Reimagining Snakes in ‘Postcolonial Love Poem’

Natalie Diaz’s “Snake-Light” suggests we shift our perceptions about our relationships with language, power, and the natural world.

dna molecule
Yuichiro Chino

I travel Natalie Diaz’s Postcolonial Love Poem along the coiling strands of my DNA’s double helix. I sometimes emit an “Amen!” Other times, my vision blurs with hot tears. And on occasion, I snicker.

And my DNA whispers, You are colonized: 51 percent from Spain, 35 percent Indigenous Americas (Mexico), and little bits from Portugal, Cameroon, Senegal, France, Nigeria…

I read this book of poems from a deep, broken, absurd, heroic place—a place where mixed identity was not a choice, but a reality forced upon my ancestors by colonizers who spoke a different language, worshipped other gods, and believed that any people, place, or creature could be conquered. Knowing that your DNA most assuredly was formed, in part, by rape and conquest is a knowledge that plays with your mind. How do you love yourself when the multitudes you contain include the seed of hateful men?

So, now that I have set the table, let me tell you a little something about Diaz’s poem “Snake-Light.” It begins with two declarative statements:

I can read a text in anything.

To read a body is to break that body a little.

For those of us whose DNA is colonized, we live that first declaration. We endure by code-switching and interpreting signs depending on the people we hope to reach. In other words, we mimic the colonizer in our speech, dress, and movements to stay alive and, if we are lucky, move ahead, but we shake loose those shackles when we are with our own and we can be ourselves—or what we think we should be. We learn from a young age how to read the room, and this act is our form of conquest: we diminish their power over us when we are able to decipher them. Or, as Diaz explains in the second declaration, to read a body is to “break that body a little.” But she knows that we are not the only ones who decode our surroundings, and she suggests our surroundings decode us, too:

When my desert reads a life out loud
it takes the body down, back to caliche and clay,
one symbol at a time—

Diaz readjusts, pulls back. Perhaps she realizes there are people who are not attuned to her politics reading her words. She intellectualizes, sets forth a hypothesis:

Let’s say it’s all text—the animal, the dune,
the wind in the cottonwood, and the body.

Everything book: a form bound together.
This is also book: the skeleton of a rattlesnake

sheathed tightly in its unopened flesh.

Why does Diaz pose this hypothesis? Why not simply state her case and unequivocally sing her truth? Perhaps she is only thinking out loud by wondering what if, taking a breather—if you will—to consider the value of a rattlesnake. Regardless, she still leads us down her road, to perceive and imagine the rattlesnake differently, not something to be conquered, but something to revere and appreciate much the way we would a book. She then swoops down from the heights of logic to the granular. And how do we read the skeleton of a rattlesnake? And this is where the colonizer scoffs: Rattlesnakes cannot be read. They are not books! Again, it is simply a hypothesis: “Let’s say it’s all text—the animal, the dune, / the wind in the cottonwood, and the body.”

The rattlesnake is another body, another text to be interpreted. And its text is not only “legible,” but imbued with magic and sentiment. A rattlesnake? How can that be? Well, here is another Diaz lesson:

You should never kill a rattlesnake—
a rattlesnake is also human.

Diaz then pivots, repudiates the colonizer’s obsession with violence—and failure to acknowledge the humanity in all creatures—by elaborating on how they “celebrate” rattlesnakes in rattlesnake rodeos. But sometimes, as Diaz reminds us, amnesia wins out and those of us who have been colonized identify ourselves with this broader, violent American ethos: we wear a dried rattlesnake rattle as a necklace, a gesture akin to rattlesnake rodeos. The speaker’s Mojave great-grandmother reprimands her for such sacrilege:

Take it off. I asked, Why? She said,
Would you wear my foot around your neck?
I said, You don’t have feet. She said, Take it off.
She said, We don’t eat snakes. They are our sisters.

Perhaps Diaz is attempting to rekindle my precolonial truths in the same way the great-grandmother chided her great-grandchild to remember the humanity of rattlesnakes and how to read the world.

I am reminded of a high school football coach who asked me in front of my teammates: “What do you know, you stupid Mexican?” I stared at him in silence, my ears burning hot and red within my sweaty helmet. I wish now I’d had the wisdom of Diaz’s poem in that painful moment as a reminder that the knowledge of my own body, my own inheritance, and its relation to a postcolonial society is deep, potent, and legitimate. And armed with this reminder, perhaps I would have responded: “This Mexican actually knows a lot.”•

On February 17 at 5 p.m., Diaz will be in conversation with CBC host John Freeman and a special guest. Take a moment to visit the Alta Clubhouse to discuss Postcolonial Love Poem, the February California Book Club selection, with your fellow California Book Club members.

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