When My Brother Was an Aztec
reviewed by Mark Schoenknecht
When My Brother Was an Aztec, Natalie Diaz’s first book of poems, finds a poet working with the materials of her past in imaginative and often unexpected ways. Praised by critics for its startling imagery and precise, lyrical language, the collection draws heavily from Diaz’s experience as a Native American woman—and in particular from her experience of living with a meth-addicted brother—in presenting poems that are at turns humorous, disconcerting, and seductive. In the years since the book’s release, Diaz’s use of mythological symbolism has been noted in a variety of essays and interviews1. Yet, while these sources have pointed to the fact that Diaz’s poetry incorporates some mythological elements, the significance of personal mythology to her wider poetic project has gone largely overlooked.
As initially suggested by the title When My Brother Was an Aztec—and by the titular poem’s being set apart as an introduction—the metaphor of the Aztec/Brother serves as a central image in Diaz’s personal mythos. Characterizing her brother as a fallen Aztec King, a leader of that once-great civilization of warriors, Diaz becomes—by extension—the Warrior/Sister fighting to rescue her brother from the negative influences corrupting him. Within this struggle, she also locates the thematic foundations of her wider poetic project, the overarching narrative continually spiraling back to a family and culture made violent by European exploitation. But such violence is never simple or maudlin. When, for example, Diaz imagines the drugs fueling her brother’s addiction as “crushed diamonds and fire,” or describes her parents as the “wrecked honeysuckles” gorged on by her brother “until their eyebrows whitened,” she creates a way of talking about her family life that’s larger—more magical and fantastical—than any historical account. In this way, the image of the Aztec/Brother announces itself as not just a cultural reference, but a mythological reference as well, a fictive reinterpretation of the past containing the archetypal truths of the poet’s experiences.
Throughout When My Brother Was an Aztec, we find an array of figures from Diaz’s personal mythology that explore similar types of fictive truths. The Grandmother/Woman with No Legs, stricken with diabetes, who “Feels she’s lost part of her memory the part the legs knew/best like earth,” provides an image of Native suffering at the hands of modernization and forced assimilation. The Last Mojave Indian Barbie, who “repeatedly drank Ken and Skipper under/their pink plastic patio table sets,” and eventually gets expelled from the Mattel Dream House, offers an allegory for the exclusion of Mojave Indians from the American Dream of upward mobility. (Mojave Barbie flips off her Caucasian counterparts on the way out.) And the Sisyphus/Father of “Downhill Triolets” “again and again…pushes his old blue heart up to the [police] station” when his son—Diaz’s meth-addicted Brother—is arrested, serving as a poignant representation of the bonds of family, and of the lengths a father will go to fulfill his paternal obligations.
While it might be tempting to read these poems as confessional, doing so—I’ll dare to argue—would constitute a misreading. As Diaz herself tells us, “When I write a poem, I am not writing directly about my brother or my community. Instead, I am writing about the images that are meaningful and emotional to me and using the words that are meaningful and emotional to me… Emotional truth is the truth I am most concerned with.”2 Indeed, in developing her personal mythology, Diaz is able to distill her experiences down to their emotional truth, and to locate the words and images that best express these feelings—even if such words and images don’t come out of her autobiography. This, in effect, means harnessing the power of the personal myth to offer a means of addressing those elements of the writer’s persona that she may be reluctant to confront directly, or that may not be as interesting or beautiful if written about less artfully. But when such indirection is also possible using other poetic devices, why create a personal mythology? Why invent mythic characters like The Aztec Brother or The Woman with No Legs instead of presenting their truths using some other metaphorical trope?
In an interview with Rigoberto Gonzalez for the National Book Critics Circle3, Diaz says of her relationship to myth: “Even though most people use the word ‘myth’ to speak of our tribal stories, we see them as truth. So, for me, myth has always been the truest truth. The word “history’ on the other hand, we question.” As this quote suggests, when viewed in the context of Diaz’s identity as a Native writer, the act of representing one’s past mythically becomes a political gesture, a refusal to accept the historical epistemology of European colonialism. In this respect, it allows Diaz to arrive at a form that mirrors the political content of her poems—works that lament the disintegration of traditional Native culture, and that seek to push back against the influence of European assimilation. Primarily, the poems in When My Brother Was an Aztec are oriented toward the humanistic, toward bringing a sense of beauty and vitality—the strength to go on surviving—to the experiences Diaz describes. The fact that Diaz can bring fresh insight and meaning to something as grim as a brother’s methamphetamine addiction is a testament to her skill as a poet. That she can do so while also offering the possibility of a radical political critique, applying the structures of myth as an elegant overlay to the content of her poetic vision, should solidify Diaz’s place as one of the most exciting young poets to enter the American literary scene in recent years.