Natalie Diaz is a poet I’ve followed on social media for a long time. I appreciate her presence and the genuine, earthy things she shares online, as well as all her thoughts on poetry. We’re also from the same region of the United States, which is relatively sparsely populated and so often tight knit when it comes to things like artists and writers. When My Brother Was an Aztec, published by Copper Canyon Press in 2012, is her first collection, and what a stunner!
Copper Canyon is one of the poetry publishers I respect most. I can’t remember a single time I’ve purchased one of their titles and been disappointed; in fact, I’m usually blown away. And this experience was no different. What Diaz does in these poems is breathtaking, especially the honest, bare-knuckle way she tackles family issues like drug addiction. The way she melds the commonplace with the mythological is difficult to describe. In one poem, Diaz’s speaker describes her brother in a dementia-like state, paranoid and delusional, rifling through their parents’ house stealing all the lightbulbs and taking apart anything remotely electrical. In other, she shows us in heartbreaking detail how their mother and father have apparently resigned themselves to their fate. The speaker looks at her father like a willing Sisyphus, perpetually punishing himself through repeated interactions, failed ones, with his own son.
One of the things I loved most about this collection is when Natalie Diaz writes back to earlier and canonical poets, like Walt Whitman, as she does in “Reservation Grass.” This clear response to Leaves of Grass is both clever and haunting in form and purpose, mimicking as it does Whitman’s universalizing listing, yet illustrating the clear division in their lived experiences and promise. The speaker writes, “The shards of glass grow men bunched together—multitudes—men larger / than weeds and Whitmans, leaning against the sides of houses / . . . upon dirt not lawn” (30).
Her musings on family are just as searing and insightful as her poetic dueling with American master poets, and somehow just as universal despite their being first-person accounts. When she describes in “Why I Hate Raisins,” a memory with her mother, their hunger, and how she only came to understand selflessness versus selfishness as an adult, when it was too late, is piercing. That same sting of epiphany is present in so many of her poems, perhaps especially “No More Cake Here,” which appears to start off as a eulogy but eventually turns into a wish, and a loss.
I thoroughly enjoyed this one and am glad, through my #TBR2022RBR challenge, that I finally got to read it.