Natalie Diaz's debut poetry collection, When My Brother Was an Aztec, blends the complications of family relationships and love, religious identity, hunger and sacrifice, the socio-political history of a people, and the intense complexity of individual and group identity. This poetry tells stories about a girl growing up "on the rez," receiving government-issued boxed raisins and canned corned beef, and watching her brother slowly destroy himself and their family with crystal meth.
Diaz's dream-like narrative poetry gestures toward something beautiful but angry. A paradox of resentment and love characterizes her feelings toward her brother, who acts as a mirror through which Diaz reflects other themes. The collection is divided into three untitled sections, interrelated but each capturing a different angle of experience. The first, appropriately opening with a poem titled "Abecedarian Requiring Futher Examination of Anglikan Seraphim Subjugation of a Wild Indian Rezervation," contains poems describing life on "the rez" through personal narratives surrounding racism and financial hardship, and profiles of various characters that have passed through the author's life. The second section is a string of poems about life with an addicted brother and an emotionally ravaged family, sometimes flirting with the edges of magical realism through intense imagery and metaphor. The third section contains poetry on experiences with love, war, pain, and beauty, some of the pieces strikingly historical and political, such as "Orange Alert," a poem about terrorism and "certain words / you can't say in airports." This theme is threaded through the entire collection; "Cloud Watching" begins,
Betsy Ross needled hot stars to Mr. Washington's bedspread—
they weren't hers to give. So when the cavalry came,
we ate their horses. Then, unfortunately, our bellies were filled
with bullet holes.
One of Diaz's most obvious strengths is the use of simple yet profound statements that offer the reader no distraction from her difficult subject matter. "Why I Hate Raisins" begins with a childhood story about complaining that "the white kids" could eat sandwiches instead of government-issued boxed raisins and being slapped by her mother, and ends in a poignant resolution: "I hate raisins because now I know / my mom was hungry that day, too, / and I ate all the raisins."
When My Brother Was an Aztec highlights Natalie Diaz's versatility as a poet through prose poetry, formal verse such as pantoums, and free verse varying in length from three lines to serval pages. The book's dark tone is shaded with moments of humor; "The Last Mojave Indian Barbie" tells a story of events in the life of Mojave Barbie laced with hints of social commentary on racism and reservation life. Many of the poems are narratives with a drifting, hungry quality, as if Diaz had simply set them wandering through her subconscious to gather their own images and language.
Especially interesting are Diaz's titles, which are sometimes long and often converse with the poems, revealing important premises. "As a Consequence of My Brother Stealing All the Lightbulbs" is a list of outcomes following the title; "The Clouds Are Buffalo Limping towards Jesus" is the first half of a single-sentence poem, the rest of which is five words long.
Unapologetically political and emotionally difficult, this collection is certainly not for those seeking "easy" poetry that will stroke them to sleep with purple mountain ranges, a lover's midnight whisper and a spoonful of nostalgia. It is, however, for the reader who allows her consciousness to be challenged and their spine chilled by the drawing voice and fresh language of excellent narrative and surreal poetry. When My Brother Was an Aztec has not left the top of my desk since it arrived in my home, and each time I walk by it begs to be opened, calling me in with the blue smell of old smoke and the distant sound of buffalo, running.