When My Brother Was an Aztec, Natalie Diaz’s debut collection, was released in 2012 by Copper Canyon and was the winner of the 2013 American Book Award for poetry as well as a Kessler Poetry Book Award finalist. If you missed it the first time around, here’s a chance to be reminded about this stunning debut collection.
? ? ? ? ? “he lived in our basement and sacrificed my parents / every morning.”
For those of us who live with and love someone with drug addiction or certain forms of mental illness, we know from the opening line of When My Brother Was an Aztec what this journey will be and we want to walk with Diaz as she says out loud some of what has already broken us.
I appreciate the way Diaz moves us through the collection, first by setting out the speaker’s childhood scarred by racism and poverty. There is shame that comes from wearing a discarded Halloween costume and eating government raisins because need won’t make room for refusal. There is power and resilience that emerge from the same place: “soon we will give birth to fists.”
The second section moves further into the speaker’s family and focuses on the brother who sets himself and all who love him on fire through his addiction and the mania that follows. The brother, “licking his sequined lips” and peering out the window from behind the curtain, is large and magnificent in this collection. He is a warrior, a rock star, a Judas with “one flip-flop slapping” but it is not his story that is told here. It is the speaker’s story and she tells it without any damper that might comfort the reader’s mind. The speaker has been exhausted by her own and her brother’s history “because tonight you are not in the mood / to have your heart ripped out. It gets old, / having your heart ripped out, / being opened that way.”
The speaker shows us anger she feels toward the brother even as she also demonstrates compassion. While heart-rending, it isn’t necessarily surprising. More complex and less expected is the speaker revealing her compassion for and anger toward her parents as the family drags itself through years of demolition where the source is both without and within.
? ? ? ? ? “—my parents live without light, groping, / never reading, never saying, You are lovely.”
? ? ? ? ? “Don’t dare think about unmasking your father. / His mask is the only fight he has left.”
And yet, there is anger that the parents have, in some regard, allowed this dismantling of themselves, of the family, to occur. And the speaker may be complicit in this dismantling.
? ? ? ? ? “I can’t understand. Why are we all just standing here / while he tears the temple to pieces.”
A brilliant relief arrives at the opening of the third section when Diaz allows us to see other facets of the speaker.
? ? ? ? ? I watch her eat the apple,
? ? ? ? ? Carve it to the core, and set it, wobbling,
? ? ? ? ? On the table—
? ? ? ? ? A broken bell I beg to wrap my red skin around
? ? ? ? ? Until there is no apple,
? ? ? ? ? There is only this woman
? ? ? ? ? who is a city of apples,
? ? ? ? ? there is only me licking the juice
? ? ? ? ? from the streets of her palm.
The role of the speaker in this collection is bravely offered in ambiguity.
? ? ? ? ? “Houdini arrived first, with Antigone on his arm.”
Who escapes when someone we love is devastated by addiction and mental illness? Who is walled in? This is one of the many questions that Diaz calls out over the course of this stunning first collection.
The need to love and respond with support is incredibly powerful but the desire for an end to the anguish, to everyone’s anguish, is so strong a funeral might even be imagined even though “he is still alive.”
? ? ? ? ? he is still alive. The worst part he said was
? ? ? ? ? he wasn’t even dead. I think he’s right, but maybe
? ? ? ? ? the worst part is that I’m still imagining the party, maybe
? ? ? ? ? the worst part is that I can still taste the cake.
And at the finish of the book, after a lion has peeled a man like a piece of fruit, a man who was rattling at the lion’s cage, we don’t know who the speaker is. Is she the one who has been dismembered by the lion that is her brother in all his magnificent delusion or is she, perhaps, the lion?
And finally this: “That is my brother and I need a shovel to love him.”
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