In her latest collection, Postcolonial Love Poem, Natalie Diaz brings us the body in the form of bodies so rarely sung by, so rarely seen by, our dominant culture—bodies brown-indigenous-Latinx-poor-broken-bullet riddled-drug addicted-queer-ecstatic-light drenched-land merged-pleasured-and-pleasuring. She brings us not only the human body, but that of the desert-river-rock-arroyo-dirt-and-stars, the body of God and the body as God. It’s poetry as myth-making in order to flesh out experiences that the predominately white gatekeepers of the mainstream publishing world have seldom given the attention and audience they have always deserved. Yes, this collection is postcolonial. And yes, it is one long love poem—the bliss and thirst brought by the body of the beloved run through these poems like the copper arroyos flash-flooding through the book’s intimate and vast desert landscape.
The opening poem—from which the title of the collection is taken—begins almost matter-of-factly, in prose rhythms that feel slightly detached and spare: “I’ve been taught bloodstones can cure a snakebite / can stop the bleeding—most people forgot this / when the war ended.” But soon we careen into a wholly different recounting of stones and their portents:
We pleasure to hurt, leave marks
the size of stones—each a cabochon polished
by our mouths. I, your lapidary, your lapidary wheel
turning—green mottled red—
the jaspers of our desires.
And, a few lines later:
Where your hands have been are diamonds
on my shoulders, down my back, thighs—
I am your culebra.
I am in the dirt for you.
The entire book is saturated with this kind of imagery. For this reader, it was a revelation—bringing to the center of awareness a tumultuous, gorgeous rapture, in which two women contain and then explode the earth and the universe itself. In “These Hands, If Not Gods,” we begin with creation of the world:
Haven’t they moved like rivers—
like glory, like light—
over the seven days of your body?
This body is made of “blue-brown clay.” It’s made of “Ink Light” (the title of a poem) and appears “Carbon black. Lamp black. Bone black.” In a later poem, “Ode to The Beloved’s Hips,” the lover is a “nectar-dervished queen” whose pelvis spills out not just orgasms, but spiral galaxies:
O, constellation of pelvic glide—every curve,
a luster, a star. More infinite still, your hips
are kosmic, are universe—galactic carousel of burning
comets and Big Big Bangs. Millennium Falcon,
let me be your Solo. O, hot planet, let me
circumambulate. O, spiral galaxy, I am coming
for your dark matter.
The beloved’s vagina is a “sweet-dripped comb—hot hexagonal hole, dark diamond“ and “wild hive.” All the world, including the masculine, is fully contained within this love—the speaker is an “animal born to rush your rich red / muletas” and “a hooked horn of want.” Or later, in the poem, “I, Minotaur”, the beloved’s “jaw is a temple and your hips / strike like an axe— / the labyrs I injure myself against.”
One can understand why, in June of 2019, when Diaz was featured on Hilton Als’s “The Way We Live Now” series, Als remarked of this collection, “It’s as if you say all the things Elizabeth Bishop couldn’t say.” Indeed, the restraint of Bishop’s poetry seems at times fired and polished in the kiln of passion like the one Diaz gives us. “So I feel she must be very grateful to you as a fellow poet,” added Als, “as a fellow woman.”
Diaz has written of the blurring of body and land in the Mojave view of the world; in a 2014 piece for Best American Poetry’s blog, she noted: “Our very name, ‘Aha Makav,’ describes us as the people at the side of the river—the river and the land are how we call ourselves… we were not just made up from our land, we are our land.” She renders this in a way that’s utterly corporeal and unforgettable in lines such as “the furrows I tear with my grief-mouth, a map of myself / carved by my own horns” in “I, Minotaur.” Similarly, the speaker writes of “the cannon flash of your pale skin / settling in a silver lagoon of smoke at your breast” in “Postcolonial Love Poem.” And in “The First Water Is the Body”—a long narrative prose poem exploring endangered rivers and the history of endangered Native peoples’ lives—the speaker explains how powerfully language reflects this blurring: “In Mojave thinking, body and land are the same. The words are separated only by the letters ‘ii and ‘a.” And as this particular poem makes clear, both have been injured. The destruction of a river is not unlike the destructive colonization of America. Then, from this poem: “When Mojaves say the word for tears, we return to our word for river, as if our river were flowing from our eyes.“ And later: “Natives have been called red forever. I have never met a red native.”
The male body also shows up in this book: Diaz has written before of her brother—meth-addicted and mythological—and here he appears in one of the most extraordinary punch-you-in-the gut poems, “It Was the Animals.” This is a poem that is best experienced whole, and is the unforgettable poem that first introduced this reader to Diaz’s work. This heartbreaking piece describes a madness that is destructive, terrifying, and magnificent; that transforms life’s ordinary detritus into mythos; that is communicable and contagious. The poem begins:
Today my brother brought over a piece of the ark
wrapped in a white plastic grocery bag.
That would be Noah’s ark. In a white plastic bag. If pieces of a primeval ark can be carried in today’s banal grocery bags, cannot creation and destruction, mythic flood and divine rescue, be carried by us all? “It was no ark—“ the speaker writes, “it was the broken end of a picture frame.” And yet, the animals of the ark come:
…up the walkway into my house,
cracked the doorframe with their hooves and hips,
marched past me, into my kitchen, into my brother…
They come, all of them, “fantastical beasts” entering the body of the brother, as water laps against the speaker’s ankles, rising until it “filled my coffee cup / before floating it away from the table.”
Other brothers show up, as well, such as Diaz’s brown and black kin, those who, in “Catching Copper,” have been killed by police, or others, and who
…kiss their bullet
in a dark cul-de-sac, in front
of the corner-store ice machine.
in the passenger seat of their car,
on a strobe-lighted dance floor.
My brothers’ bullet
kisses them back.
Lest one think this book is all fire, light, and fury, there is a sly humor that edges in, such as in “Top Ten Reasons Why Indians Are Good at Basketball”—which includes lines such as “the same reason we are good in bed,” and, “When Indian ballers sweat, we emit a perfume of tortillas and Pine-Sol floor cleaner that works like a potion to disorient our opponents…” It’s a pleasure (and perhaps a momentary relief) to find oneself chuckling out loud at these witty and yet wickedly apt commentaries.
This is stunning work—painful, embodied, and glorious. This is a creation myth which won’t be denied or drowned out. This is a body we will never turn away from—awestruck-beloved-eaten-shot-killed-stampeded by animals-made of rivers and stars. The body sings, and this entire collection of songs stands as an act against colonialism. As poet Joy Harjo wrote in Conflict Resolutions for Holy Beings, “I am singing a song that can only be born after losing a country.”
This collection is also one long love poem because reparation comes through love of land, water, and the beloved: “I do my grief work / with her body—“the poet writes in the book’s final poem, aptly titled “Grief Work”—
We go where there is love,
to the river, on our knees beneath the sweet
water, I pull her under four times,
until we are rivered.
We are rearranged.