When My Brother Was an Aztec / he lived in our basement and sacrificed my parents / every morning.
So goes the frontispiece of Natalie Diaz’s poetic debut, When My Brother Was an Aztec. This title, which the start of the poem weaves in, suggests a character adorned in regalia, surrounded by a landscape of cultural violence and astonishing beauty. It braids together myth and ancestry with the speaker’s own familial blood, the brother.
We are witness to sacrifice, and Diaz gives us hard truth, holding to our faces legless, armless torn bodies of parents beaten and defenseless. How an opening poem can resonate and launch its reader’s into the book, When My Brother Was an Aztec hurls us on a trajectory that splashes open a bodily wound somehow either personal to our lives or extravagantly powerful in showing outsiders this hellish vision, this Aztec.
Yet like the neighbors who were “amazed [the] parents’ hearts kept / growing back,” I find a truth, a human throb to love a son struggling with addiction and terror that comes from a life on the rez, a life clanged together from the harsh world some of us are subject to.
Entering the book thereafter, Diaz strikes this warning, this reality: “Angels don’t come to the reservation.”
This book is muscular in being direct, outright in its establishment of landscape. This poem, “Abecedarian Requiring Further Examination of Anglikan Seraphym Subjugation of a Wild Indian Rezervation” situates a context that will thread throughout the book. The landscape is made up of all sorts of characters, items, and tensions between mythic struggle and an observer who is simply a part of it all. We see, among other pieces that build this world, pinto beans, raisins, a rusted bus abandoned in the Grand Canyon, an ambulance driven by Custer, stiletto moccasins, a copy of Indian Country Today, WIC Coupons, Ataris, gutted lightbulbs, locusts, commods with that bold black lettering, and a grandmother’s missing legs.
Diaz doesn’t stop there either. Her hand at narrative is also character-driven. Such appearances by Guy No-Horse, Jeremiah, blonde tourists, Mary, Betsy Ross, tribal dentists, Eve Side-Stealer and Mary Busted-Chest (asking “What if Eve was an Indian”), Jimmy Eagle, Jimi Hendrix, Lionel Richie, and even Antigone and a Mojave Barbie all help to provide a dimension of people that illustrates the subjugation and tragedies inherent in humanity.
So rather than gesturing with lush insights and poetic epiphanies of often-overwrought opulence, what this book does best is explore its severity to unearth such grace the reservation hides beneath its flesh. It also carries with its unfolding an ache:
When we leave, our hunger will go with us
In truth, each character and moment of brutal exactness, each important object etched into these pages possesses a hunger—an absence wanting to be filled. Yet no matter how empty the bellies are, no matter how “shame-hollowed” these songs are, they express growth and resilience, as a book of poems should. Poems collected, like these, attempt to stay alive.
The arc, then, demonstrates a process of resilience. The book moves in the first section through childhood, puberty, adolescence, an awareness to tribal and cultural history, and an underlying shame; into witnessing a family torn apart, watching the brother as he “tears the temple to pieces” (“Formication”), and feeling the grief and ruin left of a family affected by relentless addiction; and finally toward desire, the body, satiation, politics, war, wounds, love, and healing.
Diaz makes the moves necessary to prove that survival is the center to her world, the core of this narrative development. These poems need to face terrible truths. The poems demand a toughness from both the poem and the reader. At the heart of resilience is the ability to witness, move forward, and reflect. Here, in the poem “My Brother at 3 A.M.,” we are reminded of that frontispiece, the Aztec vision of sibling in a restless state of instability. Interestingly, this too translates to the speaker and ultimately to us. To see the brother sitting on the porch at 3 o’clock in the morning, the speaker records:
He sat cross-legged, weeping on the steps
when mom unlocked and opened the front door.
O God, he said. O God
He wants to kill me, Mom.
As this poem, a pantoum, unravels, it inverts the feeling and dialogue of the brother and mother:
O God, see the tail, he said. Look at the goddamned tail.
He sat cross-legged, weeping on the front steps.
Mom finally saw it, a hellish vision, my brother.
O God, O God, she said.
Moving through, the end registers a woven beauty to When My Brother Was an Aztec, which I cannot help but feel a personal timbre with. The reservation. The ferocious addictions. The cracked landscape that houses in its wrestled heart a buried blessing. A buried blessing that requires a moving around of the shards and heavy chunks to see. In “The Beauty of a Busted Fruit,” its speaker—amid the pain of remembering amputated legs, scars, the easiness of the body splitting apart, and the reality of slithering snake hallucinations across the skin—articulates all of this world, in all of its singing and howling, as a fondness:
…carrying your hurts
like two cracked pomegranates, because you haven’t learned
to see the beauty of a busted fruit, the bright stain it will leave
on your lips, the way it will make people want to kiss you.
Diaz’s When My Brother Was an Aztec reminds us that the ugliness of our lives shelters how we may blossom the broken pieces to a worn yet beautiful temple. Diaz tells us over and over again that beyond the surface of the reservation rests the brightness of all that weight pressing back at us. This book moves beyond grief toward a self learning to heal, learning to devour its life, as a way to find what’s always been hidden there in plain sight, even in the knotted face of terrible tragedy. An almost unbearable grace.
Michael Wasson is nimíipuu from the Nez Perce Reservation in Idaho. He earned a Cutthroat Discovery Poet award and was a Joy Harjo Prize finalist. His work is included or forthcoming in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Weave Magazine, American Indian Culture and Research Journal, As/Us, and Tupelo Press, among others. He’s an MFA poetry candidate at Oregon State University.