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Book Review: Brute: Poems

Brute: Poems compiles Skaja’s work about a broken relationship and the healing process afterwards.
Photo courtesy of Gray Wolf Press

The Walt Whitman Award-winning writer and poet Emily Skaja has released her long-awaited debut poetry compilation, Brute, a twisting series of well-crafted pieces collected from a number of national journals from which they were first published.

The entire work is a testament to a broken ex-relationship and the complex and resulting feelings of bereavement. Many of the stories exemplify these sentiments, incorporating Skaja’s ideas about violence, femininity, and resilience. For example, in “Brute Strength” the speaker reminisces about their childhood as “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” while calling their current self a “soldier without a cause, brute, mute woman / written out of my own story.”

Other poems, such as “Aubade with Boundaries” directly address abuse and sexism, as the speaker remembers an argument in a decrepit bathroom. Skaja writes, “I couldn’t stop drying my hands. I was saying I’m sorry / but my mouth was obsessed with the word precedent.”

The form of the book is particularly striking as well. It’s split into four different sections: “My History As,” “Girl Saints,” “Circle,” and “Bright Landscape.” Not only that, but each poem seems to have a completely different structure and spacing than the previous one. “My History As” has lines that alternate between left and right sides of the page. Many of the elegies, like “Elegy with Symptoms” are just solid blocks of text, and “Thank You When I’m an Axe” is a kind of combination of the two.

Words and phrases themselves end up being referenced throughout most of the entire work as well. “Brute” is one repeated often. Cicadas are often referred to with regard to the male figures of the story, and the “bright landscape” becomes a recurring symbol as well.

All of these aspects give Brute a surreal, reflective quality that helps to establish the nature of the emotions tethered to the remnants of an abusive relationship suggested by Skaja.

Many of the poems are cutting and unrelenting in their portrayal of the conditions of the speaker’s anguish, but there is still a positive progression to their attitude. Pieces found earlier in the book, like “Elegy with a Shit-Brown River Running Through It” and “[It Wasn’t About Love],” are languid and gloomy and create a manic rambling full of loose ideas, tangents, and sporadic language. The final poem, “[Eurydice],” by contrast, utilizes stricter paragraph structure and acts as conclusive declaration of the speaker to close the cover on the grief of their ordeal and to move on. The reader accompanies this journey, and the feelings conveyed by Skaja are easily digested through this progression.

Brute is a significant construction of modern poetry, and Emily Skaja’s unique voice and approach will be sure to leave any reader with a profound and fresh understanding of gender, abuse, and remorse as presented in the book.

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