I learned Drink in a country of drought.
— from “Postcolonial Love Poem”
I can read a text in anything.
To read a body is to break that body a little.
— from “Snake-Light”
Postcolonial Love Poem, Natalie Diaz’s second collection of poetry (Graywolf Press), is full of bodies that seem to break down before one’s very eyes, become fragments of their many parts. The ever-drying Colorado River, the dwindling number of First Nations languages still in use in the contemporary United States, even the hands of a lover, caught in a vanishing act.
The five sections that make up the book are separated from one another by quotes from Joy Harjo, Mahmoud Darwish, Robyn Fenty (better known by her stage name, Rihanna), Hortense Spillers, and Sor Juana Inés De La Cruz, larger-than-life figures who will be familiar to poetry buffs and lay readers alike. The range of voices invoked in this text is just one of the many markers of Postcolonial Love Poem’s astonishing accessibility, though it is the author’s command over language that reigns triumphant in drawing the reader in.
Lines like “My brothers’ feed their bullet // the way the bulls fed Zeus — // burning, on a pyre, their own // thigh bones wrapped in fat,” and “Have [these hands] not burned // on the altar of your belly, eaten the bread // of your thighs, broke you to wine, to ichor, to nectarous feast,” seem to do more than merely invoke myth—in their terror and their glory, they become myth.
The world of Diaz’s poetry so quickly turns into the world of the reader it is very difficult, maybe impossible, to distinguish between one’s own reality and the reality Diaz creates. The poem, “It Was the Animals,” begins, “Today my brother brought over a piece of the ark // wrapped in a white plastic grocery bag.” Of course that can’t be true. And it is.
The way I read any beloved—: from the rams of the left jaw down to the
cuneiform of the right foot. She isn’t so much what she is—: and becomes
herself only when added to the space where she isn’t.
— from “Ink-Light”
Postcolonial Love Poem’s obsessions are numerous: Intimacy, family, violence, environmental degradation, grief, and glory. One that arrives early is love, which is felt deeply and physically throughout the collection—not only because it seems present at every turn in the book, but also because Diaz’s language for love, and expressions of love, are so intensely physical.
In the title poem, for example, the narrator’s body is transfigured: “I, your lapidary, your lapidary wheel / turning—green mottled red— / the jaspers of our desires.” Such transformations are not uncommon in the collection and many are rooted in the body in love. Later in the same poem; “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.” Erotic intimacy in this collection is ripe with a dark possibility—violence always feels present, as well, acts of worship and command means to a similar end:
Arise the wild heliotrope, scorpion weed,
blue phacelia which hold purple the way a throat can hold
the shape of any great hand—
Great hands is what she called mine.
The rain will eventually come, or not.
Until then, we touch our bodies like wounds—
the war never ended and somehow begins again.
Two poems later, Diaz returns to the beloved in a poem that has a “Supermarket in California” quality to it; in it, I felt the influences of Whitman, Lorca, and Ginsberg. “These Hands, If Not Gods,” begins with an invocation of its namesake before diving into the work of making one of the more beautiful lists I’ve read in recent memory:
It is hard not to have faith in this:
from the blue-brown clay of night
these two potters crushed and smoothed you
into being—grind, then curve—built your form up—
atlas of bone, fields of muscle,
one breast a fig tree, the other a nightingale,
both morning and evening.
O, the beautiful making they do,
of trigger and carve, suffering and stars.
Aren’t they, too, the carpenters
of your small church?
Diaz is right, of course—it’s hard not to have faith in language like that. In another such poem, “Like Church,” she begins, “My lover comes to me like darkfall—long, / and through my open window.” Another, “Ode to the Beloved’s Hips,”; “O, the places I have laid them, knelt and scooped / the amber—fast honey—from their openness.” And just one more—“I, Minotaur”:
Together we are the color of magnets,
and also their doing. Manganese, lodestone,
ores the light will not touch, so we touch the light—
give it to one another
until we are riddled and leaking with it.
All these transfigurations of love proves the supermarket boys aren’t apt enough a comparison to be making for Diaz’s work. These poems are far more reminiscent of those in Donika Kelly’s Bestiary, itself a triumph of transformations. Postcolonial Love Poem is full of them as well, and they are endless in their scope, endlessly generous in the possibility they promise. Magnet or minotaur, hematite or cabochon, these are poems that are finding their way to the same place, love-bound in a hundred glorious ways.
Light reshapes my lover’s elbow,
a brass whistle.
I put my mouth there—: mercy-luxed, and come we both
to light. It streams me.
— from “Skin-Light”
One of the themes most frequently revisited in Postcolonial Love Poem is that of the drying-up of the Colorado River, and of environmental degradation. “When did you first enter the territory of thirst?” asks the longest poem in the collection, “exhibits from The American Water Museum.” I had the joy of hearing Diaz read excerpts of this poem back in June while covering Tin House’s literary workshop in Portland, Oregon.
The poem is written in fragments, numbered and presented out of order, with many parts of the piece missing entirely. It is reminiscent of Kimiko Hahn’s use of zuihitsu in her 2006 collection, The Narrow Road to the Interior. The difference with “exhibits…” is that, unlike zuihitsu, the process is not confessional. Rather, the fragmenting in the poem feels like recorded samples from various river segments, with connections into a singular narrative seemingly steadily less possible, and each excerpt more haunting than the last.
There is a urinal inside a curtained booth in the corner.
The lit sign above the curtain hums and flickers: Donations.
You have nothing to give.
There are grief counselors on site for those who realize
they have entered The American Water Museum not as
patrons but rather as parts of the new exhibit.
Art of Fact:
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.
Other poems bear testament to water, in its many forms; its shortage, abundance, its intrinsic tie to life. “How the Milky Way Was Made,” one of my favorite poems in the collection, takes a more personal approach to the mourning of the Colorado River. “My river was once unseparated,” it begins, “Was Colorado.”
The poem sees Diaz is at the peak of her powers, playing with form and irony—
Now it is shattered by fifteen dams
over one-thousand four hundred and fifty miles,
pipes and pumps filling
swimming pools and sprinklers
in Los Angeles and Las Vegas.
To make up for this unconscionable loss, the poem becomes a life-giving force, not just carving out a new river for itself, but offering life to the fish of the old river, and renewing the life force of the Mojave language by using it in the piece.
To save our fish, we lifted them from our skeletoned river beds
loosed them in our heavens, set them aster —
‘Achii ‘ahan, Mojave salmon,
Up there they glide, gilled with stars.
It’s a gorgeous poem, brimming with hope in a way that almost makes me question whether the same poet who wrote “exhibits from The American Water Museum” really could have written it. Such is the strength of Diaz’s range. “How the Milky Way Was Made” ends even more surprisingly, playing a trick Diaz pulls-off well. We return to the body of the beloved to close the poem, and the body is becoming as an ending, if the turn is a surprise—the initial site of water, the first well of thirst, it fits perfectly into this poem of supplication and stars. Diaz watches the sky.
O, the weakness of any mouth
as it gives itself away to the universe
of a sweet-milk body.
As my own mouth is dreamed to thirst
the long desire-ways, the hundred-thousand light year roads
of your throat and thighs.
My brother has a knife in his hand.
He has decided to stab my father.
This could be a story from the Bible,
if it wasn’t already a story about stars.
— from “Blood-Light”
As readily as Diaz manifests her own myths, the myth of manifest destiny and its many deathly spawn are interrogated by poems throughout the collection. Postcolonial Love Poem’s strongest pieces do the hard work of anatomizing foundational American realities in the face of the untruths that created them.
In “American Arithmetic,” Diaz writes in lines that inflect a tone caught between lamentation and matter-of-fact delivery. The poem is deeply unsentimental, even for Diaz, who tends to veer far afield of telling readers how to feel.
Native Americans make up less than
one percent of the population of America.
0.8 percent of 100 percent.
O, mine efficient country.
I do not remember the days before America—
I do not remember the days when we were all here.
Through calling attention to the lack of a memory of “the days before America”—“the days when we were all here”—Diaz makes a necessary distinction between Native Americans as they once were on this continent, and Native American people as they are now, in a contemporary context: A distinction many Americans fail to make in their own imaginations, and one that many readers might even fail to make here, if not righted by Diaz’s craft. There is an echo in this poem of exhibit #11 from “exhibits from The American Water Museum”: “here we still are,” the poem declares, though to be here is not the same, and though what it means to be has changed.
Those Americans who have a particularly fixed notion of who a Native American is are certainly some, but doubtfully not all of those in mind in the collection’s next poem, the equally heavy-hitting “They Don’t Love You Like I Love You”:
and what my mother meant by,
Don’t stray, was that she knew
all about it — the way it feels to need
someone to love you, someone
not your kind, someone white,
some one some many who live
because so many of mine
have not, and further, live on top of
those of ours who don’t.
I’ve never known how it feels to need love from an oppressor. I’ve never had an oppressor with a love to yearn for. This poem could end here, and some of its audience—readers like me—might learn something. But that would be a poem succumbing to the very thirst it knows to fear. Diaz knows better—
All this time,
I thought my mother said, Wait,
as in, Give them a little more time
to know your worth,
when really, she said, Weight,
meaning heft, preparing me
for the yoke of myself,
the beast of my country’s burdens,
which is less worse than
my country’s plow. Yes,
when my mother said,
They don’t love you like I love you,
Natalie, that doesn’t mean
you aren’t good.
It shouldn’t be easy work knowing what kind of stories we should tell ourselves, what myths to believe in. Narratives make up our entire lives, and, when false, have the potential to destroy our lives, as well. The poems in Postcolonial Love Poem are myths I’m willing to believe in. They’re minotaurs and hundred-handed beings, pieces of Noah’s Ark and constellations passing stars between them. Most importantly, they’re the truth; stories that don’t encourage our destruction, but help us persist in the face of it. That can love in our fear, our desire-ways, our grief.