Brute by Emily Skaja
96 pages, $16 USD
Review by Alisha Bruton
In Brute, Emily Skaja stuns us with violence and danger, with thunderstorms and armadas, with high water and ruin. These are raw and startling poems, lush in emotion but frightening in their descriptions of abuse. Yet I felt welcome here, invited; curious to see how it ends, and who survives.
Skaja mourns the end of a relationship by grieving and celebrating, in turn. As she processes a colossal loss, her grief is like a storm at sea; everything is immense and commanding and there is a constant fear of being capsized in the waves. She survives—perhaps against her own expectations— then rejoices in surviving both the leaving and the relationship itself.
The difference between abuser and abused is muddy at best. The speaker asks, “Does it take a fever to recognize a fever?” and describes herself as both the predator and the prey: “am I the chased thing horrified / to overtake myself in the brush?” In an interview, Skaja said the title of the book referred not only to the abusive behavior of men, but the way she responded to “violence with violence.” In this book, she examines her role in a situation of abuse, control, and obsession.
Through the book I felt the ground shifting as the speaker makes sense of the abuse by telling and retelling the stories, figuring and refiguring the scenery and the characters as she writes letters to friends. Dear Katie. Dear Ruth. Dear Emily. She says, “To tell it once is not enough.” And it’s her shifting that is addictive and brings me back to her work over and over again. It is a book not full of blame, but rich with self-realization, with identification of her own contradictions and her contribution to the unpredictable and vicious dynamic she keeps returning to. To understand her patterns, she situates herself inside of myths: she is Eurydice being freed from the underworld, she is Eve realizing she didn’t have a choice but to be tricked by the snake.
Even through emotional turmoil, Skaja is unapologetic in her vulnerability. She says, “I thought the point was to be the first one to say Yes.” When her yes is met with violence, she puts her boots on and walks back out into the cemetery by her house, carrying her words “like a bit in my mouth.”
There are four sections to the book, one of them appropriately called “Circle” because the characters seem to mix and stories repeat. Is it one abusive relationship, or many? Does it matter? It’s not until the final section when the poet can finally stand apart from her experience, when her rage and grief have subsided enough to consider the situation calmly. She has left her abuser, but this is not a happy ending. She is relieved, yet haunted and rudderless. She asks, “What is this impulse in me to worship & crucify / anyone who leaves me?”
Skaja is a versatile writer, writing prose poems and elegies with seamless metaphor and brilliant enjambment. She captures complex human emotion and behavior with both deftness and clarity. Her poem titles could be a poem unto themselves:
“I have read the whole moon. Self-portrait with hawk and armada. Rules for a body coming out
of water. Elegy with rabbits. Elegy with feathers. Elegy with black smoke. Indictment. Brute
strength. Brute force. Thank you when I’m an axe. “
This is why I come to poetry: to be frightened awake, to be reminded how terrifying and breathless life— and intimacy— is. Yet Skaja’s work also calms, though it stuns. She reminds me that we are situated in the natural world, shored up by its rhythms, guided by its instincts. Even as we are animals, we are human creatures too, trying to make sense of our desire, of our predilection for unnecessary risk. Our myths and stories are carried with us, lighting the way as we make our way out of darkness and toward something better, something safer.
Brute took 5 years to write, Skaja has said, which seems like a lot for 38 poems—but I’m reminded of Jack Gilbert, who said “It takes a long time to get the ruins right.” And get it right she did. Brute is a stunning collection from a poet with a commanding voice. I look forward to reading more from her in the future.
Alisha Bruton is a research scientist in Portland, Oregon. She studies how nutrition, stress, and body awareness impact attention and behavior in children. In her free time she enjoys reading, writing, fly fishing, and gardening.