Linguistic House of Worship

Natalie Diaz’s Postcolonial Love Poem, the California Book Club selection for February, amplifies our lexicon of love and desire.

natalie diaz
Scott T. Baxter

The great poets are always expanding the language of love. Like Mahmoud Darwish when he wrote of home with words clipped by the blade of desire, or Lucille Clifton when she sang the body electric of women not seen, women the world had tried to stop. In the ’80s, before she conjured Mango Street, Sandra Cisneros made every heartsick person staring at the moon feel less alone, especially when they were alone. And in the 1990s, after Communism collapsed, Wisława Szymborska revealed that within restraint too old to unlearn, steam yet rose, or as she put it: “Our teacups know full well / why the tea is getting cold.”

The 2020s are yet young, but it’s unlikely another book will enlarge the language of love in our time like Natalie Diaz’s Postcolonial Love Poem. Here is a linguistic house of worship big enough for anyone who deserves or needs tenderness, especially those who have been told they were not worthy of it. Diaz’s word-music is joyous, erotic, sometimes even spiritual. What else is devotion, after all, but endless love? She writes of thirst, because “the ache of thirst...translates to all bodies along the same paths.” We are not, Diaz’s poems assure, our parching; we are our thirst.

That thirst takes many forms in Postcolonial Love Poem, from the dryness of a country unseen by rain, to the feel of growing up in want in a nation that had tried to erase her as a Native person, to wanting to be touched. Needing to be touched. The varieties of meaning of Diaz’s theme do not deplete it, but rather form within the book a root structure, one that each poem travels down, sometimes overlapping and entangling with other poems. Aboveground, this book is a mere 105 pages. Beneath, though, the volume is vast, full of unexpected aquifers and sudden caves of space.

The widest root in the book grows from the title poem, in which Diaz—raised in Needles, where it gets to 120 degrees in the summer, commonly—powerfully claims “parched” as a legacy and performs the first of several forceful inversions, showing how even an inherited language—a colonial language—can ignite a thirst, a desire to be seen, for contact, awakening possibilities for postcolonial life right before it. “I learned Drink in a country of drought,” she writes, continuing:

There are wildflowers 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.

Postcolonial Love Poem speaks to that ache, sings to it in lyrics that invite the body’s response. If you long for a homeland, or for a family, or for a lover, the language you use to say how overlaps and intertwines, just as the ache for one can feel like the other. In a lyric essay at the heart of the book, Diaz ponders whether this instinct is preverbal, as in, whether we are always in an effort of translating back to that state: a dilemma constantly on the mind of anyone using English as a colonial language, which is most of us, but especially those living in some form of exile.

Patiently, bravely, Diaz refuses to untangle these braidings, choosing instead to dwell in their complexities. In some instances, that means Diaz repeats words until they are hollow, strange even; in other moments, she rescues them from meaninglessness, or from (solely) their meaning in English. Why are tears not called alacranes, the Spanish word for scorpion? Why not recall that “Manhattan Is a Lenape Word”? Or that “sometimes race means run”?

In her 2012 debut, When My Brother Was an Aztec, Diaz demonstrated a near mastery of lineation and enjambment, which allowed her to create and tell stories with the shapeliness of narrative, all while moving poetically across space and time, using a dazzling associative logic that opened up powerful fields of desire, longing, and regret. In one of the book’s later poems, she demonstrates how a dissociated language can also lead right back to the heart of the matter, like when writing about love and war.

What is a wall if not a thing to be pressed against?
What is a bedroom if not an epicenter
of pillage? And what can I do with a hundred houses
but abandon them as spent shells of desire?

Postcolonial Love Poem never turns its head from the way the language of war, of empire, creeps into our intimate lives. The book produces this disquiet and refuses to defuse it, like in one poem set in Manhattan:

Somewhere far from New York City,
an American drone finds then loves
a body—the radiant nectar it seeks
through great darkness—makes
a candle-hour of it, and burns
gently along it, like American touch,
an unbearable heat.

The instability of Diaz’s imagery, its double-sidedness, is part of the postcolonial condition. In some poems, the lexicon of a beloved leads to hives and bee smoking, honey and sweetness. In another poem, that very nectar is the juice of war. This simultaneity produces immense torque in Postcolonial Love Poem, a feeling like precariousness, like risk.

Forms of address matter intensely here, as they often do in love poems. At the core of Postcolonial Love Poem is a series of love poems to a beloved, whose hips, whose body, rise and recede in a way that is profoundly vivid, yet equally private. Diaz’s language is refracted by other forms of landscape and longing, and even routine:

I will enter the door of your throat,
hang my last lariat in the hallway,
build my altar of best books on your bedside table,
turn the lamp on and off, on and off, on and off.

A love poem is popularly thought to be a lyric—addressed to an offstage you. Diaz recalls all the other forms that can house love, too. Sometimes a portrait poem can be a love poem. On other occasions, so can something as killer as a half-joking list: “Top Ten Reasons Why Indians Are Good at Basketball,” which includes:

Indians are not afraid to try sky hooks in real games, even though no Indian has ever made a sky hook, no Indian from a federally recognized tribe, anyway.

Postcolonial Love Poem is a beautiful book. It is also, occasionally, hilarious. It finds in its wordplay moments of absurdity, a humor so grim it tips through darkness into a new shade of light, a breakthrough in a time of war, of suffering, in which so many of us ache for tenderness. What else holds us like laughter? Like the memory of love? To read Diaz’s poems is to surface out of memory into living, complete with the wound of existence, the thirst of it, the ache, the sweetness.•

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

John Freeman is the host of the California Book Club.
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