We exist in dark times. Times of anxiety and dread and suffering. Yet darkness is not as impenetrable as it can feel, and light finds a way into the darkest circumstances, the wise have reminded us. The 13th-century Persian poet and mystic Rumi said, “The wound is the place where the Light enters you.” And in singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem,” he sang, “Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack, a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.” Now there’s Mojave poet Natalie Diaz, whose Pulitzer Prize–winning poetry collection Postcolonial Love Poem is the February selection of the California Book Club. Light is one of the strongest images in Diaz’s collection, appearing again and again, allowing us to see the relationships between all things and people anew.
While her poems wrestle with the erasures of colonialism, they also recognize desire as a light that transfigures the psyche and the body, even in the face of persistent violence. The collection consists of three sections, bookended by a prefatory poem and a concluding poem. The title poem introduces the beloved as a kind of salvation against the speaker’s acknowledgment of herself as postcolonial, originating in wars both military and personal: “I was built by wage.” Countering this dark announcement, the speaker tells the beloved, “Your hips are quartz-light and dangerous, / two rose-horned rams ascending a soft desert wash / before the November sky untethers a hundred-year flood— / the desert returned suddenly to its ancient sea.” It’s late in the year, in the desert, cold and bleak and blighted by drought, but as the sun sets, light floods both the outer and the inner landscape of the speaker through eros.
Each section of the collection bears a poem or two in which light is juxtaposed with an unusual companion word: “Blood-Light,” “Skin-Light,” “Ink-Light,” and “Snake-Light.” In “Blood-Light,” a poem full of family violence and sorrows, the speaker frames her father as a desolate, failed lamplighter: “My father ran out of the house, / down the street, crying like a lamplighter— / but nobody turned their lights on. It is dark.” But the darkness is not total. There is light in the scorpions, she says. Even her brother’s violent threat against her in this poem is framed by the possibility of light, his gesture asking, ominously, but also tongue in cheek, “Don’t you want a little light in your belly?”
“Skin-Light” attends more to permutations of light than to violence. The light is active rather than passive, calling “lightwards!” And desire is pictured as light with Diaz writing, “We touch the ball of light / to one another—: split bodies, desire-knocked.” The speaker puts her mouth to her lover’s lit elbow, saying, “Mercy-luxed, and come we both / to light.” Diaz is both a linguist and a poet and makes the sophisticated choice to play on the Latin word for light, lux. As a noun in English, lux is a measure of illumination, but it is also a verb that means to dislocate or put something out of joint. “Mercy-luxed” encapsulates the power of forgiveness to illuminate, but also conveys its capacity to bend or change the body, and the psyche along with it. Sex makes the speaker a “lightmonger.” She announces that she is light, and then that she is a “light-eater, light-loving.”
“Ink-Light,” however, hearkens back to the starker tone of “Blood-Light.” Again, we have lamplight, but this time in a passive construction: “a street as white as lamplight into the winter.” Yet the speaker’s erotic bond with her beloved once again brings light, this time “a vibration of light I can hold with my mouth.”
“Snake-Light” is more challenging to parse than the other similarly titled poems. Our first thought might be that a snake with its sharp teeth, like a brother with a knife or scorpions, is inherently violent. But writing slant, Diaz deftly moves us into perceiving the snake, and the world, anew. First a snakeskin is a “sleeve of gold” hanging from a tree. Then, in a more profound movement that questions our colonial framework for seeing, she calls up a similarity: “like the snake, I am my own future.” Diaz recognizes language as the light that shapes the postcolonial psyche, for naming the snake brings a flash of hope: “You can’t know the rattlesnake’s power / if you’ve never felt its first name stretch and strike / in your mouth—like making lightning.”
In the poem that follows, “My Brother, My Wound,” light is perhaps at its most magnificent in an encounter of stunning pain: “I never knew I was also a lamp, until the light / fell out of me, dripped down my thigh, / flew up in me, caught in my throat like a canary.” Diaz’s poetry shifts the wisdom of Rumi and Cohen and others. Light does not merely enter the body, hope seeking entry into wounds, but also spills from the body as desire, a cascade of light from within.•
On February 17 at 5 p.m., Diaz will be in conversation with CBC host John Freeman and a special guest. We hope you enjoy reading this collection. Take a moment, as you savor these poems, to visit the Alta Clubhouse to discuss Postcolonial Love Poem with your fellow California Book Club members.
Alta Journal’s books editor, David L. Ulin, praises Diaz’s Postcolonial Love Poem for its reappropriation of the vernacular of oppression in order to reframe how we imagine colonial and postcolonial experience. —Alta
Read an excerpt from Diaz’s poetry collection: the title poem, “Postcolonial Love Poem.” —Alta
If you missed it, read or watch author Sarah Shun-lien Bynum’s conversation with host John Freeman and Stuart Dybek at the California Book Club’s January meeting. —Alta
BIRTH OF GONZO JOURNALISM
In Savage Journey: Hunter S. Thompson and the Weird Road to Gonzo, author Peter Richardson argues for the critical role the Bay Area played in the formation of Thompson’s writing. —Alta
WRITING THE WORLD
The print Inter/Transnational Issue of Zyzzyva featuring work by, among others, Dagoberto Gilb, Marie Mutsuki Mockett, and Karen Tei Yamashita, one of our upcoming CBC authors, is available for purchase. —Zyzzyva
AWARDS SHORT LISTS
The National Book Critics Circle announced finalists for its 2021 book awards, as well as the recipients for three other awards. Writers from the West are well represented. —Los Angeles Times
Alta’s California Book Club email newsletter is published weekly. Sign up for free and you also will receive four custom-designed bookplates.