Review of When My Brother Was an Aztec by Natalie Diaz

Diaz cover

Natalie Diaz. When My Brother Was an Aztec. Copper Canyon Press, 2012. 103 pgs. $16.00

Reviewed by Lynn Domina

If you’re like me, you were introduced to the work of Natalie Diaz when she read a poem on PBS NewsHour; you can watch the video here. I found that poem and her reading of it compelling, energetic, and fresh. So I ordered the book, When My Brother Was an Aztec, her first collection. Since then, Diaz has won some prestigious awards, and her book has been reviewed in some pretty notable places. So When My Brother Was an Aztec might not need another review here, but I have wanted to reread it with the kind of attention preparing a review requires. I suspect other readers of this collection have also returned to read it again. It’s a book that intrigues me because whenever I think I understand what she’s doing, I realize that no, I almost understand it. Almost understanding is so much more pleasurable than actually understanding—for almost understanding holds out the promise of more, and then more.

The book opens with the title poem as prologue. The Aztecs, of course, are most frequently remembered for their practices of human sacrifice, often of children, often by tearing out the beating heart of the sacrificial victim. The poem opens with an ironic reference to that practice; the speaker’s brother “lived in our basement and sacrificed my parents / every morning.”  Through several poems, especially those in the center second section, the book explores the effects on the speaker’s family as her brother plunges into addiction and their parents become both willing and unwilling victims of his activity. The title poem concludes with a sentence that also functions as one of the book’s thematic statements: “My parents gathered / / what he’d left of their bodies, trying to stand without legs, / trying to defend his blows with missing arms, searching for their fingers / to pray, to climb out of whatever dark belly my brother, the Aztec, / their son, had fed them to.”  This final line break is crucial, for the brother isn’t only a brother or metaphorical Aztec; he is her parents’ son, and this detail of his identity intensifies their heartbreak. The pause between “Aztec” and “their son” created by the line break increases the emphasis on “their son,” so that readers must pause too, considering the sorrow of such a relationship.

The opening poem warns us that this collection won’t be an emotionally easy read. Many of the most powerful poems examine the brother’s addiction, including “My Brother at 3 A.M.,” “How to Go to Dinner with a Brother on Drugs,” and “Formication.” “No More Cakes Here,” the final poem in the center section, imagines a party celebrating the brother’s death. The party is full of balloons, clowns, a magician, a mariachi band—it’s a hyperbolic vision of festivity, too manic to be real. When the brother shows up, the speaker must examine her hope: “The worst part he said was / he was still alive. The worst part he said was / he wasn’t even dead. I think he’s right, but maybe / the worst part is that I’m still imagining the party, maybe / the worst part is that I can still taste the cake.” This poem is honest in a way we seldom permit.

Poems in the other two sections are stylistically consistent with those in this second section, but their range of topics and references is wider. Poems in the first section most directly address Native American experience (Diaz is an enrolled member of the Gila River Indian Community) and sometimes tend toward sly and irreverent humor. Here we have an Indian Eve thinking about ribs and an Indian Mary who misses Gabriel’s visit because she’s collecting commodity food. Here we have a Mojave Barbie, a doll that initially seems like something Mattel would market: “Wired to her display box were a pair of one-size-fits-all-Indians stiletto moccasins, faux turquoise earrings, a dream catcher…” But Mattel would not include “erasable markers for chin and forehead tattoos, and two six-packs of mini magic beer bottles.” Diaz continues satirizing pop culture’s multicultural impulses, as Mojave Barbie injects insulin and argues about the Bering Land Bridge theory. Ken and Skipper show up, as well as Barbie’s Dream House and various other accessories. The plot that features Mojave Barbie, however, is not one that will ever be promoted on a Saturday morning television commercial.

“The Last Mojave Indian Barbie” is a prose poem, as are several others in the collection. Diaz writes most often, though, in a loose long-lined free verse, though the book also includes a ghazal, a series of triolets, and an abecedarian. Diaz can take on just about any form, it seems, and adapt it to her own purpose; when she writes in a received form, she handles it subtly and creatively. One of my favorites is an homage and challenge to Whitman, “Reservation Grass,” in which she repeats and revises the sixth section of Leaves of Grass. Another is “Dome Riddle” in which she creates an extended series of metaphors for skull, including “this jawbone of an ass, smiling sliver of smite, David’s rock striking the Goliath of my body, / this Library of Babel, homegrown Golgotha, nostalgia menagerie, melon festival, / this language mausoleum…” And including “French kiss sweatshop” and “commodity cranium cupboard.” The metaphors in this poem are often unexpected and the language is rollicking. It’s fun to read.

Diaz’ voice is distinctive. She is a poet who has something to say and both the skill and the will to say it.