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American Poet Emily Skaja (Kaitlyn Stoddard Photography)
Book Cover Art: Walton Ford, Gleipnir

My Poetry Corner April 2022 features the poem “March is March” from the debut poetry collection Brute (Graywolf Press, 2019) by American poet Emily Skaja. Born and raised next to a cemetery in rural Illinois, Skaja earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Purdue University (Indiana) and a PhD in Creative Writing and Literature from the University of Cincinnati (Ohio) where she also earned a certificate in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. She is an Assistant Professor in the MFA program at the University of Memphis, Tennessee, where she resides.

Winner of the 2018 Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets, Brute is largely autobiographical and took five years to write, beginning in 2012. The poems deal with grief, partner violence, transformation, break-ups, and voicelessness. The poet also examines her role in a situation of abuse, control, and obsession.

The book’s title is “used pejoratively to describe the abusive behavior of the men in the book,” Skaja told Ross Nervig during their 2019 conversation for The Adroit Journal, “but it is also a word the speaker uses critically against herself, in examining the way she responded to violence with violence.” She added that the book explores “the way that women are set up to be victims of patriarchal, violent behavior while at the same time using those same tactics to defend themselves.”

“The Brute / Brute Heart” tells the story of the younger Emily’s escape from a violent partner. After driving through the night to return to her family’s home, the house between the cemeteries, she finds that the house has been demolished to make more space / for the dead. The broken Emily has managed to free herself, but there would be no return to a former life among the willow trees she once loved.

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.

In “Dear Emily,” a letter to her 23-year-old self, the poet tries to come to terms with her early naiveté and vulnerability; a time filled with bridal dreams: pink on the brute arm / of your first wreck, / your original lesson / in leaving a fire / to burn itself to ash. / With him you were cob-eyed, / blind-cut—a tin girl. She had lost her self-worth to become just a woman flung over his bed / like a sheet.

What had become of the free-spirited, assertive girl she once was, as described in “Brute Strength”? Referring to herself as the soldier for a lost cause, brute, mute woman / written out of my own story, the speaker asks: 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?

Yet, to escape from a traumatic abusive relationship is no guarantee that a woman would not suffer pain again, that she would find a safe place. One of eight elegiac prose poems in the collection, “Elegy with Feathers” addresses the dilemma that women face in public spaces. The incident takes place on a ferry boat, four days after a break-up.

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.

The juxtaposition of the teakettle and gull suggests the servitude of domesticity and the freedom to be—the freedom to pursue one’s dreams.

The featured poem “March is March” is a break-up poem. Skaja mentions March in several of her poems. It is that time of the year when temperate regions transition or transform from cold, snow-covered landscapes into the lush, vibrant colors of springtime. The snow melts. Flooding threatens some areas. Break-ups can be in flux like March. The first four verses of the freestyle poem throws us into those early tear-filled days when the world moves on around us while our lives come to a standstill.

We go on forward. I go on floating my face
in a map of Lake Michigan, blue there
as logically as anywhere else. When he leaves I stop
washing the cups; I stop cleaning the floors. 

Trapped in loss and grief, the speaker neglects to take care of herself and her living space. Even the kitchen sink, piled up with cups, gets clogged up with water that lurks in the drain like it’s gawking. On her mother’s suggestion, Why not date yourself for a while, the speaker watches all seven Harry Potter movies, goes for long walks, and rants on Facebook and Twitter. Listening to pop music becomes a two-edged sword that uplifts and shatters. She adopts a dog.

During her 2019 conversation with Sarah Cozort and Christine Guaragno for the Los Angeles Review of Books, Skaja said that she had adopted her as a grief dog. “I wanted someone with me that I could put all of my energy into because, at the time, I was really unable to take care of myself, and taking care of someone else was much easier. I named her Valor because that was a quality I needed to see in myself.”

I adopt a dog I keep as my shadow.
Every morning she cries when I leave & I think Finally someone gets it.
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.

Valor’s distress at her leaving him for just an hour, described in the final four verses, is a splintered reflection of her own grief in dealing with men who leave her. In the final verse of the poem, she tells Valor: I need to leave you EVERY DAY I need to leave.

Break-ups and loss are an integral part of our lives. There is no escape from the pain and grief. We must learn how to deal with it, to grow strong with each lesson, and to transform our lives. Emily Skaja’s poetry collection, Brute, takes us on such a journey.

To read the complete featured poem, “March is March,” and learn more about the work of the American poet Emily Skaja, go to my Poetry Corner April 2022.