‘Postcolonial Love Poem’ Natalie Diaz
ISBN 978-0-571-35986-8, £10.99
The title suggests one of the key themes through this collection is racial inequality and injustice. However, the connected themes of love and seeking a path through this world make for an engaging, humanitarian collection, rather than one that seekings to make readers uncomfortable or question their privilege. Natalie Diaz was born and raised in the Fort Mojave Indian Village in Needles, California. She is Mojave and an enrolled member of the Gila River Indian Tribe. The title poem opens,
‘I’ve been taught bloodstones can cure a snakebite,
can stop the bleeding – most people forgot this
when the war ended. The war ended
depending on which war you mean: those we started,
before those, millennia ago and onward,
those which started me, which I had lost and won –
these ever-blooming wounds.’
Hereditary wisdom is at risk of being lost when focus is shifted to wars – actual and cultural – and the dominant culture expels others. There’s also a sense that war is still ongoing, the winners might not see it, but everyday becomes a balance sheet of small wins and losses. For those not on the dominant side, the war continues, sometimes unacknowledged, only seen by those who regard themselves as still fighting.
An ambulance is an opening image in ‘Manhattan is a Lenape Word’, which plays on the idea of siren,
‘Somewhere far from New York City,
an American drone finds then loves
a body—the radiant nectar it seeks
through great darkness—makes
a candle-hour of it, and burns
gently along it, like American touch,
an unbearable heart.
The siren song returns in me,
I sing it across her throat: Am I
what I love? Is this the glittering world
I’ve been begging for?’
The romance here is misleading. There’s no happy ever after but an incendiary flare that destroys. Even away from war, seducing a lover brings uncertainty: does my lover bring out the best in me, are my dreams being answered, is this what I deserve? The poem offers no answers, making do with what’s there and makes the best of it. The idea of love absorbing identity is picked up in ‘American Arithmetic’ which observes that ‘Native Americans make up less than/1 percent of the population of America./0.8 percent of 100 percent’,
‘But in an American room of one hundred people,
I am Native American—less than one, less than
whole—I am less than myself. Only a fraction
of a body, let’s say, I am only a hand—
and when I slip it beneath the shirt of my lover
I disappear completely.’
There’s the risk of the minority being absorbed completely and losing the ability to express their cultural identity. Here, the identity is given up willingly, for love, despite the risk that love might not be enough or her lover might not understand how much is sacrified in integrating into the dominant culture. However, a couple of basketball themed prose poems suggest that the score is evened by playing Americans at their own game. In ‘Run ‘n’ Gun’, ‘we won by doing what all the Indians before us had done against their bigger, whiter opponents—we became coyotes and rivers, and we ran faster than their fancy kicks could, up and down the court, game after game. We became the weather—we blew by them, we rained buckets, we lit up the gym with our moves.’ In ‘The Mustangs’ basketball games, ‘might have the power to set the fantastic beasts trampling our hearts loose. I saw it in my mother, in my brother, in those wild boys. We ran up and down the length of our lives, all of us, lit by the lights of the gym, towards freedom—we Mustangs. On those rights we were forgiven for all we would ever do wrong.’
The pace is slowed in a sequence, ‘The First Water is the Body’ which begins, ‘The Colorado River is the most endangered river in the United States—also, it is part of my body.// I carry a river. It is who I am: ‘Aha Makav. This is not a metaphor,’ and continues,
‘I do not mean to imply a visual relationship. Such as: a Native woman on her knees holding a box of Land O’ Lakes butter whose label has a picture of a Native woman on her knees holding a box of Land O’ Lakes butter whose label has a picture of a Native woman on her knees…
‘We carry the river, its body of water, in our body. I do not mean to invoke the Droste effect—this is not a picture of a river within a picture of a river.’
Unlike the image used on the Land O’ Lakes butter wraps, the narrator’s river shifts and changes and affects the landscape. The poem concludes,
‘Toni Morrison writes, All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was. Back to the body of earth, of flesh, back to the mouth, the throat, back to the womb, back to the heart, to its blood, back to our grief, back back back.
‘Will we remember from where we’ve come? The water.
‘And once remembered, will we return to that first water, and in doing so return to ourselves, to each other?
‘Do you think the water will forget what we have done, what we continue to do?’
If the river changes, so will the narrator, but in unpredictable ways. None of us can return to our birthplace unchanged. We return with new wisdom, seeing what we knew from different perspectives. Perspectives are explored through ‘exhibits from the American Water Museum’ which is a numbered sequence although the numbers are not sequential. The last segment is ’11.’,
‘Let me tell you a story about water:
Once upon a time there was us.
America’s thirst tried to drink us away.
And here we still are.’
The poem references both the Dakota Access pipeline protests and the poisoning of the water supplies in Michigan. The story is not just of capitalist greed taking essential supplies away from people but also the imperative to respect and nurture the environment. It ends on the reminder that people are still here, those identifiying with the environment are still standing, not yet erased. The contrasting attitudes towards nature – exploitation against nurture – are explored further in the sequence ‘Snake-Light’ which includes the discovery of a snakeskin caught in a branch during a walk through woods,
‘I touched it softly—the way I touch a line while reading—
trembling with the body of the snake before it left itself,
like leaving one word for the next—becoming, and possible.
I gave the skin to my love and said, Now I am a story—
like the snake, I am my own future.;
The tenderness becomes lost as the poem moves on to American rattlesnake rodeos where there cash prizes for dead rattlesnakes,
‘Rattlesnakes skinned to their tails, torsos rewritten
as italic slope, meat darkening and arched
among the almost-white prairie grasses—
the rattlesnake read and interpreted, rendered
a classic American character in a classic American font.’
This is nature moulded to the needs of man rather than man adapting to the needs of nature. In contrast,
‘In my Mojave language, when you desire
the rattlesnake, you call out its first name,
You can’t know the rattlesnake’s power.’
‘I am also her.
My Elder says, You are like that rattlesnake.
She is quiet, quiet, Then she strikes, and it’s too late.
You can rewrite but not unwrite.’
The damage may not be completely undone, but it can be mitigated. That idea reflects the title, ‘Postcolonial’. In these poems, Natalie Diaz does not try to return to the place before colonisation. Instead she mitigates. She reclaims and revives the Mojave language, and places it alongside English, keeping Mojave separated but still celebrated and remembered. The poems acknowledge the violence done but also highlight the positives, the energy that duality gives. An important book that eschews being a dull, worthy rant, in favour of vibrancy and engagment in coexistance.