Fragmenting Forward: Brute by Emily Skaja

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I became fixated on elegies earlier this year after being left by a man I loved. Since I was already spending most of my time thinking about loss, elegy became the ideal poem—a lament for the dead and a way of commemorating what isn’t coming back. And because elegies turn our attention so closely to what is gone, it was the worst type of poetry for me to turn toward: a literary version of wallowing.

Enter into my morbid landscape Emily Skaja’s debut collection, Brute. Winner of the Walt Whitman Award, Brute is described by prize judge Joy Harjo as “one long, elegiac howl for the end of a relationship.”

Perfect, I thought.

Sometimes a person reads hungrily—less out of curiosity and more out of need. That’s how I came to Brute. Like the wolf depicted in the collection’s cover illustration, my mouth was open in anticipation. And like the small hand shown reaching into that wolf’s mouth, what I was reaching towards—even captivated by—was the experience of pain. As Cherrié Moraga tells us in one of Brute’s section epigraphs, “To assess the damage is a dangerous act.” But it’s an act so many of us undertake, especially in the aftermath of loss.

Skaja doesn’t shy away from danger. We don’t have to look much further than the title she has chosen in order to realize that. The word “brute” conjures violence, in the common expressions “brute force” and “brute strength,” along with what is beast-like, more animal than human. It’s a small, terse word—a word that spits from the mouth with compacted force.

Violence is central to the story Skaja is excavating. This is a collection that centers on the end of an emotionally abusive relationship. The poems confront this violence through brutal and visceral imagery: birds consumed in flame, women “stained in glass,” broken bottles, starvation of the self into bones. Yet Skaja complicates the singular narrative of woman as subject of violence, reminding the reader that her speaker is also capable of violence. In the collection’s opening poem, she writes: “When I tell my history, I can’t leave out / how I hit that man in the jaw.”

Force is important—Skaja wields hers now through words. Her poems spill across the page, some in disjointed couplets, others strung from fragments, many incorporating profanity. The poem “[For Days I Was Silent],” which describes the immediate aftermath of the breakup, utilizes em dashes throughout—like intense vertebrae, they propel the poem forward while visually rendering the breakage that has occurred.

In the opening poem, “My History As,” the speaker alludes to her passion for cartography. This poem fittingly serves as a map to Skaja’s collection. She tells the reader not to expect the clean arc of victim into heroine, writing: “I can’t skip to the end just to say / well it was fragile & I smashed it.” If we were to skip to the end, to the final poem in the collection, we would find the unyoked roar of the heroic. The concluding poem is written as a direct address to Eurydice, whom the speaker tells: “I will lead myself out of it.” But we’ve arrived here only by looking back into the darkness we came through—only by excavating the bones.

After her relationship ends, Skaja’s speaker returns home to find:

            …in my absence
the house had been torn down
to make more space
for the dead

Here, Skaja spins mythology from personal history. Her childhood home in rural Illinois was knocked down to accommodate the expansion of a neighboring cemetery. The image is resonant even without backstory. After all, isn’t this often the truth of loss? What once was home becomes a graveyard. What housed the daily actions of the living now holds “little monuments” to the dead.

The return to the house is likewise a return to childhood. Skaja invokes girlhood not just as a representation of innocence but as a resurrection of power. In the poem “Brute Strength,” she questions:

                                       …where is that witch girl
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?

As girls become women, Skaja suggests, some of their boldness and inhibition is taken from them. They end up “mute wom[e]n,” shamed for bleeding, faulted for permitting violence to be done to them. “If ghost, if whore, if virgin—same origin story,” Skaja writes in the poem “Girl Saints.”

Skaja makes clear that Brute is a transmission of wisdom between women, beginning with the book’s dedication: “for the women in my life & for anyone vulnerable to flight.” This thread, which reaches back through history and mythology, is reinforced by multiple epistolary poems addressed to women: “Dear Katie” (a friend), “Dear Ruth” (the “ideal woman” from the Song of Solomon), “Dear Emily” (the author herself), and “[Eurydice].”

Reading Brute felt this way to me: like power spoken from woman to woman. This was the way in which I first read it: aloud, cover to cover, with one of the women in my life. We sat on my couch for a few hours alternating poems. After, she asked, “Did you find any spoonfuls of medicine?” I told her I had—we returned to those lines, many of which I’ve included in this review. We let them settle in us again.

This is not to say that Skaja offers a cure, or a vision of perfect healing. She resists the sweet and clean conclusion, the body returned to wholeness, the bird to flight, the house to order. The truth is more complicated than that. “What is this impulse in me to worship & crucify / anyone who leaves me,” she wonders. The answer is likewise complicated—bound up in female submission and rage, and in the complexity of love itself—but it strikes me that the impulse to worship and crucify is the very essence of healing.

We tell stories about loss, and those stories shift over time. Sometimes the narrative is despondent: “For days I was silent—if he had called me I would have gone back / on every promise I made to myself—” and other times gloriously condemning: “One day, I woke up such a force, I watched your name fall / right out of the language. Did you feel that?” While writers are uniquely positioned to create narratives from loss, all of us have within us this impulse “to worship & crucify / anyone who leaves [us].” We idolize and elegize in order to acknowledge the magnitude of what we lost. We crucify or villainize in order to make sense of the damage and imagine a way forward.

If we are lucky, we eventually turn away from our vacillating view of the other. We reclaim the self instead. Notably, the final elegy in the collection takes as its ballast the word “I.” Skaja writes, “I need to remember how to be a body, more than a chalk outline filled in with cedar shavings, doubt. I am not buried with you in the winter ground.”

In rendering loss, Skaja remains firmly rooted in the first person. This first person is the self, still living, who is not buried and does not need to be elegized. “It was a house that fell down,” she writes in one of my favorite lines. “I fell toward myself.”

What a beautiful fall that is: not from grace but into power, not from home but into the habitation of the self.

Abigail McFee is a poet and Nebraska transplant living in Somerville, Massachusetts, where she edits print publications for Tufts Admissions. She was selected by Rachel Jamison Webster as first runner-up for the Spoon River Poetry Review Editors' Prize and named winner of the High Shelf Press Ekphrastic Challenge. Her current project asks how the interiority of human beings (particularly women) can be understood through landscapes. More from this author →