Last year, as we approached the 200th birth year of the poet Walt Whitman, Joy Harjo — now the poet laureate of the United States — selected Emily Skaja’s “Brute” to win the Walt Whitman Award, an annual prize celebrating a poet’s first book publication. In “Brute,” Skaja conjures the searing history of a jagged relationship, then mixes a tonic for it: images, elegies and invocations that let the speaker reinvent her human power. The poem “Brute Strength” is full of surprise and wonder (“Let me look at her,” she says of her past self) — the voice of a resilient spirit waking from trauma, finding energy and intention in delicious language. Selected by Naomi Shihab Nye
By Emily Skaja
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.
Naomi Shihab Nye is the 2019-21 Young People’s Poet Laureate of the Poetry Foundation in Chicago. Emily Skaja grew up in rural Illinois, received a Ph.D. from the University of Cincinnati and has published widely, including in “Best New Poets.” She lives in Memphis.
Illustration by R.O. Blechman