The title poem of Natalie Diaz’s first collection, When My Brother Was an Aztec, introduces the book’s biggest subject: her eldest brother’s meth addiction and its impact on the family. “He lived in our basement and sacrificed my parents/every morning,” writes Diaz. “Neighbors were amazed my parents’ hearts kept/growing back – It said a lot about my parents, or parents’ hearts.”
While some of Diaz’s poems confront their subjects straightforwardly, it’s her extended metaphors – which prompt us to see one thing as another – that throw her material wide open. Of the Aztecs, she said in an interview, “Some Aztec practices can be interpreted as violent, but that doesn’t mean they were less human. They wrestled fear, absence, and loss like the rest of us. … One reason why the rituals and beliefs of the Aztecs lure me [is that] they made light from violence, or found light despite violence, which doesn’t happen if you close your eyes.”
Diaz’s poems take her subjects seriously, but they’re not afraid to have a little fun. In “The Last Mojave Indian Barbie,” Diaz offers wry critique, “Mojave Barbie repeatedly drank Ken and Skipper under their pink plastic patio table sets. Skipper said she drank like a boy.” And in “When the Beloved Asks, ‘What Would You Do if You Woke Up and I Was a Shark?’” she shows us beauty where you don’t expect to find it: “I’d place my head onto that dark altar of jaws, prostrated/pilgrim at Melville’s glittering gates, climb into that mysterious/window starred with teeth – the one lit room in the charnel house.”
Born to a Native American mother and Spanish father, Diaz was raised with eight siblings in the Fort Mojave Indian Village on the border of California, Arizona, and Nevada. Of her upbringing, she’s said, “In my house, there is enough room for all of those cultures, for all of our religious beliefs, for all of our different kinds of expressions of faith, and so for me that’s exactly the way I write. I can mix images from my reservation with images from my Catholic faith, with words in Spanish, with words in my Mojave language and other influences. It’s given me the okay to go anywhere I want to and to consume whatever I need to along the way to get to what it is that I’m questioning.” She makes it look – and sound – easy. In “How to Go to Dinner with a Brother on Drugs” (a slightly longer prose version available at here), the range of language and imagery is by turns funny and sobering:
“Holler upstairs to your brother to hurry.
He won’t come right away.
Remember how long it took the Minotaur
to escape the labyrinth.”
“Your brother is a beat-down, dubbed Bruce Lee –
his words do not match his mouth, which is moving
faster and faster. You have the fastest
For better and worse, the poem’s central metaphor is its most unstable. The brother finally goes to dinner provocatively “dressed as a Judas effigy,” complete with “[a] lamp cord knotted at his neck.” But at the end of the poem, it is the speaker who says of herself, “You will pour your thirty pieces of silver/onto the table and ask, What can I get for this?” Now Judas – the betrayer – is not only the brother who wears the family down, but also the poet who exposes the family to her readers.
The multiple interpretations of Judas may sit uneasily with some, as they seem to with Diaz. In a recent blog post for Poetry Foundation, she writes with some ambivalence, “Maybe the answer is that Jesus asked Judas to betray him, needed Judas to betray him. Doesn’t this answer transform my betrayal of my brother into my devotion of him? … I lead you to my brother again and again. But don’t I also love him? Don’t I also kiss him on the cheek?”
Did Jesus ‘need’ Judas to betray him? One answer is that logically speaking, if Jesus was betrayed by Judas, then yes, Judas necessarily betrayed Jesus. But it’s beyond me – or anyone – to speculate on Judas’ motives, and perhaps that sense of futility is what Diaz is driving at. With every iteration, the speaker never fully makes sense of why her brother puts her family through such agony, and why they allow it to happen.
The gospels report that Jesus did not resist Judas and the armed crowd who came to capture him in Gethsemane. Nor did he defend himself before the religious or political authorities. Before how he rose again, triumphing over death, he was first spat upon, beaten, whipped, and crucified.
I hear an echo of parents and parents’ hearts this Easter season, one that Diaz has taught me to listen for. As she writes in her title poem of what her parents endured, “It was awful. Unforgiveable. But they kept coming/back for more. They loved him, was all they could say.”
(I didn’t get to touch on my three favorite poems by Diaz: “No More Cake Here”, “Hand-Me-Down Halloween”, and “Top Ten Reasons Why Indians are Good at Basketball”. Her short story “The Hooferman” won the Tobias Wolff Fiction Award. Diaz is currently working to preserve the Mohave language in her home reservation (“It’s bridging gaps between youth and their parents,” she said in an interview with Indian Country), which you can learn more about from this PBS documentary. And if that wasn’t enough, Diaz used to be a professional basketball player. If that’s more your scene, here’s a terrific interview she gave in college.)