Brute By Emily Skaja
Minneapolis, MN; Graywolf, 2019, 72 pp., $16.00, paperback
Reviewed by Emily Luan
Brute is a book of exits. Of maps and doors, openings, roads, and passageways; of holes—holes in the sky, the gloved hand of a man, “ship sails / holey with mothbite,” permanent marker on a wall that reads “UNFUCK YOUR HOLE LIFE.” As the speaker navigates the landscape of trauma that follows an abusive relationship, she seeks the negative space of loss and leaving in order to understand how she too can depart from the past that haunts her. In the journey of this debut poetry collection, Emily Skaja renders the experience of abuse as cyclical, with edges rounded and closed. So, she asks, what becomes of us if we are left? Who do we mourn? How do we run from the enclosure? Skaja allows us, generously, to see a path—not out, but upward.
Skaja, the recipient of the 2018 Walt Whitman Award, is a doctoral student at the University of Cincinnati, as well as the associate poetry editor of Southern Indiana Review. While we learn in the first poem, “My History As,” that the history of this collection is set in a house in South Philly, city streets quickly fall away to wilderness. These poems seem located in the woods, by a river, or in the body of a bird. The “narrow house,” we imagine, is the only manmade structure for miles, and the birds— omnipresent from beginning to end—the only sounds. The natural landscape positions the poems in a psychological space of trauma rather than in the literal situation of abuse or, one could say, it positions the poems in the psychological space within the situation of abuse. The speaker is isolated among the trees, who are her only witnesses, and the birds circle above in a maddening symbol of purgatory. In the woods, the line between the fantasy of escape and comfort in the natural world dissolves, just as the speaker contemplates the blurred love and hurt of living with her abuser. “It was a house I was always / walking back to” Skaja writes, “I wanted the bruise / & the voice that was sorry.”
The landscape of Brute places the narrative of the collection not only outside of physical space but outside of time. The events warp into the intimate vacuum of pain, which the speaker holds like a bird and slowly turns in her hands. For one, we can read time in the book as the familiar long dark tunnel we stumble through, looking for light in incessant darkness. But we also see the speaker ’s preoccupation with the idea and fear of stagnancy, where time stills. In “March is March” Skaja writes, “I force myself to take time like a pill that stops my pulse / but just for a minute. Time collects around 4:30, refusing to move.” The speaker goes for “long walks in a circle,” unable to move forward or out of the house that contains her. “When he leaves I stop / washing the cups,” she says—a terrifying fact, as it deems forward movement impossible or unlikely in the aftermath of being left. She must leave him to move forward, but he becomes a kind of cog that keeps her life turning. We filter through this everturning hourglass with her. We begin to wonder— what becomes of us if we are left?
There’s also a move to “separate / The Time Before from The Time Now,” to understand how one begins in empowered girlhood—“where is that witch girl / unafraid of anything”—to a present tense of diminishment and loss. To answer this question, Skaja speaks to various female figures to trace a map of hurt through history. In “Dear Ruth,” she writes, “Ruth, you are the holy thing I look to… Help me understand, help me reverse / the pilgrims’ stories.” We begin to see the speaker looking upward, trying to bend a pattern of holes into a kind of holiness. The speaker looks for girl saints, “girl tribes of the hinterland,” finds a mirror in Julian of Norwich, Penelope, Pièta, Eurydice, Eve, even Carly Simon. And then Skaja places herself in this lineage. “Emily as grave pillar as salt-lick” she writes in “I Have Read the Whole Moon,” and in “Indictment” and “Dear Emily” we find epistolary poems to the self. These letters and allusions convey sorrow in recognizing the patterning of the plight of women, but we also see Skaja’s attempt to rewrite the female mythic landscape, to resist and reverse the narratives passed down to us.
The compulsive mining of this history of wronged women is rooted in a disturbing question, one that rings throughout the collection: If we as women keep finding ourselves here, buried, is it our fault? And. will we ever get out? In “Elegy with Sympathy,” we see the height of this inquiry:
I learned early that the flood was a sentence. An earned blight. There isn’t going to be a eulogy for this. No hymn songs. No innocent dirt. For all the changeling girls who couldn’t pull the splinters out, whose wings did not form. Is it a system—if the water wants to drown us—is it? If I say it’s the water’s fault?
Here, the flood that marks the line between before and aftermath is the inevitable conclusion, is the wave that erases holiness from the girl. The biblical allusion doubles as a question about the speaker’s suffering—whether or not it is earned, or if that’s just the story taught to women. We see how a man’s manipulation and violence can turn a woman’s distrust inwards. We watch the speaker indict herself again and again. We see how honestly she asks “Is it a system—is it?” and that honesty is deeply painful to read. In “[For Days I Was Silent]” Skaja writes, “Tell me— / At what point could I have been trusted— / Not to let him into the house.”
But through this questioning runs a clear retrospective voice that tells of the real emotional work that has been done to, as Skaja writes about Brute, “create a new person out of the ashes of the old one.” Sometimes the voice is angry, ringing from the fire, insistent on reclaiming what was taken from her. Other times the work shows through in Skaja’s willingness to stay in complication, to say plainly “I can’t leave out / how I hit that man in the jaw, / that I wasn’t good at mercy” and to wonder “What is this impulse in me to worship & crucify / anyone who leaves me.” We enact violence to others and to ourselves when we are wounded, a fact difficult to see when we are in the flood. Skaja reminds us of how profoundly human this instinct is.
The role of elegy in the book, too, shows us a progression towards reinvention. Eight elegies run through the collection like a spine, all of which seem to be for a girl who took her life at an early age. They become a counterweight to the speaker’s grief of abuse, a further investigation of what it means for someone to be “gone” or to leave another person, and these poems act as a kind of hymn song for the girls “whose wings did not form” to recognize their suffering. Death also provides a concrete loss to mourn in a way that the ending of an abusive relationship does not (I’m thinking here of Freud’s definition of mourning in his essay “Mourning and Melancholia,” where the grieving over a love object is productive and allows us to move forward from loss). The speaker turns to the “you” of these elegies in a time when she too feels buried, underground, to seek solace and to attempt to ascend. Again, we see the gesture from holes to holiness. And in the penultimate poem of the collection, “Elegy with Rabbits,” we arrive: “I am not buried with you in the winter ground,” she says, “When I look back I see my skin shedding gray & red as it tunnels behind me.”
Feathers and birds appear everywhere in Brute, even in the darkest moments of the text. At times, the image is developed as a metaphor for longing; other times for being hunted. “Help me. On my knees I ask to be turned into a gull,” the speaker says in “Elegy with Feathers.” In another poem, she drops her hands into a sink and “they come up feathered.” But as the repetition intensifies, the refrain becomes an insistence on flight. A harp is made from the wingbone of a vulture; the speaker holds the skull of a vulture to her cheek.
In the last poem, an epistolary to Eurydice, she denounces the predator—“There comes a point when you have to hold the man responsible for what he did. / I have decided it’s degrading to say I let him.” In this moment, speaking into the past, the narrator walks from the cellar and out from the trees. We’ve emerged from the thicket of trauma and are back in our bodies, looking around. The landscape turns from wilderness to reality—trash in the streets, the flood merely a stream in the gutter. It’s not beautiful but it isn’t ugly either. And she doesn’t grow wings; instead, she puts on a coat. Flight doesn’t always mean rising—sometimes it just means going forward.
Emily Luan is a Taiwanese American poet. She is currently an MFA candidate in Poetry at Rutgers University-Newark, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Washington Square Review, PANK, Grist, Epiphany, and elsewhere.