This now, I just don’t know what to say that can do it justice. It is so very, very good.
Diaz identifies as Mojave, Akimel O’odham and Latinx, as well as queer; these poems are not carrying any of these identities as banners, they simply are and in being they tell so much about her life, moreover Diaz is also telling us how she cannot be reduced to ‘just a Native American’ or ‘just a woman’, everything is woven together: there is feminism in here, there is queer-pride, there is anger at racism and there is the kind of holistic environmentalism that is central in Native American story telling, although here it is not ‘romanticised’ but fiercely owned “I carry the river. It is who I am…This is not a metaphor.” These lines come from the opening section of one of the central poems in the collection The First Water is The Body: a poem I am so enthralled by that I will do another of these posts, just on that poem alone (and hence won’t mention it again here).
The words are lyrical, driving, passionate, sometimes opaque – I have had to look up over 30 of them – sometimes so everyday, but always so poetically ‘correct’ for what it is she is trying to describe at any given moment: several times when reading any number of the poems, I found that I was passing my eyes over lines without really taking them in because I was still occupied by an earlier phrase or choice of words, still digging through the different layers of what she meant, that I had to pause, go back, re-read, re-think and just admire.
The book opens with the title poem, which is a modest length poem for Diaz, coming in at around 45 lines, at random;
I wage love and worse – / always another campaign to march across / a desert night for the cannon flash of your pale skin / settling in a silver lagoon of smoke at your breast. /
The rain will eventually come, or not. / Until then, we touch our bodies like wounds – / the war never ended and somehow begins again.
She writes with great love and no small regret about her brothers – having no knowledge of her biography in this area, I would hazard that at least one of the brothers is dead now and at quite a young age – and ‘life on the rez’. An early poem is called Catching Copper, it opens, “My brothers have / a bullet.” It is a hypnotic, matter of fact description of the centrality of bullets and guns in the lives of these young men, But it also sounds like a child’s rhyme: full of small words, regularly repeated. It finishes:
You could say my brothers’ bullet / cleans them – the way red ants / wash the empty white bowl / of a dead coyote’s eye socket. / Yes, my brothers’ bullet / cleans them, makes them / ready for God.
The next poem is called From the Desire Field; it contains these lines:
Let me call my anxiety, desire, then. / Let me call it, a garden. // Maybe this is what Lorca meant / when he said, verde que te quiero verde –
Or from Like Church: “They think / brown people fuck better when we are sad.” It is difficult to unpick how much devastation and presumption is wrapped in those few words.
There is the furious American Arithmetic, making poetry out of some plain old statistics proving that Native Americans (“Natives” as she is happy to call them) are the most persecuted race, per capita, in the US: “We do a better job of dying by police than we do existing.” She goes on to be clear that she does not see this as a competition, expressing solidarity to all non-white peoples who suffer at the hands of the quasi-military and apparently unanswerable police forces of the US.
“I confuse instinct for desire – isn’t bite also touch?” is from the poem Wolf-OR7, an oddly named ode to a wolf, allocated that codename, that was collared and tracked as it travelled from Oregon down into California searching for a mate. It is of course, also about a great deal more than this one wolf.
There is the extraordinary Ode to the Beloved’s Hips – a 90 or so line poem on the joys of cunnilingus, which includes the plea “Imparadise Me.”
“…I never tire / to shake this wild hive, split with thumb the sweet- / dripped comb – hot hexagonal hole, dark diamond- / to its nectar-dervishes queen. Maenad tongue – / come-drunk hum-tranced honey-puller – for her hips, / I am – strummed-song and succubus.”
There are 3 or 4 prose poems in the collection – Run’n’Gun, The Mustangs, Ink-Light and The Top Ten Reasons Why Indians Are Good at Basketball (this last is also a list…) – they are amongst the best prose poems I have read. The first two in particular about young men on ‘the rez’ taking out everything and giving all they have, the grace of their youthful, careless athleticism and how fragile it proves to be, are simply stunning. Run’n’Gun opens:
“I learned to play ball on the rez, on outdoor courts where the sky is our ceiling. Only a tribal kid’s shot has an arc made of sky…”
“...I was about twelve years old. By then, his addictions had stolen his game, while I found mine.”
From The Mustangs:
“In another life, my older brother was a beautiful, muscular boy who could jump from a standing position to grab a missed shot right from the rim…He had thin ankles, long lean legs with high calf muscles balled tight like fists and split like upside down hearts…”
There’s a novel-worth in The Mustangs that Diaz tells in five paragraphs.
Part of the joy of this collection is that you couldn’t unravel one thread of it and look at it in isolation, it is a living, breathing completeness and yet almost every poem in here can stand entirely alone.
This is the best collection I’ve read this year, by a mile. In one of the closing poems Diaz says, “You cannot drink poetry“; self-evidently true, but when it is this good, it does nourish.