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?
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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 Schooner, Iowa Review, Crab 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.