Postcolonial Love Poem: A Review
Natalie Diaz's second collection, Postcolonial Love Poem, is about one thing: body, love, skin and river. It is populated by the remnants of Native America: the remains of a culture and people stripped of land and water and value. In “American Arithmetic”, Diaz explains:
But in an American room of one hundred people,
I am Native American—less than one, less than
whole —I am less than myself. Only a fraction
of a body, let's say I am only a hand—
Diaz’s poems are divinely sensual: coming with enough hips and thighs, pelvises and elbows, breasts and necks to form a holy army of lovers. Here, love is a passionate, all-consuming physicality: a release and a letting go of self, as in “Like Church”; ‘Her right hip // bone is a searchlight, sweeping me, finds me. // I’ve only ever escaped through her body.’However, there is rarely a whole person to be found between the covers, and those who do appear whole do not stay so for long. Thus love becomes witness to violence and destruction, expectation and disappointment in a brother who stabs and opens, dismantles objects and climbs inside people with impunity:
He said, Lift up your shirt. And I did.
He slid his fork between my ribs.
Yes, he sang. A Jesus side wound.
It wouldn’t stop bleeding.
He reached inside
and turned on the lamp.
( “My Brother, My Wound” )
For Diaz, skin can be light, and lightly worn, as with a lover: it can be wounded and worn through, as with a brother; and it can be heavy and hard to carry, as her mother needs her to know:
My mother has always known best,
knew that I’d be begging for them,
to lay my face against their white
laps, to be held in something more
than the loud light of their projectors,
All this time,
I thought my mother said, Wait,
When really, she said, Weight,
meaning heft, preparing me
for the yoke of myself,
the beast of my country’s burdens,
(“They Don’t Love You Like I Love You”)
Diaz directly addresses these concerns in “The First Water Is the Body”: ‘Americans prefer a magical red Indian, or a shaman, or a fake Indian in a red dress, over a real Native […] // What threatens white people is often dismissed as myth. I have never been true in America.’ And whatever America cannot mythologise, such as a river, it demythologizes, modernises and turns to profit:
Now it is shattered by fifteen dams
over one thousand four hundred and fifty miles,
pipes and pumps filling
swimming pools and sprinklers
in Los Angeles and Las Vegas.
(“How the Milky Way Was Made”)
“exhibits from The American Water Museum” is the most substantial poem in the collection: not simply for its length, flowing as it does across eleven pages, but for the catalogue of loves, beliefs, mistreatments, abuses, and cruelties the river carries as it goes. Diaz’s considered and precise prosody is enhanced by the fluctuating depth and flow of her form and the poem ends as a river ends, expansive and oceanic:
Art of Fact:
Let me tell you a story about water:
Once upon a time there was us.
America’s thirst tried to drink us away.
And here we still are.
Natalie Diaz's second collection, Postcolonial Love Poem, is about one thing: body, love, skin and river. To contain its light touch, heft, and flow here is to dam the river, dim the lights and make it less than whole.