Aimee A. Norton reviews When My Brother Was An Aztec by Natalie Diaz
By Natalie Diaz
Reviewed by AIMEE A. NORTON
Natalie Diaz’s debut collection is a book about appetites. It contains raw, narrative poems that pivot on her brother’s meth addiction. Lyric surrealism is interspersed throughout and serves both as a welcome reprieve from the brutality of the narrative, but also expertly explores the universal hunger that brings people to their own personal tables of conflict and gluttony. The setting is the Mojave Indian Reservation where Diaz grew up and where she currently works with the last fluent speakers of Mojave to save the severely endangered language.
Diaz’s poems grind with a savagery that doesn’t often make it onto the page. The Aztecs are a culture known for ritualized violence and a theater of terror epitomized by state-organized human sacrifice. Diaz does well to sew the Aztecs together with drug culture in the Southwestern US which is an area saturated with narcotics related violence. Addiction itself is shown as a ritualized self-violence. The title poem ‘When My Brother Was an Aztec’ begins hauntingly.
He lived in our basement and sacrificed my parents
Every morning. It was awful. Unforgivable. But they kept coming
back for more. They loved him, was all they could say.
The poem ends just as hauntingly when Diaz describes her parents searching for their missing limbs, looking for their fingers…
To pry, to climb out of whatever dark belly my brother, the Aztec
their son, had fed them to.
Readers witness the violence of meth addiction, see the blackened spoons and the sores on her brother’s lips, hear the tribal cops outside on the lawn, understand from the poem titled ‘As a Consequence of My Brother Stealing All the Light Bulbs’ that her parents live without light. The tone is unapologetic and fierce. It is unblinking on a topic that breaks many families. Yet a close read reveals unmistakable joy in the writing. Diaz celebrates that language can express these truths, even if they are hard truths. The poems are alive on the page, delivered with a skill that often hides underneath the intensity of the material.
The characters devour, feed, starve, gorge, thirst and more. In the poem ‘Cloud Watching’, Diaz writes “So, when the cavalry came, / we ate their horses. Then, unfortunately, our bellies were filled / with bullet holes.” In ‘Soiree Fantastique’, her brother sets a table for a party attended by Houdini, Jesus, Antigone and others. It ends when the poet explains to a distressed Antigone “We aren’t here to eat, we are being eaten. / Come, pretty girl, let us devour our lives.” The effect of all this devouring on the reader is that it makes one insatiable for more of Diaz’s poems.
There are three parts to the book. The first section serves as an introduction to life on the reservation. We meet ‘A Woman with No Legs’ who “curses in Mojave some mornings Prays in English most nights Told me to keep my eyes open for the white man named Diabetes who is out there somewhere carrying her legs in red biohazard bags”. We visit a jalopy bar called ‘The Injun That Could’. We learn of a literal dismantling of the Hopi culture when a road is cut through Arizona in ‘The Facts of Art’. This section feels more historical and cultural than personal. For the lovers of form, Diaz scatters a Ghazal, a Pantoum, an Abcedarian, a list poem and prose poems throughout the collection.
The third section contains a handful of love and lust poems such as Monday Aubade:
to shut my eyes one more night
On the delta of shadows
between your shoulder blades –
mysterious wings tethered inside
the pale cage of your body – run through
by Lorca’s horn of moonlight,
strange unicorn loose along the dim streets
separating our skins;
The surrealism persists in the love poems. Often, the act of loving is portrayed as a kind of sacrifice. The answer to the poem titled ‘When the Beloved Asks, ‘What Would You Do if you Woke Up and I Was a Shark?’ ‘ is clear: “I’d place my head onto that dark alter of jaws” and “it would be no different from what I do each day – voyaging the salt-sharp sea of your body”. It’s obvious that Lorca has been a substantial influence on Diaz. She places a passionate poem titled ‘Lorca’s Red Dresses’ smack in the middle of the third section as well as mentioning him in ‘Monday Aubade’ and other poems.
The engine of the book is the second section. These poems cast and recast the brother as various characters: a Judas effigy, an Aztec, a Gethsemane, a bad king, a lost fucked-up Magus, a zoo of imaginary beings, a Huitzilopochtli (a half-man half-hummingbird god) and various characters from myth. The theme of the book is being present in the face of a powerful destroyer, or living through an encounter with the destroyer, witnessing the wreckage and not turning away. Ruin is wrought by her brother’s meth addiction. There’s a reach to her talent that challenges the importance of her work being limited by identity. I read a few of her poems to Plath’s ghost saying, “Look here, you aren’t the only one that can plate up mouthwatering, award-winning anger for male relatives”.
Destruction of Native American culture by Europeans settlers and the continued, historical bigotry is featured in the poems. Ships appear throughout the book as harmful things. Take the wonderfully-titled poem ‘If Eve Side-Stealer & Mary Busted-Chest Ruled the World’ which is an alternative retelling of first people and creation, the last stanza reads:
What if the world was an Indian
whose head & back were flat from being strapped
to a cradleboard as a baby & when she slept
she had nightmares lit up by yellow-haired men & ships
scraping anchors in her throat? What if she wailed
all night while great waves rose up carrying the fleets
across her flat back, over the edge of the flat world?
I struggled with the question in this poem: what if? Diaz refuses to answer it. The mind still asks: What if we erase just this one chapter where the Hopi’s burial sites are dug up for a new road? Or, what if a daughter is not stoned to death? What if Diaz’s brother had not gone to war and had not crawled into bed with death? Diaz knows this can not be. It is as likely as the world being flat. Her answer is a refusal to see anything other than the violent, beautiful world we have that is full of lightning. This is a brave approach. Yes, destruction is also generative. If there was an end to violence, then nothing new could be born.
Still, I wonder whether the perspective and tone in When My Brother Was an Aztec, which is in part the powerful backstory of Diaz’s life, will shift now that this fearless narrative is spoken. I predict that the book breaks open a future to be found in Diaz’s not-yet-written poems to show what a world would look like if she were the boss goddess. One truth is: the future exists. Another truth is: we get to help shape it. I confess that I read utopian science-fiction, so I know that Diaz has exactly the kind of brutally honest mind that should broker destiny by introducing a few options and answering that question: what if Eve Side-Stealer and Mary Busted-Chest ruled the world? I still want to know. I’m hoping her second book tells me. Diaz signed my copy of this book with “sumach ahotk” which is Mojave for “dream well”. Yes, let’s dream well.
In my opinion, this book will have a powerful effect on American poetry. By adding her forceful voice to the spectrum of next generation Native American poets such as Esther Belin and Orlando White, she’s already earned much recognition. Diaz has received the Lannan Literary Fellowship, Balcones Poetry Prize, the Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry and made the shortlist for a 2014 PEN/Open Book Award. The collection ends as it began – with hunger – when a lion devours a man. The lion protests he “didn’t want to eat the man like a piece of fruit”. The man “had earned his own deliciousness by ringing a stick against the lion’s cage”. The book has earned its deliciousness by ringing, too. My recommendation is to set the table and let the feasting begin.
AIMEE A NORTON is a research astronomer at Stanford University. Her research has appeared in the Astrophysical Journal, Solar Physics, and National Geographic News among other places. She is also an emerging poet who has published in Mascara Literary Review, Rabbit, Softblow, Many Mountains Moving, Paper Wasp, The Drunken Boat, Byline and Literature in North Queensland (LiNQ).