BOOK REVIEW: EMILY SKAJA’S "BRUTE"
Updated: Aug 8
Brute, Emily Skaja, Graywolf Press (2019) Winner of the Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets, selected by Joy Harjo Emily Skaja’s Brute explores the things a person learns about herself while navigating the close of an emotionally complex relationship. The speaker is at times savage and raw, other times sophisticated, sober. While the “brute” in the title speaks to the non-human she is with him and the bright animal she becomes after, it may also allude to the brute heart of the man she once loved. In the third poem, she sets a scene that suggests the tension unfolded through the rest of the book: “He touches his thumb to the corner of my mouth, / pulls back my lip to consider my teeth.” The collection follows the speaker’s journey from history to assessment and recovery to looking toward the future. It’s pastoral and lyrical but also contemporary and blunt. It admits doubt and missteps, acutely examines control, and celebrates women. Above all, the speaker reconciles with staying with an unfit partner for so long. Skaja turns, at times, to tired language in poetics (moths, body, birds, fields, cocoons, sky, moon), language that otherwise diminishes the strength embedded in the rest of the text. Lines like “halfwinter light torn up wet-white & eyeless” or “spalted pith of one lung falters, lumbers open” showcase her hold on tight syntax and rhythm. She touches on surprising revelations from concepts like doubt and defeat in the context of a problematic marriage: “Thank you for doubting me” “What am I supposed to say: I’m free?” “In defeat I was perfect” “I don’t want to take back all my trying” “By all accounts, history is a practice / of ignoring things & hoping for the best.” The speaker examines the self as jilted lover, crime scene, and a person sitting in that hazy place between memory and future: “Stone after stone, I’m defacing the river of being in love with you.” “a chalk line darts up my arm” “I’ve been wrong... I am keeping the box that I came in.” “I made a feast of my own misery” “I’m working for light. I’m bleeding for lightness.” She often uses stark Midwest scenes, allusions to myth, and dreams to widen the scope, helping her fill out the meat of what she's trying to say. At times, she’s frank, raw, and angry: “To have & to hold—there is, after all, a difference.” “she has been told what she can expect from men” “I need you especially to stay the fuck out of my iPhone” Ultimately, the collection is about letting go of dated, personal monuments and creating new, meaningful ones. It's about releasing the person she once was: “Give her up now, that girl / who can’t be you, / who can’t be anyone / flung over his bed / like a sheet.” But it’s also about seeing things plainly and accepting difficult truths: “There comes a point when you have to hold the man responsible for what he did.” Debuting against a backdrop of increasingly sociopolitical and Insta poetry, exploring the end of a relationship is still just as universal. The speaker is another human animal navigating the nuances of partnership, selfhood, and womanhood. Skaja illustrates these concepts in ways that are poignant, devastating, and intimate.