Myth & Meth

When My Brother Was an Aztec by Natalie Diaz

Her brother is an Aztec, an Afghanistan war vet. Stealer of light bulbs, lover of “dirty-breasted women,” a methhead. The narrator of Natalie Díaz’s debut poetry collection has seen a lot.

When My Brother Was an Aztec
he lived in our basement and sacrificed my parents
     every morning. It was awful. Unforgivable. But they kept coming
              back for more. They loved him, was all they could say.

-- Natalie Díaz, title poem of When My Brother Was an Aztec (Copper Canyon Press 2012)

When My Brother Was an Aztec was Natalie Díaz’s debut poetry collection. For her second collection, Postcolonial Love Poem, Díaz won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize. But this was not how I learned of Díaz’s work. It was during a course on the lyric essay. Our instructor offered Charles Simic and Natalie Díaz as examples of how absurd, hyperbolic, vivid imagery can be used to haunt a reader.

Díaz calls herself a poet, essayist and linguist. She uses English, Spanish and Mohave to tackle tribal life, family friction, the confluence of myth and meth.

On the Rez

In 2018, the MacArthur Foundation awarded Díaz a fellowship in recognition and furtherance of her work

Drawing on her experience as a Mojave American and Latina to challenge the mythological and cultural touchstones underlying American society

MacArthur Foundation, Natalie Diaz, Poet, Class of 2018

Díaz speaks in her video presentation for the MacArthur Foundation of her desire to break stereotypes about life on the reservation. There is, on the one hand, poverty and hardship. But there is also joy to be found, for example, at the jalopy bar The Injun That Could.

Though The Injun, as it was known by locals, had no true dance floor⏤
truths meant little on such a night⏤card tables covered in drink, ash,
and melting ice had been pushed aside, shoved together to make a place
for the rhythms that came easy to people in the coyote hours
beyond midnight.

-- Natalie Díaz, "The Gospel of Guy No-Horse"

Díaz moves easily between registers of tenderness, amusement and savagery. “A Woman with No Legs” instructs the narrator “to keep my eyes open for the white man named Diabetes who is out there somewhere carrying her legs in red biohazard bags.” In “Why I Hate Raisins,” a child demands sandwiches like the white kids have.

Here is Díaz wielding a flamethrower.

Wired to her display box were a pair of one-size-fits all-Indians
stiletto moccasin, faux turquoise earring, a dream catcher, a copy
of Indian Country Today, erasable markers for chin and forehead
tattoos, and two six-packs of mini magic beer bottles⏤when tilted
up, the bottles turned clear, when turned right-side-up, the bottles
refilled. Mojave Barbie repeatedly drank Ken and Skipper under
their pink plastic patio table sets. Skipper said she drank like a boy.

-- Natalie Díaz, "The Last Mojave Indian Barbie"

The Aztec

The character of an unnamed brother looms large in When My Brother Was an Aztec. The Aztec dominates the middle section of this collection. He is “My Brother at 3 a.m.” who knocks on his parents’ door, certain that someone or something is out to kill him. He is the brother on drugs who wears

knives for eyes,
[...] dressed for a Day of the Dead parade⏤
three-piece skeleton suit, cummerbund of ribs⏤
his pelvic griddle will look like a Halloween mask.

-- Natalie Díaz, "How to Go to Dinner with a Brother on Drugs"

Díaz transforms the anguish of parents into ritual sacrifice of the Aztec kind.

[...] He thought he was
   Huitzilopochtli, a god, half-man half-hummingbird. My parents
      at his feet, wrecked honeysuckles, he lowered his swordlike mouth,

gorged on them, draining color until their eyebrows whitened.

-- Natalie Díaz, "When My Brother Was an Aztec"

“As a Consequence of My Brother Stealing All the Lightbulbs,” the parents learn to live without light, matchsticks and windows — “we don’t talk about crystal meth in my parents’ house, particularly / since it’s been converted to a funeral pyre.”

A Cage

Throughout When My Brother Was an Aztec, Díaz uses rigidly formal structures. A pantoum drives the rhythm of “My Brother at 3 a.m.” A clever abecedarian dissects the subjugation of a wild Indian reservation. I wonder whether Díaz needs these forms as a lion tamer relies on the cage to keep the most dangerous emotions at bay.

In the final section of When My Brother Was an Aztec, the narrator shifts her focus to the beloved. “I Watch Her Eat an Apple” is one of the most sensual eating experiences I have ever read. Hence, this prayer:

If there is a god of fruit or things devoured,
and this is all it takes to be beautiful,
then God, please,
let her
eat another apple

The lyricism of this collection is bone-juddering. The shocking, surrealistic imagery. The syncopation of the lines. I love, too, the elaborate titles given to these poems. “Why I Don’t Mention Flowers When Conversations with My Brother Reach Uncomfortable Silences” is one terrific example.

In a village, many men
wrapped a woman in a sheet. 
She didn't struggle.
Her bare feet dragged in the dirt.

They laid her in the road
and stoned her. [...]

Blood burst through the sheet
like a patch of violets,
a hundred roses in bloom.
15 Aug 2021 | Karen Kao