The Poetic Disruptions of Natalie Diaz – A Rich and Complex Title Poem in a Brilliant and Complex Book – Her Second Collection – Postcolonial Love Poem

Indigenous and Hispanic American poet, Natalie Diaz. Photo Credit: Remezcla, a digital publisher, creative agency, and entertainment company.

Postcolonial Love Poem

I’ve been taught bloodstones can cure a snakebite,
can stop the bleeding—most people forgot this
when the war ended. The war ended
depending on which war you mean: those we started,
before those, millennia ago and onward,
those which started me, which I lost and won—
these ever-blooming wounds.
I was built by wage. So I wage Love and worse—
always another campaign to march across
a desert night for the cannon flash of your pale skin
settling in a silver lagoon of smoke at your breast.
I dismount my dark horse, bend to you there, deliver you
the hard pull of all my thirsts—
I learned Drink in a country of drought.
We pleasure to hurt, leave marks
the size of stones—each a cabochon polished
by our mouths. I, your lapidary, your lapidary wheel
turning—green mottled red—
the jaspers of our desires.
There are wild flowers in my desert
which take up to twenty years to bloom.
The seeds sleep like geodes beneath hot feldspar sand
until a flash flood bolts the arroyo, lifting them
in its copper current, opens them with memory—
they remember what their god whispered
into their ribs: Wake up and ache for your life.
Where your hands have been are diamonds
on my shoulders, down my back, thighs—
I am your culebra.
I am in the dirt for you.
Your hips are quartz-light and dangerous,
two rose-horned rams ascending a soft desert wash
before the November sky unyokes a hundred-year flood—
the desert returned suddenly to its ancient sea.
Arise the wild heliotrope, scorpion weed,
blue phacelia which hold purple the way a throat can hold
the shape of any great hand—
Great hands is what she called mine.
The rain will eventually come, or not.
Until then, we touch our bodies like wounds—
The war never ended and somehow begins again.

Natalie Diaz from Postcolonial Love Poem, Graywolf Press, March 3rd, 2020

What a poem! This eponymous poem by the indigenous and Hispanic American, Natalie Diaz, from her second poetry collection in almost eight years, Postcolonial Love Poem. This poem and its book, both dazzling in their dark and daring undercurrents, crosscurrents of danger, loss, eros, longing, and conflict given to us in rich mixture of meta and personal motifs and moments. And such duende, those so-called dark notes, in this poem and in many of the other poems in her book.So many hungry lines, the kind of lines she says she likes to write!

And as I say in the title of this poem Diaz’s poetry is a poetry of disruptions. Disruptions of war and the subjugation of the U.S.’s indigenous population, the disruption of post colonialism, environmental degradation and climate change; disruption of addiction through the lens of her addict brother and the disruptions of love. But through it all is a deep undercurrent of eros and Lorca’s duende – the dark notes. But above all, the power of longing and love in this book , love for beloveds and the land,  do not succumb to the book’s underlying themes of conflict and surviving oppression.

In a recent interview to celebrate the lauch of her new book she celebrates an all encompassing definition of love in her life:

A dangerous way of thinking lately is that we love as resistance. I understand that, but I refuse to let my love be only that. I am not loving against America or even in spite of it. I am loving because I was made to love, love was made for me. My Creator made us from clay, so that we might love this life, and this land. He unloosed a river, so that we might take care of it and be taken care of. I think that is love. To be and move like a river. A thing thirsted for and yet capable of sating. A thing wild and yet able to lift the seed into its life. How can I not write about love, when I am lost in it every day, lost in that I can’t imagine how to do it, and also lost in it in that I am overflowing with it. I am so lucky to have who I have in this world and what I have—a people, a family, a land, that [holds] me in love, or something that love can only estimate.

But now I want to look at the book primarily through the poem featured above. And let me add that I love the craft of this poem. Its syntactical moves, its rich imagery. Its erotic power and the atmosphere of danger, passion, uncertainty, war. But I am also going to try and unravel this poem a bit. Not something I often do to this degree in a post. So please bear with me. There are such riches here.

Over arching everything is the title of this poem and of the book. Its importance as we read through its rich images and dense layers of meaning. Postcolonial: by one definition: the study of the consequences of the control and exploitation of colonized people and their lands. Then add love poem and even though the passion and longing in the love poems in this book speak to me of flesh and blood relationships I can’t help wondering if a meta narrative or a metaphor is not at play here as well. Postcolonial fallout spoken through the metaphor of troubling and intense relationships. But no matter the feelings evoked in this poem and its images, its impact will stay with me for a long time. And that heart-rending cry – wake up and ache for your life.

I featured  Postcolonial Love Poem which is set apart as the epigraph poem of the collection, because I think it so captures the heart and soul of this book. Captures a physical and carnal longing but as important a longing for the land that sustains Diaz’s narrator and also her fear for its future. And the speaker express this even more sharply in her poem, The First Water is the Body, a love poem to the Colorado River, when she asks: If I say, My river is disappearing, do I also mean, my people are disappearing?

Now, before I dive deeper into her featured poem some important asides. First let me say I do think it helps to know that Diaz is a two-spirited Mojave woman born in the Fort Mojave Indian Village in Needles, California. And that for a number of years before taking up a university teaching position she worked with her elders to perserve the language of her tribe and to teach it. This life story places her in some critical ways as an outsider. As someone who can look at her bigger world, my bigger world, with a raw whiplash of understanding and drench her poems in that awareness. She can widen the court her poems play on and show us something startling and new. I use the court analogy deliberately: Diaz played professional basketball! And her university basketball team made to the final four!

She is unapologetic when she states in a 2018 interview, after winning a prestigious McArthur Genius grant, that: Because what I am is something that is, yes, part of this America but also something else, something more, something that America hasn’t quite been able to consume fully. This, this is what helps elevate the emotional pitch and punch of her poetry. It’s the knuckle-duster in her poetic fist.

Diaz joins now a growing list of outstanding indigenous writers on both sides of the border. All of them bringing a new and sometimes jarring energy and life to their words. Their experiences add something no poetry workshop can teach. And a critical part of that experience is captured in the book’s epigraph, a quote from the current US Poet laureate, Joy Harjo, a native American woman from the Muskogee Creek nation.

I am singing a song that can only be born
after losing a country.

How to console the soul-shattering nature of a loss like that. Experienced by indigenous peoples all over the globe. And one that is happening on an impossibly large scale in our world today with refugees caught in foreign countries. But, and this is critical to the success of this book in my mind, this is no mere postcolonial polemic. This a two-spirited indigenous Hispanic American woman wildly singing her personal rage, love, longing, bewilderment and wonder on the page without apology. But under all this she is singing a human song of longing stretched so tight I want to handle the pages with care for fear that longing might snap and tear the pages of her book to pieces. And me with it. It feels that dangerous in places. This is the power of this book, one of the finest poetry books we will encounter written in English this year by my reckoning.

The quality of this book makes this a two for two for me. Her first book When My Brother Was an Aztec published in 2012 remains one of my favorite books. I use its eponymous poem in my work with families of men and women in recovery as a wrenching hymn to the destructive power of addiction in a family. As a way to say to shattered family members here, here is someone who knows your agony, can put it in words you will never forget. The book and its feature poem both make it into in my top ten for best poem and best poetry book in English  in the past ten years..

Now, back to Postcolonial Love Poem. Diaz shows her dexterity right off. The poem becomes mythic and complex and layered in the first poetic line. Bloodstone may have mythic qualities in indigenous stories as well but bloodstone is also a stone that carries mythic and healing qualities in human stories going back to the Babylonians. And snakes especially rattlesnakes are native to where Diaz grew up. It places her in a specific place outside of myth. Locates her. So already the meta and the personal begins.

Then the huge move into the disruption of the word war. But before it, already, blood and bleeding. And not just a war but many of any human wars. Personal and national or civic. But these are wars inside and outside Diaz. And this bewilderingly effective double use of the word wage not as payment but as in waging war. But notice how close in sound wage is to rage. How easy to hear in the back of my heart: I was built by rage. But how arresting: I was built by wage.

And then in a classic Diaz move, she dekes, perhaps as she did on the floor as a basketball player, she dekes into the seeming personal and strikes an unexpected blow, The blow of war and love. How unexpected to see her march across a desert night to the cannon flash of your pale skin. And suddenly eros and the erotic have entered in. And these sizzling lines: I dismount my dark horse, bend to you there, deliver you/ the hard pull of all my thirsts—I learned Drink in a country of drought. Passion for all that she loves is a fierce undertow in this poem and in the book.

Now for a bit of a place marker. I can accept this as metaphor for a real but tempestuous human relationship but what do I make of pale skin? It is set in conjunction with cannon flash and the war metaphors of march and campaign. Is this an actual erotic love story between women of different races or is this a meta narrative of the relationship between indigenous Americans and White Americans? Or could it be both?

My first hunch was that there is somewhere here a very real but conflicted love story going on. One that is fully erotic and brought so alive by the way Diaz brings in the images of the land and country of her birth. Its drought, its stones, its felspar sands, its water’s copper current, its wildflowers and the ones that take twenty years to bloom. The metaphoric power of that image as she imagines the sleeping seeds brought to life by a flash flood and how they explode into a life where they remember how their god whispered into their ribs: Wake up and ache for your life. This now clearly a poem of a woman who has woken up, perhaps after a long drought, and now the yes of waking but also the aching into a life. Into love. The stubborn ache that so often goes with being alive. Its yes and its no.

And the coding Diaz inserts into the poem with the use of the Spanish culebra, or snake. Snake such an important image we learn later for her family but also an image that connects Diaz so viscerally to the land and to her lover: I am your culebra./ I am in the dirt for you. I still recognize this as Diaz’s voice from her first book but I would say it has darkened, deepened, matured. It has more earth in it. But snake, such a powerful mythical symbol with its disturbing biblical overtones. Is Diaz adding yet another layer of complexity here. Is this reference to a fallen paradise, a land and its peoples after colonialism?

How Diaz calls out as the poem begins to find its end: Arise the wild heliotrope, scorpion weed,/blue phacelia which hold purple the way a throat can hold/the shape of any great hand—.The passion and the implied violence of the description of how a throat can hold the shape of a great hand. And then after the carefully placed em dash, the shocking connection of the image of the hand to Diaz’s own great hands and the use of the past tense. What just happened. This dislocation, this disruption.

From the present of greeting her lover, all of sudden we are given the past tense: Great hands is what she called mine. Not just great as in a sexually wonderful set of hands but also the implication of big hands. Ouch. And the implication in the use of the past tense that something has ended or changed in the relationship. And I go back to the image of her waging another campaign to march across a desert to that pale skin and I wonder about a relationship full of conflict. Of starts and stops. And then we are left at the end with these enigmatic lines:

The rain will eventually come, or not.
Until then, we touch our bodies like wounds—
The war never ended and somehow begins again.

I am left, in these lines, with a sense of the dogged acceptance and perseverance of the speaker. Someone as part of a disadvantaged minority
who refuses to succumb. The rain will come or it won’t. The speaker will live on. Until the rain comes, in all senses of what the rain may mean metaphorically, the speaker will live on even if it means touching  bodies like wounds. Even if the war neever ended, even as it begins again. The speaker lives on,  and dare I add, loves on.

Postcolonial Love Poem. What a testament to love and endurance.  And what a poetic tour de force.

Post a Comment

Your email is never shared. Required fields are marked *