might be expected, but of a fiercer, scrappier version of herself. This vision doesn’t help us (or her) see who she is now or who she’s going to be, but it does give us an idea of what she wants. These intricately wrought lines tug at the reader, pulling us in closer so that we can see what the speaker does.
Skaja’s poems are often set in natural or domestic environments that seem timeless, evoking woodland creatures, dishwashing, trees, and rivers. They also draw on elements of mythology. But occasionally they hit heavy with the here and now. “No, I Do Not Want to Connect with You on LinkedIn” is a devastating and amusing tirade that deals with the subject of unwanted communication in the online world:
still hung up on that time I didn’t let you stay my dearest
threat? Look at you. So mad you’d @ anything.
Brute shows a person observing her own history, trying to get to a better future by understanding how she feels about the past. It takes place in the empty moments that occur after a resolution to change, the moments when someone might be susceptible to cycling back through their pain and mistakes, looking for answers. Brute shows this cycling and also attempts to build a way out of it.