Selected by Joy Harjo as the winner of the Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets
Emily Skaja’s debut collection is a fiery, hypnotic book that confronts the dark questions and menacing silences around gender, sexuality, and violence. Brute arises, brave and furious, from the dissolution of a relationship, showing how such endings necessitate self-discovery and reinvention. The speaker of these poems is a sorceress, a bride, a warrior, a lover, both object and agent, ricocheting among ways of knowing and being known. Each incarnation squares itself up against ideas of feminine virtue and sin, strength and vulnerability, love and rage, as it closes in on a hard-won freedom.
Brute is absolutely sure of its capacity to insist not only on the truth of what it says but on the truth of its right to say it. “What am I supposed to say: I’m free?” the first poem asks. The rest of the poems emphatically discover new ways to answer. This is a timely winner of the Walt Whitman Award, and an introduction to an unforgettable voice.
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About the Author
Emily Skaja grew up in rural Illinois and is a graduate of the creative writing MFA program at Purdue University. Her poems have been published in Best New Poets, Blackbird, Crazyhorse, FIELD, and Gulf Coast. She lives in Memphis, Tennessee.
Read an Excerpt
I: MY HISTORY AS
You remember too much, my mother said to me recently.
Why hold onto all that? And I said, Where can I put it down?
— ANNE CARSON
MY HISTORY AS
In my history, I was bones eating paper
or I was paper eating bones. Semantics.
I lived in a narrow house;
I lived with a man who said
You fucked up your own life, who said
I could never love someone so heavy.
The place was brick on brick
with iron grates covering the windows —
rowhouse cage, South Philly. I was learning
how some of us are made to be carrion birds
& some of us are made to be circled.
Somewhere in this education
I stopped eating. Held up my hands
to see if my bones would glow in the dark.
My boat name could have been
HMS Floating, Though Barely.
Meanwhile I had a passion for cartography.
Not leaving, just coloring the maps.
I covered all the walls with white paint, whiter paint, spiraling out —
a weather system curling over water.
I always drew the compass rose flat.
I was metal-blue, I was running my mouth
like a bathtub tap. A bone picked clean of particulates.
Everything has some particular science.
By its nature, a vulture can't
be a common field crow, for instance.
Look at the wings, look at that hard
mouth, look at the feet.
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 —
I can't skip to the end just to say
well it was fragile & I smashed it
& everything's over, well now I know things
that make me unlikely.
What am I supposed to say: I'm free?
I learned to counter like a torn edge
frayed from the damp. That's how I left it.
Leaving the river, leaving
wet tracks arrowed in the brush.
Soldier for a lost cause, brute, mute woman written out of my own story, I've been trying to cast a searchlight over swamp-woods & parasitic ash back to my beginning, that girlhood —
kite-wisp clouded by gun salutes & blackbirds tearing out from under the hickories all those fine August mornings so temporary so gold-ringed by heat haze & 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? Let me look at her.
Tell her on my honor, I will set the wedding dress on fire when I'm good & ready or she can bury me in it.
IT'S IMPOSSIBLE TO KEEP WHITE MOTHS
from flying out of my mouth.
I am 25. I paint the door blue. I go in when he tells me
to stay out. Next to a billboard
in Philadelphia that says Your Message Here,
I am sewn into a dress. On Broad Street, ravens
lurk on the Divine Lorraine Hotel as if to say
Always a corpse flower, never a bride.
Facing south, I can make myself apologize
for anything. My voice is thick — a shroud of bells.
But will I listen. What I hear in the dark
is my own blood stalking me
like a drunk boy wild on cheap gin
swinging his hammer
to nail a tree swallow flat to a barn door.
A bird is a vessel. It carries a field.
There are nights when I sleep on the couch
& lift macramé lace to my cheek from a hope chest.
Outside, a teenager shoots a teenager shoots a teenager.
The cops come to measure the street.
They ask me What did you see? I saw a hole in the whole of the picture.
When he comes home late from his fight at the bar,
I hold a cold rag steady to his knuckles. I think I can love someone
who cares enough to bruise for me.
He touches his thumb to the corner of my mouth,
pulls back my lip to consider my teeth.
I HAVE READ THE WHOLE MOON
In March I drop an egg hoping a bird will fly out disbelieving science. All the manuals tell me this is a logical contract. You commit yourself to a shell & you end up flying. Fine. Stone after stone, I'm defacing the river of being in love with you. True, I don't care how that sounds. I have a list of cocoons to transform my body: Uncontrollable Shaking. Sleep Paralysis. Dread of Eating. I'm guilty of pretending the roads to your house are no longer roads but deerpaths angled crooked through the marsh. Again the water doesn't stop; it rains even when the weather is overdue: a holy parallel. My mouth is rotted & anonymous. The bed needs oars. I'm interested in dust but only new dust arriving unmarked after you leave. After you leave, you leave & thicketed in sludge I've been glued open. Self as spectacle: Yolk Marvel. Unbird. Emily as grave pillar as salt lick as dammed up luminous in thread. I have read the whole moon cycle; it doesn't explain the cracks. Mercury for once cannot be blamed. My dishes float in soap like little planets. I drop my hands in the sink. They come up feathered.
ELEGY WITHOUT A SINGLE TREE I CAN SAVE
I've been standing all night in the woods near Necedah with your name etched in red on my tongue like a box-elder wing. Loss of life occurred at a specific hour, a certain day, we are told. No one was with you — how that weighs on me. That there can be no untwisting of the tree back into its seed. Innocent of all charges. Granted just one reprieve. Has there ever been anyone more false than I am, pretending I know which one is a white pine against white stars? Shouldn't I remember which of these is the tree you climbed, which of these you were too afraid to come down from? I think you were the first person to say Cassiopeia to me. As young as we were, we could not carry a ladder out here by ourselves. Alone, I watch the water move now like a clock someone is winding with a knife. I am starved for that easy taxonomy of Things Before. For the years not likely to be cut open with scissors only to find proof of disease. Black hair spooling from the lungs of each month since. You're gone & I collect fox fur by myself in every direction. You're gone & I misname the trees.
IN MARCH WHEN YOU TELL ME YOU DON'T
I walk in a straight line as a compass pulled the wrong way north. High Priestess of the Not-Quite. Chief Dolorous. And fuck it all — All of it. Unobserved, clement. Being the one who — being the one that — I have the problem of needing to say my history teeth-first to a body of water — to the river, to the gutter, to the storm drain red & rushed with leaves in dirty water on the way to your apartment maybe I should give up the story that what I say can change it notwithstanding one for, one against your cowardice notwithstanding halfwinter light torn up wet-white & eyeless & I know I should sky up birdward — I know I should circle high until my arms are kited cramped but can I see you plainly or at all from any height do I know how to see you I do but I don't & I can't find you on a March night moonless on the hill where I know you are out walking the treeline slowly with your dog. Tell me if I can make the not-moon intercede — If I can come south as a figure wearing starlings as a coat If I can be If I can be If I can be a tunnel either leafing or branching or — — If I can be If I can be If I can be
[IN DEFEAT I WAS PERFECT]
In defeat I was perfect
the luster & the grime on me irresistible
Bright landscape with the sky blacked out
A spectacle I was tied into the clothesline
drunk In my defense every arrogant green thing
had been blooming against my directive
I remember the light was pressing me down toward myself
the trees were thick with insects
dark birds shadowed the street
I had been circling hungry red & narrow not slogging through the mud
like the Magellan of any promised thing
He was leaving in arrows he walked out
in a boldfaced lie I said You need to consider
Consider all that considering the future
I had thrown into orbit There was a truck piled neatly with boxes
He had a splintered voice that he hid from me
Is it giving up if you give what you have
& the universe still fucks you
Now I can't picture his face anymore only leaves
I remember I was desperate to speak to expose the right language
Understand he kept driving back to me
& back to me He said I didn't always
love you He said I didn't want to tell you
to wait for me (But wait for me)
ELEGY WITH A SHIT-BROWN RIVER RUNNING THROUGH IT
Never have I ever let anyone skin me alive for my secrets. I grow true to seed. Unfamiliar with traditions of marksmanship. Whose grouse it is. Whose grouse I am after I fall. In this hayfield I say nothing at all to the hornets. I admire their mud huts. I think only in lists. The Time I Told You to Give Up Smoking. The Time I Believed You Would Live to Be Older Than Seventeen. When I think about all the ways there are to die. By falling ice. In a coat-check. With a gallon of ethanol stale in your gut. I am dizzy. I am missing your way of blinking at me in the sun. Bus tickets seep out of my pockets. By the river I drop a tree branch shaped like a tibia. In the center of my hand is a hole. I am used to it. Of course there is shouting. There is nothing I can get behind less than drunk huntsmen observing male rituals with gusto. I would rather look at the river through the burned-out circle of my hand. Somewhere in here is a fish with a hook in its mouth — I'm sure of it.
— city of hot pavement
addressed by hot pavement,
boiling puddles studded with floating syringes, paper kites.
A bridge swung over the water
with direction, like a fist.
All the time he was trying to show me how he was a stuck door
with an eyehole punched through
where I saw only
gashes of light.
Brute. He locked me out.
I walked 3rd Street
all the way north.
The day's interminable heat.
Sweat tore up my thighs.
Cherry trees, I remember,
It was a house I was always
walking back to.
I wasn't delicate.
The door was blue.
So it was
that the palm of my hand
held a red bruise
shaped like a bird.
A lit crow. Flamed.
How sharp it is
to be wrong-fledged.
To be rope ravel winging out
Just once I wanted to hit & hold the person
who could hit & hold
I wanted the bruise
& the voice that was sorry.
Terror to give up control —
terror to name it.
There was a bottle.
There was a bottleneck exit.
THE BRUTE / BRUTE HEART
After Pennsylvania, I couldn't breathe.
— LUCIE BROCK-BROIDO
The facts are: I drove all night through the mountains to get away from
him I cut up my credit cards to prove I would not leave him I woke up in the hospital to bonesaw / brushfire / thralldom the pieces were out of order there was glass in my cheek I tried to swallow an entire bottle I tried to leave without giving away my name I was not lost I listed no forwarding address There was a reason why I named the dog Valor
If I was silent I'd learned the virtue of protecting my mouth at least I was going home to the house between the cemeteries to the redbud the willow trees the heavy muck-wet woods I loved & in my absence the house had been torn down to make more space for the dead
I stood there breathing It felt like sliding a hand through loose dirt looking for tendrils & pockets of air It's easy to be angry about how much hope there is in reaching The whole house gone
& so many little monuments to the wrong thing
In the bare yard all of my good trees still framed the hole where the house had been standing In my new life whatever I claimed I didn't feel it was mine
How easily I could be a river dragged a gray car raised up from the bottom dripping Already I was on a string I could be lurched up out of hiding & the evidence tagged
He took the money he said I made him crazy it was my fault What was wrong with me how could I ever think I could leave was I really so stupid he said he would call the police he set my furniture on fire he said he would drive my dog to the pound if I went out I'd like to say now that he was just a list of grievances
Who else would try so hard on someone so fucking worthless
is some kind of war proposal that no longer works on me
What I want is a permanent figure I want a marker here to separate The Time Before from The Time Now One ivied-over angel for a woman with no known name & no known history A monument for the disappearance of X for the opening of a deep well in which I would tread water for the blood to tide for the trees to fall for 100 years of winter
To assess the damage is a dangerous act.
— CHERRÍE MORAGA
O LORD, when the Angel said Listen
when the Angel said Do not fall to the earth for anyone
we were already stained in glass.
A circle of black flies biting our arrival. Scales scraped off of a fish.
Starved girls folded at a line from Leviticus.
This is how it happened: one day we looked outside
& the bloated bodies of frogs were fucking up the yard.
Our hands bled. We saw Rorschach blood in our wounds,
Pietà in egg yolks. There was a hope chest & a threshold
& a bridegroom — revoltingly pagan. We said
Bring us the coat-check ticket for our eyes.
Nothing was so underpaid as our attention.
If ghost, if whore, if virgin — same origin story:
because X was a face too lovely, Y was a corpse in the lake.
Our sisters said Wait. Our mothers said Stay the hell awake.
We bled on our white clothes — we bore them redly
to the table. Our fathers said Tell me, will you ever
feed me something that isn't your own trouble?
We cast away stones. There was room at the inn.
There was time to be floated as witches.
When night came, an egg-moon slid over the steeple.
We stared at the blue yolk yawning in the fire.
Our Father. Who Art in Heaven.
There were men in the alley. We knew them by name.
They said they wanted to prove we were holy.
Your Angel said Listen —
There are not vultures enough in this world, there are not crows
to shoot out of the sky in a shaking black line.
Please, we've been trying to say out loud the words for this —
to see You write it out red
in a fish-hooked curve. Have mercy —
Mouth of Poison Flowers: Speak.
Mouth of Asphodel — Say it.
Understand I need these fragments. To tell it once is not enough.
I have a hundred holy objects, everything looked upon,
Time will pass, time will pass me, attaching mile-marker threats
to every causeway. I know it's useless. I put on every
eyeliner I own.
I draw the shape — a different eye to see this. I map the innocent
spill of color to my ear. Look, I'm already half an
emerald. Lit & limited, I'm
cut. Now that I can't unsmudge the lines for any reason, I am difficult.
He takes the high road; I take the thornhedge.
Katie, I can't find a way to talk about this
but it always happens: I have no standing with the men
in my life.
You are the only one who ever asks me Are you eating?
Come close, too close, get out — it's a blunt-edged
& when did I begin to choose this type of man who loves to "protect" me
from himself? Lately, I hold your name in my mouth
like a talisman because we are never afraid of the same things.
Remember the dead dog we found on the bridge road.
A coyote, I said.
Raised as I was near a cemetery, I always assume some authority
over the departed. Stray magic. Lies about the natural
comfort me, I admit. Like if a tree feels something
when another tree is fucking up her life. I believe in
Pinnate, whorled. I remember too the accordion doors of the Blue Line
& the way it spit me out piss-drunk on the O'Hare
platform crying because I wasn't sure if I'd hit him or if I'd only wanted to.
I was trying to starve myself out of a feeling. Signals &
& if the train comes out of the tunnel before I count to ten
then I'm not the most fucked thing. & if not, then when.
My own mouth bleeding is a nice round number.
On your couch I fall asleep with puke in my hair & I
that I'm trapped in a water tower. Katie, I wake up saying.
ELEGY WITH FEATHERS
When you're gone I press my hand to the stove just once. Patches of blisters pearl on my palm. I have sense enough to put on my coat. On the boat I am called Red. I take every other phrase from an elocution book. I wear a high collar that rubs against my cheek & in the rain it leaves a scratch raised like a welt. I pretend not to know why you're gone, pretend there is not the same sickness inside me. I try to explain about the curse for which the cure is not thinking. On the fourth day, notes on a disaster include water & water. A man on the boat follows me all day, just one question then I'll leave you alone. There is nowhere a girl can go that a man like this won't have a question. A trade he feels owed. There's a hole in his glove & the skin underneath is peeled raw. A teakettle boils on the wind. Help me. On my knees I ask to be turned into a gull. I shift into white gloss, feathers.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Brute"
Copyright © 2019 Emily Skaja.
Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
I My History As
My History As 5
Brute Strength 7
It's Impossible to Keep White Moths 8
I Have Read the Whole Moon 10
Elegy without a Single Tree I Can Save 11
In March When You Tell Me You Don't 12
[In defeat I was perfect] 13
Elegy with a Shit-Brown River Running through It 15
The Brute / Brute Heart 18
II Girl Saints
Girl Saints 23
Dear Katie 25
Elegy with Feathers 27
Dear Ruth 28
[It wasn't about love] 29
Elegy with Symptoms 31
Letter to S, Hospital 34
Rules for a Body Coming Out of Water 35
Dear Emily 37
Aubade with Boundaries 41
Four Hawks 43
How to Mend a Faucet Dripping Thread 45
Elegy with Black Smoke 46
[For days I was silent] 47
Elegy for R 48
[Remarkable the litter of birds] 50
Self-Portrait with Hawk & Armada 51
March Is March 53
Thank You When I'm an Axe 55
IV Bright Landscape
No, I Do Not Want to Connect with You on LinkedIn 59
Brute Force 64
Elegy with Sympathy 65
Aubade with Attention to Pathos 66
Figure of Woman Coming Out of a Wall 71
Elegy with Rabbits 73