When My Brother Was an Aztec by Natalie Diaz

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“Angels don’t come to the reservation.”

This is the first line of Natalie Diaz’s “Abecedarian Requiring Further Examination of Anglikan Seraphym Subjugation of a Wild Indian Rezervation,” and angels don’t come to Natalie Diaz’s poems either. The angels might as well be cruising as high above them as jetliners. But even if they weren’t, they’d be about as welcome as the angel in Larry Levis’s poem “Anastasia & Sandman”—the angel the starving man hated “Because the angel could not be carved into meat.”

According to Lorca, the angel dwells high above us, cold and distant. But for Diaz, the angel isn’t just imperious—it’s imperial. It’s a conqueror in wait. Her abecedarian ends with these lines: “You better hope you never see angels on the rez. If you do, they’ll be marching you off to / Zion or Oklahoma, or some other hell they’ve mapped out for us.”

Fortunately for us, the poems in Diaz’s commanding debut poetry collection, When My Brother Was an Aztec, don’t rely on the angels. They embrace what Lorca called the duende: the kind of force and struggle that—unlike the angel and the muse— “surges up, inside, from the soles of the feet.” They aren’t the kind of perfect, crystalline poems that seem to have fallen from the heavens. These are rangy, muscled works that have both a dancer’s grace and a mechanic’s oil-stained hands.

The first section of the book chronicles reservation life though narratives from a wide-ranging cast of characters. There’s an old woman with no legs who tells the speaker to watch out for “the white man named Diabetes who is out there somewhere carrying her legs in red biohazard bags tucked under his arms.” There’s Mary Lambert, who never missed a three-pointer, but drops out of high school and becomes a single mother selling fry bread by the time she’s seventeen. And there’s Jimmy Eagle, chased across the reservation by F.B.I. agents for stealing a pair of cowboy boots.

In “Hand-Me-Down Halloween” the speaker receives a used “two-piece / Tonto / costume” as a hand-me-down on her first year off the reservation:

My mother’s boyfriend laughed

said 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

On Halloween night, the speaker fights Jeremiah, and is dragged back home by Jeremiah’s mother. The speaker’s mother confronts Jeremiah’s, and tries to console her daughter at the poem’s end:

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

There’s both anger and tenderness in these poems. They don’t turn away from the scraping and fighting that people need to do—like the gathering candy from the road—just to survive.

The book’s second section focuses on the speaker’s brother, a meth addict so in the grip of his drug that he seems to straddle the line between life and death. Here he is, both vibrant and mythic, in the opening to “How to Go to Dinner with a Brother on Drugs”:

If he’s wearing knives for eyes,
if he’s dressed for a Day of the Dead parade—
three-piece skeleton suit, cummerbund of ribs—
his pelvic girdle will look like a Halloween mask.

The bones, he’ll complain, make him itch. Each ulna
a tingle. His mandible might tickle.
If he cannot stop scratching, suggest that he change,
but not because he itches—do it for the scratching,
do it for the bones.

Okay, okay, he’ll give in, I’ll change.
He’ll go back upstairs, and as he climbs away,
his back will be something else—one shoulder blade
a failed wing, the other a silver shovel.
He hasn’t eaten in years. He will never change.

The brother is a millstone for the speaker and her family, but he’s also a lithe, dynamic, protean presence, a powerful vehicle for Diaz’s excellent powers of description. She transmutes his bony shoulder blades into “a failed wing” and “a silver shovel.”

In the book’s title poem (which is also the first poem of the book), the speaker tells us that her brother “lived in our basement and sacrificed my parents / every morning. It was awful.” This strange conceit puts both the brother and parents in a limbo between life and death. Eventually, the brother decks himself out like a “half-man, half-hummingbird” Aztec god and feeds on his parents with his “swordlike mouth”—another haunting, yet vivid, image.

One of Diaz’s strengths is her ability to use received forms (like the abecedarian, the pantoum, the triolet, and the ghazal) without making them into exercises. Often formal poems (especially in debut poetry books) seem more like showpieces than integral parts of the collection. But Diaz uses forms that advance the book. She uses the relentless repetition of the pantoum in “My Brother at 3 A.M.” to mirror the brother’s increasingly unstable mental state. And she gives the phrase “red dresses” both seductive and violent meanings in the ghazal “Lorca’s Red Dresses.”

The book’s final section moves away from both the reservation and from the brother, turning its attention to the speaker and an unnamed beloved. Diaz gives us a close-up description of the lover in “I Watch Her Eat the Apple”:

She twirls it in her left hand,
a small red merry-go-round.

According to the white oval sticker,
she holds apple #4016.
I’ve read in some book or other
of four thousand fifteen fruits she held
before this one, each equally dizzied
by the heat in the tips of her fingers.

Comparing the apple to a merry-go-round is a strong description, but it’s the verb “dizzied” that captures the turn in this section. Diaz has slowly moved her gaze inward, applying her formidable imagination to the last place she needs to: her speaker.

This is a long book—Diaz writes long poems with long lines. When My Brother Was an Aztec clocks in at over a hundred pages, something of an oddity for first poetry books, which lately seem to be compressed down into dense bullets of verse. But the bigness of her poems serves her well: Diaz’s debut is a formidable, impressive collection. Lorca wrote of Spain: “In every other country, death is an ending.” In Natalie Diaz’s poems, death isn’t an ending either. In fact, that’s when she’s just getting warmed up.

Ryan Teitman is the author the poetry collection Litany for the City (BOA Editions, 2012), selected by Jane Hirshfield for the A. Poulin Jr. Poetry Prize. His poems have appeared in Ninth Letter, Sycamore Review, The Southern Review, and other journals. He was formerly a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University and is currently the Emerging Writer Lecturer at Gettysburg College. More from this author →