When My Brother Was an Aztec
Natalie Diaz
by James Naiden

For 102 pages, Natalie Diaz stretches poems into visual shapes, working with the left and right margins as well as the center of the page. This writhing ramps up with anger directed at the culture Diaz was born into, which her parents and brother barely survived. Armed with a new perspective she gained while attending college, playing professional basketball, and earning a graduate degree, she returned to her roots with a new purpose: to rescue the Mojave language. In Surprise, Arizona, Diaz worked with her tribal elders to see past the dire circumstances defining the region—such as alcohol and drug abuse that affected her brother, whence the book’s title—as well as trying to convince her peers that education and entrepreneurship are a road out of poverty. It’s a big project, and so this is an ambitious first collection of poems.

At her best, Diaz uses the poetic line much as an expert fencer to strike the mark precisely, with disciplined use of metaphor and occasional “language dropping”—using non-English quotations as referents from poem to poem. Her gifts are on display in the first strophe of “Reservation Grass”:

We smoke more grass than we ever promise to plant.
Our front yards are green and brown, triangles of glass—What is the
         grass?
—emeralds and garnets sewed like seeds in the dirt.
The shards of glass grow men bunched together—multitudes—men larger
         than weeds and Whitmans, leaning against the sides of houses—
         dance with the dancers and drink with the drinkers—upon dirt not
         lawn.

In reading any good writer, one learns new words and concepts. About halfway through the book is “Formication” or the sensation of insects or snakes running over or into the skin. This is one of her brother’s after-effects from drug addiction:

We are too weak to say the word intervention.
        When my brother nods off, I write it on his arms and face in cursive
                 with invisible ink—No one wants to embarrass him.
You shouldn’t embarrass him, my mom says,
         Understand he’s a grown man. He won’t stand there
                 while you embarrass him. But I’m embarrassed.
I can’t understand. Why are we all just standing here
         while he tears the temple to pieces?

There are fiercely allusive poems here, with erudite references and caustic insights alternating with lyricism, akin to a dancer’s grace in parallel with a timeless musical score. Diaz sometimes includes too much, and does not always discipline her focus: Christianity, Spanish heritage, Anglo culture and its arbitrary laws, drug abuse and self-indulgence—the milieu she depicts with both authority and sudden delicacy. To say this is a strong book is a truism. That it’s Natalie Diaz’s first collection augurs well for her literary future, at least, and for the rest of us as readers , appreciators of this terrifying art—making poems when the immediate surroundings may be discouraging. One is eager to read more.




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