The First Water is The Body from Postcolonial Love Poem, in which Natalie Diaz describes herself as “… a real Native carrying the dangerous and heavy blues of a river in her body.”
I like rivers, I am drawn to them and I write about them. I am not a strong swimmer so I keep a respectful distance, but when I am not able to see one or hear one for a while I find I miss their quiet certainty, their sometimes motion-filled stillness and at other times their belligerence. They can be moody buggers.
A river lends itself to narrative, it has the right shape, it allows digression and accumulation as it goes; it cuts through that which doesn’t concern it and moves around that which it cannot reduce; it may rush incoherent as a Kerouac benny-freak or dawdle like a flaneur; not for nothing is Huck Flynn afloat on one, or does Conrad send us back up one to find madness lurking, rotting of itself, nor that the ‘other side’ is a place of dread, and of course with Anna Livia Plurabelle Joyce portrayed the river and mind in flood. While there are few long poems more captivating than Alice Oswald’s Dart: a hymn to a river and the life around it.
Diaz’s river is of her and she is of it; “it is a part of my body“, she is talking about the Colorado River. “I carry a river. It is who I am…This is not a metaphor.” Later, “This is not juxtaposition. Body and water are not two unlike things…They are same – body, being, energy, prayer, current, motion, medicine.”
She may not be talking metaphors, but she is talking about an awful lot more than ‘just’ a river; there is environmentalism of the elemental, no nonsense variety, “If we poison and we use up our water, how will we clean our wounds and our wrongs?“; religiosity; love and physicality “my sudden body“; racism; language and how that is tied to belief, in their slippery duality; she is also talking about language and translation – “Aha Makav means the river runs through the middle of our body, the same way it runs through the middle our land.” She offers this saying it “is a poor translation, like all translations.” And later quoting Derrida, “Every text remains in mourning until it is translated.” And later still, Berger, “True translation is not a binary affair between two languages but a triangular affair. The third point of the triangle being what lay behind the words of the original text before it was written.”
“Pre-verbal was when the body was more than a body and possible. // One of its possibilities was to hold a river within it.”
Diaz is going back to her people’s creation myths, the oral traditions and back to the source of poetry: just as every river has its source. As with language, so the body and hence the river.
She talks of the Spanish invaders, how they named the Colorado for its colouring, and how her people have been mis-named as ‘red’ ever since Europeans landed. Noting as an aside that the only ‘red’ people she has seen are the “white tourists sunburned after staying out on the water too long.” Americans, she says, prefer the symbol of the Native – the magical, the shaman in traditional dress – to the real Native that stands difficult and accusatory before them.
“I have never been true in America. America is my myth.”
The idea of the sensual, the ecstatic, is never far from Diaz’s poetry, in this collection as well as this poem and they are tied up in the lap and movement of the river, it is “the shape of my throat, of my thighs…“, it is, “An ecstatic state of energy, always on the verge of praying, or entering any river of movement.”
But what if the river is dried up, “is emptied to the skeleton of its fish… // if the river is a ghost so am I.” Returning to Oswald, in Falling Awake, there is the poem of the dried-up river, called Dunt, where a Roman nymph is unsuccessfully trying to “summon a river out of limestone“, but is left with a “beautiful disused route to the sea / fish path with nearly no fish in“. No longer a river. The following quote, from Diaz’s poem, is also a public information notice, but is vital to our understanding of what we need to do to avoid the river as ghost, the disused route to the sea.
“The Whanganui River in New Zealand now has the same legal rights of a human being. In India, the Ganges and Yamuna Rivers now have the same legal status of a human being. Slovenia’s constitution now declares access to clean drinking water to be a national human right. While in the United States, we are teargassing and rubber bulleting and kennelling Natives trying to protect their water from pollution and contamination at Standing Rock in North Dakota. We have yet to discover what the effects of lead-contaminated water will be on the children of Flint, Michigan, who have been drinking it for years.”
River is one of the essences of her people: the river and the people are entwined, like lovers, like DNA.
“We must go to the point of the lance entering the earth, and the river becoming the first body bursting from earth’s clay… // We must go until we smell the black root-wet anchoring the river’s mud banks. We must go beyond beyond to a place where we have never been centre, where there is no centre – beyond, toward what does not need us yet makes us.”
The insanity (and inhumanity) of the position in various nations, where the peoples’ right to water has been superseded by that of companies to extract and / or poison the water course, is a position we must urgently reverse.
“Water is the first medicine…We cannot live good, we cannot live at all, without water.”
This is an extraordinary poem, in a book full of them.