Reviewed By Alyse Bensel
- Graywolf Press (2019)
- 72 pages
In Emily Skaja’s Brute, the female body resists the forces of past intimate relationships. The opening poem, “My History As,” recounts how the speaker survives repeated physical and mental traumas, where the physical body is a lamppost for sites of violence. Here, the speaker’s body is subjected to her living conditions: “I lived with a man who said // You fucked up your own life, who said // I could never love someone so heavy.” Bodily existence becomes open to critique from one who is supposed to be a source of comfort. The speaker takes this hurtful language as a lesson: “I was learning / how some of us are made to be carrion birds // & some of us are made to be circled.” While the speaker discovers this new position in life, giving up eating “to see if my bones would glow in the dark,” the dichotomy between vulture and dead meat temporarily dissolves. The speaker confesses:
When I tell my history, I can’t leave out
how I hit that man in the jaw;
that I wasn’t good at mercy,
that eating nothing but white pills & white air
made me unchartable—
The speaker becomes ghostlike, yet very real and physical, moving between the kinds of desired and undesired feminine figures dictated by societal expectations.
Skaja’s work also addresses the larger question of the confessional poem, especially as it relates to the female body and an assumed female hysteria. Brute echoes the poets whose work preface each section, including Anne Carson, H. D., and most notably, Sylvia Plath—all female poets whose work and lives have been read as tragic. But Skaja rejects the idea of tragedy from the perspective of the male gaze. Her poems navigate subservience and defiance. Skaja stitches the camaraderie among these voices together most powerfully in “No, I Do Want to Connect With You on LinkedIn,” an address to the men, in particular an ex, who appear unwanted on social media through personal messages. “Of all the washed-up terror prodigies in all the Underworld— / I need you especially to stay the fuck out of my iPhone,” the speaker dictates in the poem’s opening lines, acknowledging the pervasiveness of the male gaze despite the firm insistence and repeated rejection. The speaker triumphs over the past hurt: “You once thought to make me afraid, to consider / what that might do to me. I think now: // how unimaginative.” The speaker not only survives but thrives in toxic masculinity that is rendered useless in reshaping language.
Skaja continues to bend language in ways that enact the rage felt in past relationships. The wandering yet sharp couplets deployed in poems like “In Defeat I Was Perfect” use that rage in recreating a moment of vulnerability. The speaker asks, “Is it giving up if you give what you have / & the universe still fucks you” in a moment of futility complicated by the struggle to express the heat of an argument. “I remember I was desperate to speak / to expose the right language,” the speaker admits in recounting the memory, what is unsaid rather than said, the push and pull between leaving and staying with someone. That sharpness persists in “Thank You When I’m an Axe,” the speaker’s body becoming a multitude of objects: “I was a list a rainy incident an axe & a pact with contagion.” The body is dangerous and not human, an instrument that can cause destruction or promise. “I’m working for light. I’m bleeding for lightness,” the speaker admits while searching for something that banishes the darkness.
Using compression as a way to navigate difficult subjects, Skaja employs the prose poem, the elegy, as well as the epistolary to reckon with trauma. In the prose poem “Elegy with Symptoms,” the speaker is bereft with options for suicide. “Under the cover of darkness, I consider the alternatives [ . . . ] I’m angry with you for leaving me no particular method,” the speaker tells the ex who is no longer in the frame. The lines invoke the tragedy of other so-called hysterical women who have been subject to trauma. The speaker notes, “What happens to a woman at 19 at 25 at 29 can make her vulnerable to flight.” Violence can make one disappear in a multitude of ways. Those conflicting feelings and scenes take shape in epistolary poems. For instance, the speaker tells Katie in “Dear Katie,” “Understand I need these fragments. To tell it once is not enough.” The story of the past relationship for the speaker is nearly impossible to define, but once it reaches a certain distance, the speaker is not without grievance: “Now that I can’t unsmudge the lines for any reason, I am difficult. / He takes the high road; I take the thornhedge.” This messiness and this insistence on remembering and retelling are painful but necessary.
There is no doubt that these poems are brutal—harsh in their insistence on wanting to document what happens on the other side of an abusive relationship. By channeling the voices of so many other “hysterical” poets, Skaja shows the resilience and power in confessing the past. In “Eurydice,” the collection’s final poem, the speaker is done with excuses, of not holding one accountable. “There comes a point when you have to hold the man responsible for what he did. I have decided to say it’s degrading to say I let him. I say my name into the open cellar / covering my eyes. I will lead myself out of it.” This collection is about forgiveness—not for the violence inflicted on the body by men, but rather, forgiveness for the self for not forgiving, for never letting patriarchal forces get the final say. The speaker reminds the reader that there is always something left behind: “I never could convince myself that the shell of those insects is only a shell.” The past self can move into the future.
Alyse Bensel is the author of Rare Wondrous Things, a poetic biography of Maria Sibylla Merian (Green Writers Press, forthcoming 2020), and three chapbooks, including Lies to Tell the Body (Seven Kitchens Press, 2018). Her poems have appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Gulf Coast, Poetry International, and West Branch. She is an assistant professor of English at Brevard College, where she directs the Looking Glass Rock Writers’ Conference.