Natalie Diaz opens her debut collection of poetry, When My Brother Was an Aztec, with the Spanish proverb, “No hay mal que dure cien anos, ni cuerpo que lo resista,” to introduce the reader to the Spanish influence on Native Americans, a theme that runs rampant throughout her poetry via allusions to or inclusions of Spanish words. The proverb translates as, “Nothing lasts forever; this too shall pass,” a hopeful remark that suggests Diaz’s ability to cope with life both on and after the reservation. Her forty-six poems consider the hardships of Native American life after colonization and Christianization. Diaz throws the reader right into the middle of drug and alcohol abuse, racism, and diabetes, proving the enduring effects of post-colonial traumatic stress disorder.
The collection features three sections that represent different aspects of Diaz’s experiences. The first largely focuses on Diaz’s diabetic grandmother, the second on her drug-addict of a brother, and the third on the sadness and pain that accompanies reservation life. Some of Diaz’s poems will wound a reader—its beautifully crafted language still cannot mask the sharp, stinging pains that come from reading of her Aztec brother, relentless racism, or her diabetic grandmother. In “The Beauty of a Busted Fruit” the speaker remembers her childhood of wanting scars to prove her endurance but admits:
All this before we knew that some wounds can’t heal,
before we knew the jagged scars of Great-Grandmother’s
amputated legs, the way a rock can split a man’s head
open to its red syrup, like a watermelon, the way a brother
can pick at his skin for snakes and spiders only he can see.
The speaker provides these horrifying images in a poem so beautiful that by the end of it the reader has almost forgotten what he has just learned—yet these jarring images remain, shaking the reader from complacency. Diaz demonstrates that she has learned “to see the beauty of a busted fruit,” intimating that she loves not despite all of these imperfections, but instead for these imperfections.
When My Brother Was an Aztec reflects Diaz’s experiences as a Native American living on the reservation. She admits that much of her poetry is autobiographical, and therefore the reader can often replace the speaker with the author herself. This intimate experience offers a moving and convincing connection to the author, something that a reader cannot often guarantee from a novel or a poetry collection. Diaz doesn’t hold back from the truth, and the reader begins to see Diaz’s poetry as her own means of coping with Historical Trauma.
Even before the first section, Diaz opens with her title poem, “When My Brother Was an Aztec.” This is the first impression the reader has of Diaz’s poetry, and it is not one to forget. The poem recounts Diaz’s experiences with her meth-addict brother and how his drug abuse unravels their family. She shows the reader how he “sacrificed [her] parents / every morning,” forced them to “[forget] who was dying, who was already dead.” He “gobbled” the “crushed diamonds and fire,” portraying him as an animal, a monster, who turned her family’s house into a zoo. Yet despite his devastating and self-destructive habits, Diaz remarks how her “parents’ hearts kept / growing back,” suggesting the unconditional love that comes with family, no matter how much hurt a son or brother can cause. The reader’s first impression of Diaz’s poetry is of unabashed honesty that evokes sympathy and heartbreak.
Diaz experiments with structure in many of her poems to prove how the organization of a poem is every bit as important as its content. “When My Brother Was an Aztec” follows a stair-step pattern to show that as Diaz and her family follow her brother farther and farther down his destructive path, there is no way to return. “Hand-Me-Down Halloween,” an endearing and heart-wrenching recollection of the speaker’s first Halloween off the reservation, uses slashes to break up clusters of words. When the reader omits the words between every other set of slashes, s/he removes the skin-color designations and, subsequently, the emotional impact of the poem. “Abecedarian Requiring Further Examination of Anglikan Seraphym Subjugation of a Wild Indian Rezervation,” uses an elementary technique reserved for learning: the first line begins with A, the next with B, the third with C, and so on and so forth until Z. Diaz also makes sure to include each letter of the alphabet in the title, hence why certain words feature alternate spellings.
Joining writers like Louise Erdrich and Sherman Alexie, Diaz cements her place in Native writing by portraying the suffering that comes from colonization. She alternates between startling, vulgar imagery and stunning, powerful language to engage the reader in Native storytelling.