by Natalie Diaz
Copper Canyon Press 2012
Reviewed by Diana Arterian
“Look closer–his skin is a desert”
Natalie Diaz’s When My Brother Was an Aztec starts out with immediate anger in the book’s title poem, which falls before the first section of the manuscript. There is anger towards the poet’s brother for his addiction to methamphetamines and the subsequent damage done to their parents, but also towards the poet’s parents for continually returning to her brother despite his hopeless addiction. Diaz’s anger continues in the first section, predominantly at the whites who initially oppressed the American Indians and those who continue to, as expressed elegantly in “Cloud Watching” when Diaz describes a museum exhibiting Indian stuffs: “About the beautiful dresses emptied of breasts…/they were nothing compared to the emptied bodies.”
The first section is mainly comprised of vignettes of life on and near the Fort Mojave Indian reservation, where Diaz spent her youth (and currently resides after some years away). The poem entitled “Hand-Me-Down Halloween,” one of my favorites of the collection, conveys an account of the poet wearing a hand-me-down Tonto costume she got from a white boy in her neighborhood. He tells the other kids about this. After they taunt Diaz for wearing a hand-me-down and being a “half-breed,” she enacts revenge on the boy who gave her the costume. The poet employs slashes as stops:
He was / the skeleton / walking past my house
a glowing skull and ribs
I ran & tackled his / white / bones / in the street
I hit him harder and harder / whiter / and harder
He cried for his momma
I put my fist-me-downs / again and again and down /
He cried / for that white / She came running
She swung me off him
Many of Diaz’s poems in When My Brother Was an Aztec are quite lengthy and often narrative. “Hand-Me-Down-Halloween” is excellent, but does not represent much of the book stylistically – there are rarely exciting typographical moves, and “Hand-Me-Down Halloween” is one of the few poems that does not include a mythological figure of some sort, aside from a passing reference to Tonto. Diaz frequently engages with mythology – and not just Mojave, but Greek, Christian, cultural and literary. She uses this most interestingly in the second section of the book, which interrogates the issues surrounding her brother’s meth addiction. Despite the fact that many articles and reviews have focused on this particular section of Diaz’s book, it only comprises a third of the manuscript. What Diaz does best in these thirty or so pages is explore the mythology of an addicted brother – for addiction, like myth, is not something you can touch. It possesses the person who suffers from it. So her brother is Huitzilopochtli, the Minotaur, Judas, the Devil; “Look at your brother—he is Borges’s bestiary. / He is a zoo of imaginary beings.” The body, too, is not what it seems: “He will rake his fork against his skin. Look closer—his skin is a desert”; “His tongue is flashing around his mouth like a world’s fair Ferris wheel.” Her brother’s addiction has taken away his humanity, even down to the tangible portions, no matter how small.
In addition to playing with mythologies, Diaz gives nods to other literary and linguistic influences. She quotes Lorca, Rimbaud, Szymborska, Whitman; she frequently employs form, and often those which involve repetition (the villanelle, triolet, ghazal). Throughout When My Brother Was an Aztec, there is frequent use of Mojave and Spanish, the latter being the language of her father and paternal grandparents who are of Spanish heritage. In an interview, Diaz speaks to her use of multiple languages in her writing, saying, “In one of my poems, when someone talks in Spanish (because I like to have dialogue in my poems, I like to have people talking), suddenly the light changes, everything changes, so you are giving people two worlds. That’s how I felt growing up.”
The third section begins with more disconnected personal experiences, often romantic. Mostly, it seems like a “the best poems I’ve written so far” cluster, with only a few pieces relating to the family issues that have been the book’s central theme (including a few showing Diaz’s brother as a war veteran). This is puzzling because the book clocks in at just over a hundred pages, and would have likely benefitted from draconian decisions to cut those poems that simply did not relate to the bright and compelling threads in the book.
Overall, When My Brother Was an Aztec is an excellent collection, despite moments where Diaz writes with too heavy a touch (“a smooth-faced Mojave who had a jump shot / smoother than a silver can of commodity shortening and soared / for rebounds like he was made of red-tailed hawk feathers”) and the pieces that struggle to contribute to the book in general. The majority of the book is a worthy attempt at honoring the poet’s life and her influences, and I give her credit for doing so without falling into the trap of archetypes often associated with Indian writers, particularly poverty porn (that desired image of the “impoverished” or “depraved,” which I attribute to why so many consider this book to be “about” Diaz’s brother when it is more largely about the poet’s experiences). But more importantly, When My Brother Was an Aztec reads with an undoubtedly earnest voice and illustrates Diaz’s capacity for language and metaphor, while still heeding her personal experience.