Apr/May 2018 Reviews & Interviews

When My Brother Was An Aztec

When My Brother Was An Aztec.
Natalie Diaz.
Copper Canyon Press. 2012. 124 pp.
ISBN 978-1-55659-383-3.

Review by Elizabeth P. Glixman

Buy now from Amazon! The poems in When My Brother Was An Aztec by Natalie Diaz tell the story of the contemporary Native American experience. In three sections spanning 100 pages you meet Native Americans (individuals and families) whose sense of self, whose values and traditions, have altered due to government policies. These policies that took land and tradition away from the first Americans started centuries ago when "some white God came floating across the ocean," as Diaz writes in the poem "Abecedarian Requiring Further Examination of Anglikan Seraphym Subjugation of a Wild Indian Reservation."

In the first section of the book, you meet people living on Indian reservations. Diaz knows these people. She grew up on a reservation, too. There are people who are poor, ill, addicted to drugs and alcohol, and are physically hungry. "Why I Hate Raisins," is about the USDA-stamped raisins the reservation Indians waited in line to receive. In "Reservation Mary" the story is about single mother (she likes her beer too much) who dropped out of school. She sells tortillas from the trunk of an old brown Buick with a cracked windshield while her baby sleeps in the back seat. The diabetic woman with no legs says in the poem, "A Woman With No Legs," they "told me to keep my eyes open for a white man named diabetes." White people are not seen as helpers. In "The Gospel of Guy No-Horse," a paraplegic does wheelies in his chair at a bar, dancing with drunken white women. There is a lot of brokenness on the reservation.

In "the Facts of Art," Indians are paid by the U.S. Department of Transportation to participate in the BIA program where they dig up native lands to build roads. In the poem you hear how the Indians refused to return to work after a sacred burial ground of baby skulls was dug up.

Elders knew the BIA roads were bad medicine
That night all the Indian workers got sad drunk—got sick
while Elders sank to their kivas in prayer

The bosses tried to bribe the Indians back to work, "demanding the Hopi men come back to work—then begging them— / then buying them— / whiskey—begging again—finally sending their white / wives up the dangerous trail etched in steep sides/ to buy baskets from Hopi wives and grandmothers/ as a sign of treaty..."

When this did not work, the wives in the poem called the workers lazy. The sadness of the destruction of sacred ground is palpable in this tragic poem where the government bosses had no regard for Native American culture, using the Indians who needed work as cheap labor.

In section two we meet Diaz's brother, whose meth addiction has caused the family and Diaz great suffering. I suspect the image on the book is her brother, a man with a tattoo on his arm and wearing the headdress of an ancient Aztec God Huitzilopochtli, a Mexican god of war, half-man, half hummingbird. The poems in this section show the parents' endless pain and endless love for their son and the bizarre behavior, disruption of family life, and hallucinations the brother exhibits due to his addiction.

When we meet Diaz's brother, "he lived in our basement and sacrificed our parents/ every morning. It was awful. / Unforgivable. But they kept coming / back for more. They loved him, was all they could say."

Perhaps that is why Diaz portrays her brother as the ancient Aztec God of war. He is the god of war, the God of destruction. He is also Judas in another poem, and in another, "Borges bestiary... a zoo of imaginary beings."

One of the poems is entitled "Sisyphus and My Brother," where the father feels the weight of his son's addiction. "And again,/ our dad, our Sisyphus pushes his old blue heart up to the station." This refers to the police station where the brother is once again arrested.

The poem "To God Lionel Ritchie and My Brother," and the third poem "Tribal Cops, Geronimo, Jimi Hendrix and my Brother," also show the craziness, the constant confrontations with police, and emotional roller coaster of Diaz's family. In the latter poem there is this line: "Finally he is in the back of the cop car, hands in hand cuffs / shiny and shaped like infinity," the line driving home the endlessness of this addiction.

The wear on the family is obvious in "No More Cakes," where Diaz pretends her brother is dead, and they have a party.

There are many amazing poems here that anyone who lives with addiction can relate to.

Section three is my least favorite group of poems. Many of them are about war, and they portray the emotional toll on people and the physical destruction caused by conflict, but the people experiencing the trauma in them remain largely anonymous. While I found the universality of human experience suggested by this anonymity moving and powerful, one of the things about the first two sections I prefered, that gave me comfort, was getting to know the specific people in those poems. Universality can be disquieting at times. It brings up the "big" questions of why war exists, why bad things happen to innocent people. Collateral damage.

Nonetheless, the poems in section three are still powerful. Here is an excerpt "Of Course She Looked Back":

She wondered had she unplugged
the coffeepot? the iron?
Was the oven off?
Her husband uttered, Keep going.
Whisphered, Stay the course, or
Baby, forget about it. She couldn’t.

Now a bursting garden of fire
the city bloomed to flame after flame
like hot fruit in a persimmon orchard.

Diaz' poems are strong, direct, serious, playful, lyrical, and often surreal. Her images can be violent and bizarre, with references to culture, history, and myth. One reference goes back to ancient Greece, where the palace of Persephone was set on fire supposedly because of love for a woman.

This book is rich in everything, including the English language, Spanish words and phrases, love, anger, despair. Diaz's ability to reveal to us the core of the story and the heartache of the people in evocative poems is remarkable.

Before reading these poems, I knew that when the "white God" came to America, Native American lives changed forever. I never realized how much, or how this change is still felt and seen in present day America.


Natalie Diaz is a member of the Mojave and Pima Indian tribes. She grew up in the Fort Mojave Indian Village in Needles, California. Read more about her here.


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