REVIEW: POSTCOLONIAL LOVE POEM – NATALIE DIAZ (GRAYWOLF PRESS)

What threatens white people is often dismissed as myth. I have never been true in America. America is my myth.

from “The First Water is the Body”

Natalie Diaz follows her award-winning debut, When My Brother Was an Aztec, with a powerful and timely collection. Postcolonial Love Poem is a fierce critique of colonization, both past and present, but it is also a tender and nuanced treatment of the human condition.

Diaz accepts that Native Americans are political by default, yet refuses to succumb to the white gaze, instead centering memories of her brothers, her lover, her mother. Her treatment of the mundane is a brilliant response to the invisibility she often laments. In “American Arithmetic,” the author uses simple math to calculate how efficiently colonialism as erased Native Americans. The speaker insists, “I am doing my best to not become a museum/of myself. I am doing my best to breathe in and out./I am begging: Let me be lonely but not invisible.” Later, in “exhibits from The American Water Museum,” Diaz marries this image of loneliness with one of her more pervasive metaphors, water: “Because even a river can be lonely,/even a river will die of thirst.”

Water and its connection to the body are omnipresent, quite literally mirroring the belief that rivers run through the middle of our bodies. Diaz reiterates this belief often, at times patiently tracking the history and significance of the philosophy as if anticipating a white American readership who will be largely unfamiliar with Mojave traditions. With allusions to recent human rights crises at Standing Rock and Flint, Michigan, Diaz communicates the urgency of water preservation. In “The First Water is the Body,” the author explains, “My Elder says: Cut off your ear, and you will live. Cut off your hand, you will live. Cut off your leg, you can still live. Cut off our water: we will not live more than a week.”

I loved most the poems that carried this metaphor, but Postcolonial Love Poem is more than well-deployed extended metaphor. Diaz infuses every poem with lyricism; even the prose poems have a distinct harmony underlying the words. She asserts her mastery of language early and often. I have never encountered a writer more capable of balancing softness and strength. These poems are quiet and technical and precise, yet the speaker never feels weak or timid. Rather, there is an everpresent sense that the rage lingering just beneath the lines may bare its teeth.

Once again, Diaz reminds us why she is so often placed among the most talented writers of our generation. This is a book you won’t want to miss.

Purchase your copy of Postcolonial Love Poem from Graywolf Press.

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