New poetry publications have been piling up in my post office box, a sure sign that the fall book season is here. One of the best surprises that’s appeared in my mail in recent weeks is Copper Canyon’s When My Brother Was an Aztec by poet Natalie Diaz.

Diaz, a member of the Mojave and Pima Indian tribes, began writing poetry in college. Many of her poems deal with the harsh realities of reservation life: poverty, teen pregnancy and meth-amphetamine drug addiction. There is violence, as well as tenderness in her work—a brutal honesty that is both personal and  far-reaching. Her ideas and descriptions of reservation life come from a deeply intimate place, but are also panoramic in scope. Diaz acknowledges the larger social and political ills that have led to poor health, drugs, and poverty on the reservation, but she prefers to focus on how these issues play out in her own life and the life of her family and neighbors. While her language is visceral and unstinting, it never falls into the trap of didacticism or self-pity.

“I guess, when we see someone’s heart ripped out,” Diaz told Ploughshares magazine, “we tend to look away—we question why we had to see it. I do not deny that violence, not in real life or in my work. I cannot unsee what I’ve seen. But I hope my poems also remind people of the humanity that exists in the midst of it.”

We can hear Diaz’s dark, humorous voice in her poem “A Woman with No Legs,” which she wrote about her great grandmother, Lona Barrackman, a double-amputee. “The image of the amputee haunts many natives,” Diaz explained to Ploughshares. “The parts of her that were gone turned the parts of her that were there electric. Through her, I learned to see the body as a blessing, an altar, even. I know how to appreciate its presence because of her.”

 

 

Two years ago, Diaz felt a calling to return to the reservation to help preserve the Mojave language, which is rapidly being lost. “Mojave language work is empowering,” Diaz told Ploughshares. “It is a reversal of sorts. It is like rounding up a bunch of English words at night and tying them together behind a horse and dragging them away (which was done to our Mojave people). It looks like stripping them down, cutting their hair, and demanding, What do you mean? Shouting, We don’t understand you. Then, starving them, until we can see their bones, then asking, Is that what you mean? But we don’t wait for their answer. We answer for them, You aren’t who you say you are. You are who we say you are, or you are nothing. Finally, we relearn what our Elders have meant their whole lives: birds cry instead of sing, kissing is falling into the mouth of another, making love is a hummingbird, the Milky Way is the trail of the Mojave salmon across the night.”

I simply couldn’t be satisfied with a single poem from Natalie Diaz’s knockout collection, so I’ve selected four of my favorites to share with you. If you enjoy Diaz’s work you can also hear her read two poems on PBS’s NewsHour in the below video. I’ve included the NewsHour’s story about Diaz and her work with the Mojave tribe, as well. The seven-minute piece is an excellent introduction to the the Mojave language program she’s started and is well-worth watching.

Enjoy your Sunday and your Labor Day. Thanks for reading.

 

 

 

 

Why I Hate Raisins

 

And is it only the mouth and belly which are

injured by hunger and thirst?

-Mencius

 

Love is a pound of sticky raisins

packed tight in black and white

government boxes the day we had no

groceries. I told my mom I was hungry.

She gave me the whole bright box.

USDA stamped like a fist on the side.

I ate them all in ten minutes. Ate

too many too fast. It wasn’t long

before those old grapes set like black

clay at the bottom of my belly

making it ache and swell.

 

I complained, I hate raisins.

I just wanted a sandwich like other kids.

Well that’s all we’ve got, my mom sighed.

And what other kids?

Everoyone but me, I told her.

She said, You mean the white kids.

You want to be a white kid?

Well too bad ’cause you’re my kid.

I cried, At least the white kids get a sandwich.

At least the white kids don’t get the shits.

 

That’s when she slapped me. Left me

holding my mouth and stomach—

devoured by shame.

I still hate raisins,

but not for the crooked commodity lines

we stood in to get them—winding

around and in the tribal gymnasium.

Not for the awkward cardboard boxes

we carried them home in. Not for the shits

or how they distended my belly.

I hate raisins because now I know

my mom was hungry that day, too,

and I ate all the raisins.

 
 
 
 
 

Downhill Triolets

 

SISYPHUS AND MY BROTHER

 

The phone rings—my brother was arrested again.

Dad hangs up, gets his old blue Chevy going, and heads to the police station.

It’s not the first time. It’s not even the second.

No one is surprised when my brother is arrested again.

The guy fell on my knife was his one-phone-call explanation.

(He stabbed a man five times in the back is the official accusation.)

My brother is arrested again and again. And again

our dad, our Sisyphus, pushes his old blue heart up to the station.

 

GOD, LIONEL RICHIE, AND MY BROTHER

 

Ring, ring, ring at 2 a.m. means meth’s got my brother in the slammer again.

God told him Break into Grandma’s house and Lionel Richie gave him that

feeling of dancing on the ceiling.

My dad said, At 2 a.m.God and Lionel Richie don’t make good friends.

Ring, ring, ring at 2 a.m. means meth’s got my brother by the balls again.

With God in one ear and Lionel in the other, who can win?

Not my brother, so he made a meth pipe from the lightbulb and smoked

himself reeling.

Ring, ring, ring at 2 a.m. means my brother’s tweaked himself into jail again.

It wasn’t his fault, not with God guiding his foot through the door and

honey-voiced Lionel whispering Hard to keep your feet on the ground 

with such a smooth-ass ceiling.

 

TRIBAL COPS, GERONIMO, JIMI HENDRIX, AND MY BROTHER

 

The tribal cops are in our front yard calling in on a little black radio: I got a

10-15 for 2-6-7 and 4-15.

The 10-15 they got is my brother, a Geronimo-wannabe who thinks he’s

holding out. In his mind he’s playing backup for Jimi—

he is an itching, bopping head full of “Fire.” Mom cried, Stop acting so

crazy, but he kept banging air drums against the windows and ripped

out all the screens.

This time, we called the cops, and when they came we just watched—we

have been here before and we know 2-6-7 and 4-15 will get him 10-15.

His eyes are escape caves torchlit by his 2-6-7 of choice: crystal

methamphetamine.

Finally, he’s in the back of the cop car, hands in handcuffs shiny and

shaped like infinity.

Now that he’s 10-15, he’s kicking at the doors and security screen, a 2-6-7

fiend saying, I got desires that burn and make me wanna 4-15.

His tongue is flashing around his mouth like a world’s fair Ferris wheel—

but he’s no Geronimo, Geronimo would find a way out instead of

giving in so easily.

 
 

 
 
 

Hand-Me-Down Halloween

 

The year we moved off / the reservation /

a / white / boy up the street gave me a green trash bag

fat with corduroys, bright collared shirts

 

& a two piece / Tonto / costume

turquoise thunderbird on the chest

shirt & pants

 

the color of my grandmother’s skin / reddish brown /

my mother’s skin / brown-redskin /

My mother’s boyfriend laughed

 

said now I was a / fake / Indian

look-it her now yer / In-din / girl is a / fake In-din

My first Halloween off / the reservation /

 

/ white /  Jeremiah told all his / white /friends

that I was wearing his old costume

/ A hand-me-down? /

 

I looked at my hands

All them / whites / laughed at me

/ called me half-breed /

 

threw Tootsie Rolls at / the half-breed  / me

Later / darker / in the night

at / white / Jeremiah’s front door / tricker treat /

 

I made a / good / little Injun his father said

now don’t you make a / good / little Injun 

He gave me a Tootsie Roll

 

More night came / darker /darker /

Mothers gather their / white / kids from the dark

My / dark / mother gathered / empty / cans

 

while I waited to gather my / white / kid

I wated to gather / white / Jeremiah

He was / the skeleton / walking past my house

 

a glowing skull and ribs

I ran & tackled his / white / bones / in the street

His candy spilled out / like a million pinto beans /

 

Asphalt tore my / brown-red-skin / knees

I hit him harder and harder / whiter / and harder

He cried for his momma

 

I put my fist-me-downs / again and again and down /

He cried / for that white / She came running

She swung me off him

 

dug nails into my wrist

pulled me to my front door

yelled at her / white / kid to go wait at home

 

go wait at home Jeremiah, Momma will take care of this

She was ready / to take care of this /

to pound on my door / but no tricker treat /

 

My door was already open

and before that white could speak or knock

/ or put her hands down on my door /

 

my mother told her to take her hands off of me

taker / fuck-king / hands off my girl

My mother stepped / or fell / toward that white /

 

I don’t remember what happened next

I don’t remember that / white / momma leaving

/ but I know she did /

 

My mother’s boyfriend said

well / Kemosabe / you ruined your costume

wull / Ke-mo-sa-be / you fuckt up yer costume

 

My first Halloween

off / the reservation /

my mother said / maybe / next year

 

you can be a little Tinker Bell / or something /

now go git that / white / boy’s can-dee

-–iss-in the road

 
 
 
 
 

A Woman with No Legs

 

for Lona Barrackman

 

Plays   solitaire  on TV  trays  with decks  of old  casino cards        Trades

her clothes   for faded  nightgowns long  & loose  like ghosts        Drinks

water & Diet Coke from blue cups with plastic bendy straws       Bathes

twice a week         Is dropped to the green tiles of her HUD  home while

her  daughters  try  to  change  her  sheets &   a  child  watches  through

a crack  in   the door          Doesn’t  attend  church  services  cakewalks or

Indian Days  parades         Slides her old shoes under the legs of wooden

tables & chairs         Lives years & years in beds & wheelchairs   stamped

“Needless  Hospital”  in  white  stencil           Dreams of  playing kick-the-

can in  asphalt cul-de-sacs  below the brown  hum of  streetlights about

to burn out          Asks her  great-grandchildren  to race  from one end of

her room to the other as fast as they can & the whole time she whoops

Faster!  Faster!          Can’t remember   doing   jackknifes  or cannonballs

or breaking  the surface  of the  Colorado  River          Can’t  forget  being

locked in  closets at   the   old   Indian   school          Still  cries telling  how

she peed the bed there         How the  white teacher wrapped  her in her

wet  sheets & made  her stand  in  the hall  all day  for  the  other  Indian

kids  to  see             Receives  visits  from   Nazarene   preachers  Contract

Health &  Records  nurses & medicine   men   from   Parker   who   knock

stones   &   sticks   together   &   spit  magic   saliva  over her       Taps out

the   two-step  rhythm  of  Bird dances with her fingers               Curses in

Mojave some mornings           Prays in English  most nights           Told me

to keep  my   eyes open for the  white man named   Diabetes who is out

there   somewhere   carrying   her  legs  in   red   biohazard  bags  tucked

under  his arms           Asks  me to  rub   her  legs  which   aren’t there  so I

pretend   by   pressing  my hands  into the  empty sheets  at the foot  of

her bed          Feels she’s lost  part of her memory the part the legs knew

best like  earth            Her  missing knee caps  are bright  bones caught in

my throat.

 

 
 

 

About Natalie Diaz

Natalie Diaz grew up in the Fort Mojave Indian Village in Needles, California, on the banks of the Colorado River. She is Mojave and an enrolled member of the Gila Indian Community. She attended Old Dominion University on a full athletic scholarship. After playing professional basketball in Austria, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and Turkey she returned to ODU for an MFA in poetry and fiction. Her publications include Prairie SchoonerIowa ReviewCrab Orchard Review, among others. Her work was selected by Natasha Trethewey for Best New Poets and she has received the Nimrod/Hardman Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry. She lives in Mohave Valley, Arizona, and directs a language revitalization program at Fort Mojave, her home reservation. There she works with the last Elder speakers of the Mojave language.

 
(Note: If you’re reading this post in an email and can’t see the PBS videos below, click here to watch Natalie Diaz on the Gwarlingo website.)

 

 

 

 


 

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“Why I Hate Raisins,” “Downhill Triolets,” “Hand-Me-Down Halloween,” and “A Woman with No Legs” © Natalie Diaz. All Rights Reserved. These poems appear in When My Brother Was an Aztec (Copper Canyon Press, 2012) and were reprinted with permission from the author and Copper Canyon Press. Videos courtesy the PBS NewsHour.

 

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