Natalie Diaz’ debut collection When My Brother Was an Aztec has been on my shelf for some time now – it came out in 2014, so it’s by no means a recent addition to my library. I re-read it yesterday and really enjoyed the experience, so I thought I’d share some thoughts here.
When My Brother Was an Aztec
Natalie Diaz is Mojave American, Latinx, and queer, all of which plays into her poetry. The collection focuses on the heartbreaking, exasperating, strange moments that having a close family member with an addiction brings with itself. The opening poem casts us head-first into the deep end of this turmoil, without much explanation or context, and over the course of the book we learn more and are able to piece together the bigger picture.
Diaz’ strength is in her vibrant, memorable images and in her storytelling. Take this poem, for example: (click here to read “Abecedarian Requiring Further Examination of Anglikan Seraphym Subjugation of a Wile Indian Rezervation” at the Poetry Foundation website)
The world is tired of tears. / We weep owls now. They live longer. / They know their way in the dark.
(“Prayers or Oubliettes” p37)
The tension between white and Native culture is a main theme in other poems such as “Hand-Me-Down Halloween”, “The Last Mojave Indian Barbie”, and “The Facts of Art” (which you can read here). The first part of the book has its focus on this unresolved conflict of stolen land, oppression, and ignorance.
However, the heart of the book (to me) is the heartache caused by the brother’s addiction, the way his parents and sister struggle with love, despair, fear, and frustration. This is explored in the book’s second part. In “Downhill Triolets,” the speaker describes the family having to call the police on the brother when, once again, he is high on meth.
The last part of the book turns to the poet herself, her queer identity, her lover. In this way, this clearly structured book moves from a national to a familiar and finally an individual focus, zooming in as it progresses. Like I said, I really enjoyed reading these poems. Because Diaz is a good storyteller, the book is difficult to put down. Much recommended.