Natalie Diaz When My Brother Was an Aztec Copper Canyon Press, 2012 103 pages, $16.00
“And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who would attempt to poison and destroy my brothers” – Ezekiel 25:17
What can you do when the world breaks apart? Turn to Natalie Diaz and her debut poetry collection When My Brother was an Aztec, perhaps the most anguished, eloquent, mournful document emerging from American poetry in the past quarter century. Within three parts, the poet presents an apocalyptic triptych of ruin, disaster, and collapse, and the crushing consequences of their interrelatedness. Turn and stand with Ms. Diaz, amazed while you both witness a complete communal demise as everyone disappears, screaming into that collapsing planet we once called home.
And it all begins in a small house on a Native American Reservation. Diaz’ speaker records the seismic rupture in the book’s opening, title piece. She relays the following: “[H]e lived in our basement and sacrificed my parents / every morning. It was awful.” (1) While a cursory reading might bring the reader to believe this story addresses a single family, Diaz’ speaker claims generational post-traumatic stress disorder experienced by the entire post-Columbus Native American culture, stating, “He thought he was / Huitzilopochtli, a god, half-man half-hummingbird.” (1) In microcosm, a 500-year holocaust occurs in the confines of the tiny dwelling, its occupants quartered or thrown off cliffs, again and again and again.
One of the first victims of generational trauma is faith and spirituality, and Diaz’ speaker monitors this loss immediately. Part I investigates the damage firsthand. In “Abecedarian Requiring Further Examination of Anglikan Seraphym Subjugation of a Wild Indian Rezervation,” she writes, “. . . death / eats angels, I guess, because I haven’t seen an angel / fly through this valley ever.” (5) Further on, “The Gospel of Guy No-Horse” presents a nihilistic mixture of rage and impotence coupled with alcohol-fueled lust and power. And the results can’t be good.
Repeatedly, Diaz’ speaker invokes Judeo-Christian images. “Reservation Mary,” “The Clouds are Buffalo Limping towards Jesus,” and “Prayers or Oubliettes” all employ these sentiments, but they turn them inside out. In “If Eve Side-Stealer and Mary Busted-Chest Ruled the World,” the speaker asks,
What if Mary was an Indian
& when Gabriel visited her wigwam
she was away at a monthly WIC clinic
receiving eggs, boxed cheese
& peanut butter instead of Jesus? (25)
And while she portrays the effects of empty rhetoric and a foreign culture’s imposition on Native American life, Diaz’ speaker poignantly exposes, both literally and figuratively, the constant tug of ancestral history in “The Facts of Art,” when Hopi workers encounter a Native graveyard during their work on a highway with the Transportation Department.
As with soldiers displaying PTSD when hearing or imagining gunshots, Diaz records sounds of warfare throughout the volume. From Hotchkiss rifles and Gatling guns to exploding bombs and rumbling tanks, the enemy is always engaging and destroying Native American people and culture. Even without the appearance of foreign cavalry, the effects of warfare, concentration camps, and loss of identity haunt the volume. The speaker provides a perfect example of this trauma in “Other Small Thunderings,” writing,
Our medicine bags are anchored with buffalo nickels –
sleek skulls etched by Gatlings.
How we plow and furrow the murky Styx, lovingly
digging with smooth dark oars –
like they are Grandmother’s missing legs – (31)
Then, however, in Part II, Diaz shifts focus violently from the communal to the individual in a series of eleven poems focusing on a meth-addicted brother, his descent into darkness, and the tragic effects of his loss. The pieces ostensibly chronicle the destruction of a nuclear family. In “My Brother at 3 A.M.,” the speaker states, “He sat cross-legged, weeping on the steps / when Mom unlocked and opened the front door.” (43) However, the larger effects of this ruin are captured in “As a Consequence of My Brother Stealing All the Lightbulbs.” Diaz writes, “—we are always digging each other out from an intimate / sort of rubble.” (54) The brother builds with the tiny house a funeral pyre where he and his family somehow live. But its ignition is spectacular, as the speaker records in “No More Cake Here;” the family throws a huge wake marking the brother’s passing.
In Part III, Diaz’ apocalypse slowly unfolds, the brother’s death being its catalyst. In “I Watch Her Eat the Apple,” the speaker unveils a new, if temporary, planet. She writes, “This blue world has never needed a woman / to eat an apple so badly, to destroy an apple, / to make the apple bone – / and she does it.” (74) The accumulative effects of personal and generational traumatic stress emerge in “Self-Portrait as Chimera.” She asks, “I am. I am and am and am. What have I done?”
As the volume approaches its close, apocalyptic signs increase and intensify. “[D]reaming a mesquite forest I once stripped to fire / before the sky went ash, undid its dark ribbons, and bent to the ground,” (84) Diaz writes in “Monday Aubade.” Reality and fantasy intermingle in terrifying fashion in “When the Beloved Asks, ‘What Would You Do if You Woke Up and I Was a Shark?’” In “Lorca’s Red Dresses,” the tempo increases as the speaker claims, “My tongue’s a heretic, prostrated. My heart’s a red dress.” (87) In the piece, “Of Course She Looked Back,” the disaster rapidly approaches. “Love Potion 2012” chronicles the world’s undoing, as the sea and the sky turn upside down. “This is no sea Clouds not reef not stone,” (99) she declares.
But Diaz is not finished. She narrates events to the very end. In the closing “A Wild Life Zoo,” the speaker observes a lion attack a man who has entered his cage, in itself a horrifying sight. But the poet recognizes this inevitability, as the man’s trespass leads to his gruesome demise. “. . . I believed the lion and rang my bowl / against the cage to let them know.” (102) The world has collapsed. Everyone has fled and disappeared. And still, Diaz beats her jagged metal song alone against a cage of rigid bars.
Paul David Adkins lives in New York and works as a counselor.