Avenues for Passion in ‘Postcolonial Love Poem’

Natalie Diaz’s Pulitzer Prize–winning poetry collection counters the dominant narrative with love songs.

natalie diaz
Scott T. Baxter

In Gerald Vizenor’s Manifest Manners, he establishes the term Native survivance, saying, “Survivance is the active sense of presence, the continuance of native stories, not a mere reaction, or a survivable name. Native survivance stories are renunciations of dominance, tragedy and victimry.” What better form for such renunciation than the love poem? What better counter to narratives of dominance than songs of the desire between lovers? In Natalie Diaz’s Postcolonial Love Poem, the California Book Club pick for February, Diaz forges a poetics of survivance by addressing the more difficult question: How does one tell the story of loving from within a postcolonial landscape built on erasure? The answer unfolds across the book, beginning with a dynamic cluster of poems that juxtapose creation and destruction, disrupting the dominant culture’s devotion to the latter.

The poem “Blood-Light” begins, “My brother has a knife in his hand,” and is followed, a few pages later, by the nearly parallel opening lines of “Catching Copper”: “My brothers have / a bullet.” Between these two poems thrives a love poem in the vein of visionary poetics, ecstatic poetry in which the beloved and the divine overlap or even become one. The lyrical and lush “These Hands, If Not Gods” opens expansively, positing lovemaking as a celebratory act of creation:

Haven’t they moved like rivers—
like glory, like light

over the seven days of your body?

The beloved’s body is creation itself, the speaker nearly godlike as Diaz morphs the biblical refrain “And God saw that it was good,” from Genesis, into the question “And wasn’t that good?,” both winking through double entendre and interrogating the allusion. She leaps right into a syntactical disruption of the opening lyricism with “Them at your hips.” The hands of the title have landed on the hips of the beloved as the speaker asks, “Isn’t this what God felt…?”

The hands forge the lover again and again: the hands as artists, with “these two potters crushed and smoothed you / into being,” and then as workers, who shape the lover as means of worship before becoming sacrifices: “Aren’t they, too, the carpenters / of your small church? Have they not been burned / on the altar of your belly.” The speaker’s spiritual references are expansive, even voracious, leaving behind the Old Testament and moving to the “ninety-nine names” of Allah and landing on the Greek many-handed gods in the final invocation: “O, my Hecatonchire. My Centimani. / My Hundred-Handed One?

“O, the beautiful making they do,” the speaker exclaims earlier in the poem, delighting in the form of the beloved with “one breast a fig tree, the other a nightingale.” But within such creation, Diaz reminds us, we cannot deny the aftermaths of ongoing violence, for her rhymes that follow allude to the knife and the bullet and their aftermaths: “of trigger and carve, suffering and stars.”

While the speaker of “These Hands, If Not Gods” worships the body of the lover, the speaker’s brothers in “Catching Copper” worship the bullet. Early in the poem, they keep the bullet on a leash, walk it, lose it, call it, dress it up, kiss it: by transforming the bullet into pet and person, Diaz demonstrates that the bullet fills all of the places where love should be. The brothers’ misplaced love distorts further, turning into zealous patriotism as they “pledge / allegiance to their bullet / with hands over their hearts” and “say they would die / for their bullet.”

The idol of the bullet expands beyond love of country to an ardent religiosity, veering into self-sacrifice with the act of “burning, on a pyre, their own / thigh bones wrapped in fat.” The brothers bow, prostrate. And just when the poem reaches a moment of religious fervor akin to that of the lovers of the previous poem, the speaker undercuts this momentum with the direct voices of the brothers: “We wouldn’t go so far / as to call our bullet / a prophet.” Too late, for the poem has prophesized their ending: “Yes, my brothers’ bullet / cleans them, makes them / ready for God.”

Just as “These Hands, If Not Gods” is a love poem that acknowledges the lasting presence of violence, so the poem of violence and death that follows reveals a destructive form of passion. In their pairing, Diaz pushes the love poem past renunciation and into an assertion of creative power. From here, these poems tell us, new stories, and new poetics, will unfold.•

Join us on February 17 at 5 p.m., when Diaz will be in conversation with CBC host John Freeman and a special guest. In the meantime, visit the Alta Clubhouse to discuss Postcolonial Love Poem with your fellow California Book Club members.

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