I was first introduced to Natalie Diaz and her work when she gave a wonderful lecture on writing, poetry, and being a queer woman of color during the 2014 AWP Conference & Bookfair, held that year in Seattle. Her words were a spellbinding combination of humor and poignancy: she made me laugh as she made me think. While at the book fair, I snagged one of the last copies of her debut collection, When My Brother Was an Aztec. I devoured the book in one sitting and transformed into one of those cartoonish characters who run to friend and stranger alike, telling them to drop everything and read a certain book.
I was especially mesmerized by her pantoum “My Brother at 3 A.M.” It takes real courage to tackle difficult subjects such as addiction and family dysfunction, but it is genius to explore these subjects through a pantoum, a form that has roots in Malaysia and uses a pattern of repetition to allow the vocabulary and lines to braid over one another and give the reader multiple possibilities and meanings and interpretations. My favorite lines of this poem are when the son’s hallucinations of the devil at the beginning are finally seen by his mother.
O God, he said. O God.
He wants to kill me, Mom.
Mom finally saw it, a hellish vision, my brother.
O God, O God, she said.
The transformative power of Diaz’s poem lingered inside me long after I read it, and it was the reason I sought a place in her workshop at the home of the poet Ellen Bass in 2015. Bass has been hosting daylong poetry workshops and craft talks for many years, and I was one of the lucky 10 to get a seat the day Diaz taught. Diaz spoke about discipline and her writing practice, which included a fair amount of reading nonfiction and other books that were not poetry; for her, this was a way to glean new vocabulary to infuse into her current writing projects. She talked about her Indigenous roots and her love of language. It was a generative workshop, and I was blown away by her generosity and her constructive criticism, her calm demeanor, her razor-sharp insight.
I eagerly anticipated the arrival of Diaz’s latest book, Postcolonial Love Poem. I’ve read the title poem more than a dozen times, and I think I pick up something different every single time I read it aloud. The title poem (and indeed the book), to me, is the rose garden in full bloom to her first book’s seeds, revisiting family, bloodstones, bleeding, war, deserts, water and thirst, scorpion weed, and circularity:
The war never ended and somehow begins again.
There’s so much desire in the poems of this Pulitzer Prize winner: desire to be seen, desire to tell one’s own stories, physical desire for another, and a spiritual desire to connect with others and be part of a greater whole. From the gorgeous poem “The First Water Is the Body”:
To thirst and to drink is how one knows they are alive and grateful.
And I read this book as if it were a precious glass of water in a desert: I took small sips until I finished the entire glass, and then I filled up the glass again and took small sips until I finished it again.
This is a book that deftly and definitively shouts out the truths of America’s history. In poems such as “exhibits from the American Water Museum” and “The Mustangs” and “That Which Cannot Be Stilled,” Diaz discusses the United States as a country whose people deny their own sins as they deny the sins of slavery and of colonization, deny the killing of Native peoples and their displacement of whoever was left who had somehow survived.
In “Manhattan Is a Lenape Word,” she writes:
What is loneliness if not unimaginable / light and measured in lumens— / an electric bill which must be paid.
It’s a painful history, with costs and consequences, yet I carry so much hope after reading and rereading this book. Diaz’s poetry gives me permission and courage to tackle difficult subjects such as colonialism and racism in my own work, and I am grateful. For me as a writer, it is a gift to see the beauty that grows out of another writer’s convictions.
Beyond the political thrust of the collection, I found personal connections from poem to poem. For instance, as the daughter and daughter-in-law of Bengali mathematicians, I was struck by a pair of sentences in “I, Minotaur.” They read:
I am every answer—
a mathematics of anxiety. How any maul can solve
the mesquite tree for the pyre.
The image of the pyre spoke to me. In my culture, we do not bury our dead. We burn them and then we take their ashes and place them in a sacred river.
One of Diaz’s poems I heard back in Seattle so many years ago was “Top Ten Reasons Why Indians Are Good at Basketball” (originally published in 2013). It is imbued with humor, but it illuminates old truths about the human condition in this postcolonial world. As the daughter of Indian immigrants who grew up in North Carolina and as an ardent fan of college basketball, I saw myself in this poem. Diaz’s work and writing practice light a path for me to follow.•
On February 17 at 5 p.m., Diaz will be in conversation with CBC host John Freeman and a special guest. Take a moment, as you savor these poems in the lead-up to our gathering, to visit the Alta Clubhouse to discuss Postcolonial Love Poem with your fellow California Book Club members.