It is easy to convey pity and lament about a situation of abject poverty, of substance abuse, of struggle. It is difficult to elevate these situations to a level of mythology, shining a compassionate and empathetic light on the characters at the heart of them. Natalie Diaz does just that in her collection of poems “When My Brother Was an Aztec.” The subjects aren’t merely characters, they are her family and friends, they are the people who grew up with her on the reservation, the Fort Mojave Indian Village in California. They are people she loves, and she is a self-aware member of the community. Diaz is bearing witness to the struggles of these Mojave individuals, but also to their dreams and desires. She is crafting what could easily become cautionary tales into things of beauty by exploring the depths of the human spirit.
Diaz crafts her poems through histories which include glory as well as darkness. “Reservation Mary” never missed a 3-pointer, as we learn in the reading above. We know that “A Woman With No Legs,” dreams of playing kick-the-can in the poem featured below. These seemingly small things are important, as they are sometimes all that remains in a hopeless situation. These everyday things are what make the struggle of the reservation so real, and Diaz brings life to them with her mesmerizing reading style. These individuals who could have been easily forgotten now are represented in their depth of experience and spirit, not only by their circumstances. Diaz highlights the human dilemmas that are felt across all classes, all races, all people – when her substance-abusing brother wanders out, she writes “My parents crossed fingers // so he’d never come back, lit novena candles / so he would.” This tension is human, and universal. There is no pity – there is the beautiful and difficult reality of what makes us human, for better and for worse.
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