When My Brother Was an Aztec
Written by Natalie Diaz
Copper Canyon Press, 2012
This 3am war bell, duende vision prison
Got it? As seen in this randomly-chosen line from Natalie Diaz’s first collection of poems, When My Brother Was an Aztec (Copper Canyon Press 2012), there is a poetics-infused prosodic wonder at work here, wrangling her family mythos like a Homeric pro as they deal, home on the res in Needles, with her tweaked, Quetzacoatl’d, Geronimo bro, who shows up at restaurants, ‘a lamp cord knotted at his neck’, and steals all the lightbulbs. That’s just the tame stuff. There is much, much worse afoot. And Diaz has a life too.
Diaz fills us in on all of it. I defy anyone (else) to turn such circumstances into such enthralling poetry. The title’s provocative (with accompanying cover photo), then you see she really means it. Laying out long form after long form in original syntax that neither regrets nor defends, Diaz chronicles her brother’s meth-fueled ravages from an unsafe distance with tragicomic aplomb, direct lyricism and glistening irony. “Downhill Triolets” renders a(nother) late night altercation on the lawn with tribal cops, Sappho, Jimi Hendrix, Geronimo, the tweaked brother, Sisyphus, Lionel Ritchie, and God, into three neat poetic sequences. What? Problem? “Remember how long it took the Minotaur / to escape the labyrinth.
And then, read the prose poem about “The Last Mojave Indian Barbie.” This first book from Natalie Diaz, an MFA-holding award-winner who works with tribal elders preserving the Mojave language, is a Lannan Literary Selection. And yes, it’s all going to be on the quiz. Every word.
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