When My Brother Was an Aztec
by Natalie Diaz
Copper Canyon Press
Reviewed by Samantha Futhey
The poems in When My Brother Was an Aztec, Mojave poet Natalie Diaz’ stunning debut collection, fuse mythology and Mojave culture with elements of the fantastic — dreams haunted by Jorge Luis Borges’ imaginary beasts and the nightmare of tribal history — in imagery that glistens like freshly shed blood. In poems like “The Last Mojave Indian Barbie,” which mocks Barbie and Mojave stereotypes, and “Downhill Triolets,” which evokes Sisyphus and Charon, Diaz’ poems explode off the page, their wild energy, mythological figures, and sorrow contained by forms and images that offer solace to a world at war with itself.
Throughout the collection, the most startling and arresting aspect is Diaz’s gift for image creation. Diaz has described her process as pushing her images beyond comfortable limits. In the collection’s title poem, for example, Diaz transforms her brother, who struggles with a drug addiction, into a mythological figure who rips apart the fabric of their parents: “My brother flung them into cenotes, dropped them from cliffs/ punched holes into their skulls like useless jars or vases,/ broke them to pieces and fed them to gods ruling/ the ratty crotches of street fair whores with pocked faces/ spreading their thighs in flophouses with no electricity.” The images cascade, creating a narrative of magic and fantasy, even if the fantasy is gruesome.
When My Brother Was an Aztec balloons with images of religious and mythic figures, creating an entrancing richness to the collection. Poems such as “If Eve Side-Stealer and Mary Busted-Chest Ruled the World” and “Other Small Thundering” recreate classical Western figures to apply to contemporary and historical threats to Native Americans. Diaz imagines Mary, the mother of Jesus, as an Indian, creating an ironic twist: “& when Gabriel visited her wigwam/ she was away at a monthly WIC clinic/ receiving eggs, boxed cheese/ & peanut butter instead of Jesus?” Though Christian imagery dominates the collection, Diaz slips in Greek mythology as well, as in “Other Small Thundering”: “How we plow and furrow the murky Styx, lovingly/ digging with smooth dark oars—/like they are Grandmother’s missing legs—/a familiar throb of kneecap, shin, ankle, foot—/promising to carry us home.”
These myths and Christian figures thread together serious issues affecting Native Americans — issues of poverty, brutality from the United States government, and drug addiction — in a manner that enlarges the scale but also makes the issues tangible. An understanding of myth connects cultures, but Diaz is not merely making connections: She is creating a new way to understand the pain and mystery of being a Native American in the modern era.
These are difficult topics, ones that could overwhelm a collection. But Diaz masterfully contains this horror through her use of form.
In the impressively-titled “Abecedarian Requiring Further Examination of Anglikan Seraphym Subjugation of a Wild Indian Rezervation,” Diaz uses a challenging form — the abecedarian, where the first letter of each line follows the order of the alphabet — to explore the impact of Christianity on Mojave culture. While this form can come across as hokey or childish, Diaz finds unexpected power: “we’re better off if they stay rich and fat and ugly and/ ‘xactly where they are — in their own distant heavens./ You better hope you never see angels on the rez. If you do, they’ll be/ marching you off to/ Zion or Oklahoma or some other hell they’ve mapped out for us.” Though the poem contains notions of hell and abuse from the “angels” of the West, the limits of the form keeps the images focused, tight, able to walk on a bed of hot coals of cultural destruction without feeling the burn.
Likewise, the poem “Downhill Triolets” uses the triolet form — a classic French form that uses repeated lines — to communicate the struggle of a family dealing with a drug-addicted brother, weaving in mythological characters to make the struggle ancient and universal. The father figure transforms into Sisyphus, a characterization that helps the speaker discuss the difficulty and repetitive actions of addiction: “My brother is arrested again and again. And again/ our dad, our Sisyphus, pushes his old blue heart up to the station.”
Without the fantastical elements, the solidity and comfort of fixed forms, and the beauty of language, the sorrow of reservation life and drug addiction would overwhelm the poems. Through magic and myth, these poems champion beauty in the face of nightmares and illuminate the issues facing Native Americans in the modern era more forceful and poignant than any study or academic paper. Diaz’s answer to these problems rests in the love she holds for her community, her family, and language.