Friday, December 21, 2012

When My Brother Was an Aztec (Poetry Review)


Natalie Diaz is a storyteller poet. Her debut collection reminds me of the work of Gary Soto, but with much more words.  It is a powerful book, separated in three sections, and full of emotion, imagery, and history.

The first group of poems is all about growing up on a reservation: childhood experiences (Hand-Me-Down Halloween, Why I Hate Raisins); stories of other people on the rez (Reservation Mary, The Gospel of Guy No-Horse); and poems about racism and national oppression that native people have lived and continue to live through (The Facts of Art).  The best of these are the pieces about memories that show how racism was embedded into their daily lives.  Shown, for instance, in this long-titled poem, Abecedarian Requiring Further Examination of Anglikan Seraphym Subjugation of a Wild Indian Reservation:

Like I said, no Indian I’ve ever heard of has ever been or seen an angel.

Maybe in a Christmas pageant or something—

Nazarene church holds one ever December,

organized by Pastor John’s wife.  It’s no wonder

Pastor John’s son is the angel—everyone knows angels are white.

Quit bothering with angels, I say.  They’re no good for Indians.

Remember what happened last time

some white god came floating across the ocean?

The mid section group of poems is what people will remember the most.  These are all pieces about having a brother heavily addicted to meth.  And most describe the agonizing details her parents went through on a regular basis.  “My brother is arrested again and again.  And again/ our dad, our Sisyphus, pushes his old blue heart up to the station.” (Downhill Triolets); “Mom finally saw it, a hellish vision, my brother./ O God, O God, she said.” (My Brother at 3 a.m.).  It’s amazing how someone can write so beautifully about something so ugly, as in the following stanza from How to Go to Dinner with A Brother on Drugs:

Meth—his singing sirens, his jealous jinn

conjuring up sandstorms within him, his Harpy

harem—has sucked the beauty from his face.

He is a Cheshire cat, a gang of grins.

His new face all jaw, all smile and bite.

The last section seems to be a miscellaneous section, with poems about different topics; some nice poems about a lover with lines like “She has always been more orchard than loved,/ I, more bite than mouth.” (I Lean Out the Window and She Nods Off in Bed, the Needle Gently Rocking on the Bedside Table), and a very disturbing poem about a brother returning from war, (Why I Don’t Mention Flowers When Conversation with My Brother Reach Uncomfortable Silences).

Diaz’s lines are longer than what I’m accustomed to reading and some might say that she tells more than she shows with her poetry, but she makes up more than enough for it with emotion and the beautiful and disturbing images that these poems will create in your mind.