by JESSICA CORY
Natalie Diaz, Postcolonial Love Poem (Graywolf Press, 2020). pp. 120 pages.
“My brother has a knife in his hand. / He has decided to stab my father,” read the opening lines of the collection’s second poem, “Blood-Light.” These images immediately take readers back eight years, to the speaker’s brother who struggles with substance abuse in Natalie Diaz’s debut collection When My Brother Was an Aztec (Copper Canyon Press, 2012). Though her new Pulitzer Prize-winning work gives a nod to her previous collection, readers who are familiar with Diaz’s older work may be pleasantly surprised by the difference in style, tone, and topics explored in Postcolonial Love Poem.
Rather than narrowly focusing on the private actions of the brother and father, for example, Diaz broadens her use of images, bringing in scorpions, stars, and the importance of light. These connections to non-human entities begin to situate the poem, and the larger collection, in conversation with the global. Diaz addresses the settler colonialism, race, and violence that exist specifically in the U.S., where she houses much of her beautifully-worded criticism; but she also tackles these issues of sovereignty and imperialism as they exist globally, engaging in Indigenous internationalism.
Diaz, who is Mojave and a citizen of the Gila River Indian Tribe, has worked tirelessly to revitalize the Mojave language in addition to writing poetry. Postcolonial Love Poem, then, exists as an artifact that weaves together the aesthetic and the sociopolitical: Diaz’ passion for Native languages revels in the beauty of words and fights against Native erasure. By infusing the mostly-English poems with Mojave words or phrases, Diaz is able to illustrate linguistic decolonization. For example, in “How the Milky Way Was Made,” she writes,
To save our fish, we lifted them from our skeletoned river beds,
loosed them in our heavens, set them aster—
‘Achii ‘ahan, Mojave salmon,
Colorado pike minnow
Later in the poem, she continues, “Achii ‘ahan nyuunye— / our words for Milky Way.” By including Mojave terms among English words, Diaz is positing that the Mojave language is better suited than English to communicate and express particular concepts and entities, a stark resistance to the U.S. government’s longtime ban on Indigenous languages in an attempt at cultural genocide. She is also refusing the colonial norms and expectations that dictate that texts for English-speaking audiences need to be in English, particularly by choosing not to include a glossary or footnotes in her collection. If settlers want to know what these terms mean, we are required to step out of our comfort zones and do some work.
Postcolonial Love Poem, in the tradition of much Native American poetry, such as works by Joy Harjo, Simon Ortiz, and Heid Erdrich, makes clear the ways in which colonization has affected Native life through genocide, and has propagated the trope of the “vanishing Indian” though policies such as Removal and allotment. When colonial works do depict Native peoples, often they are portrayed as mere stereotypes. To return to “Manhattan Is a Lenape Word,” for instance, Diaz writes,
Manhattan is a Lenape word.
Even a watch must be wound.
How can a century or a heart turn
if nobody asks, Where have all
the Natives gone?
Readers may find that the question, “Where have all / the Natives gone?” sounds eerily similar to Pete Seeger’s 1955 folk tune “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” Seeger’s song is, of course, known widely as an anti-war anthem, and the contrast between Diaz’s work and Seeger’s song is both powerful and stark. Seeger’s lyrics have, after all, been performed by countless musicians over the years. It is a song that’s likely caused many Americans to ponder why so many young folks are being killed in endless wars. And yet, how many Americans have dwelled upon Diaz’s similarly probing inquiry? Where was (or is) the outrage from the same people who love Seeger’s song for the ongoing genocide committed by settler colonialism? Where is the anger over the U.S. government’s broken treaties and their policies that perpetuate Native death?
Policies and treaties affecting Indigenous peoples are also explored in Postcolonial Love Poem on a more global scale. In “exhibits from The American Water Museum,” for example, Diaz describes a “Photograph from a South American newspaper”:
The U.S. headquartered companies announce,
with armed guards, You can’t drink from this lake
anymore. The Natives gather rain instead, open
their beautiful water-shaped mouths to the sky,
catch it in curved, peach-colored shells, in halved
gourds, in their water-shaped hands.
Diaz’s exploration of the privatization of water in South America makes connections between U.S. imperialism and global Indigenous challenges in much the same way as the 2010 film Tambien La Lluvia (“Even the Rain”). Tambien La Lluvia explores the intersections of water privatization, Indigenous communities (particularly the 2000 Cochabamba protests and economic exploitation of the Quechua), and early European invasion, topics that reappear in the pages of Diaz’s collection.
Diaz’s critiques of colonization appear to complicate the book’s title. Postcolonial, of course, is well-represented in the many postcolonial areas and nations she depicts or discusses within the collection. But where does the Love Poem fit in, especially since most readers consider colonization anything but an act of love? The first poem of the book, which shares its title with the collection, appears in a section unto itself. The pages flanking it contain quotes by Joy Harjo, Mvskoke poet and writer and current U.S. Poet Laureate, and Mahmoud Darwish, renowned Palestinian poet and writer. Both Harjo and Darwish have published an immense amount of material, much of it focusing on the love they have for their people and their homelands. In Darwish’s case, this love of place became a source for critique and controversy. Diaz seems to be following in Darwish and Harjo’s footsteps, critiquing what she loves in order to make changes for its betterment. After all, seeking to improve through critical examination is an act of love.
In this opening poem, there is a particular focus on stones. Throughout this poem, Diaz mentions “geodes beneath hot feldspar sand,” “the size of stones—each a cabochon polished / by our mouths,” “diamonds” on the body where an unnamed person has touched, and “quartz-light” hips. The speaker even enters a conversation with the reader through the speaker’s identity: “I, your lapidary, your lapidary wheel / turning—green mottled red— / the jaspers of our desires.” Stones often represent hardness, and are ubiquitous, mundane. However, Diaz emphasizes how stones form—over time, through an evolution. Her poem tells us that, at our core, we are made up of many of the same elements that form rocks and gems, and by considering all that we are, we are able to love ourselves and one another in a more holistic way.
A secondary focus of the opening poem, echoed in the “green mottled red,” is the impact of war and the wounds which stem from it. Not a particular war either: As Diaz writes, “depending on which war you mean: those we started, / before those, millennia ago and onward, / those which started me, which I lost and won—.” Interestingly, this theme begins the poem, but does not continue throughout it. The poem seemingly becomes about flowers and plants: “Arise the wild heliotrope, scorpion weed, / blue phacelia which hold purple the way a throat can hold.” However, the last line of the poem, “the war never ended and somehow begins again,” returns readers to the initial wounding. This reprise seems to speak to the notion that, whether surrounded by beauty or strife, the struggles of Indigenous people continue.
Again, then, what are we to make of this Love Poem? Diaz gives us a glimpse in the penultimate lines to the opening poem: “The rain will eventually come, or not, / Until then, we touch our bodies like wounds.” This image of careful, almost fearful, bodily intimacy resonates with expressions of love. Think about how one might touch the injury of another, or even one’s own injury. With care, with concern, with the foresight of not wanting to make the wound worse. These are thoughts and acts, then, born of love. As with the stones’ evolutions, we learn love through our own evolutions, both personal and cultural. It would seem that Diaz’s collection is an act of creation, of speculation, of imagining a decolonial future that is possible if we collectively evolve to allow it.
Diaz’s Postcolonial Love Poem is beautifully written, combining English, Spanish, and Mojave languages to illustrate what the process of literary decolonization may look like. While I focus primarily on the postcolonial and decolonial aspects of Diaz’s writings, intersecting with these themes and foci are poems of and for lovers, pieces that transport readers to the desert Southwest, and several responses that stem from the poetry and letters exchanged between Diaz and celebrated Mexican-American poet Ada Limón from January to September 2017, which you can learn more about here. Postcolonial Love Poem is often deeper and more intimate than some of Diaz’s earlier work, dwelling on erotic relationships and inner thoughts; but it also has an urgency, an insistence, that will resonate with readers, especially now.
Jessica Cory teaches in the English Department at Western Carolina University and is a PhD student in English at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She is the editor of Mountains Piled upon Mountains: Appalachian Nature Writing in the Anthropocene (WVU Press, 2019) and her creative and scholarly work has appeared in the North Carolina Literary Review, North Dakota Quarterly, A Poetry Congeries, and other wonderful venues.