I first heard Natalie Diaz speak about the forming of this book on a podcast I’ve mentioned before, VS with Danez Smith and Franny Choi. It’s one of my favorite episodes of the podcast and is an earful of sensuality that you can indulge in during your workday. Since then I had been pining for this book, and more poems from Diaz in general. Postcolonial Love Poem is everything the title purports it to be. It positions itself between the worlds of love and violence, and answers the question of where love can exist in a nation with a long list of atrocities, especially against Native people. The book explores yearning and loneliness, desire and disappearance, and the perseverance of language. The thing that most draws me to this book is the balance between pain and desire, the way Diaz does not shy away from confronting the hideous face of American history while also dwelling on the sacred parts of her lover’s form, sometimes in the same poem.
In one of the collections earlier poems, “American Arithmetic,” Diaz centers in on one fact: Native Americans are less than one percent of the population in the US. “O, mine efficient country.”
This statistic is startling on its own but becomes more devastating when other statistics are added, such as the fact that Native Americans are 1.9 percent of police killings, more than double their population. Some of the most stunning lines come in the next stanza:
Native Americans make up 1.9 percent of all
police killings, higher per capita than any race–
sometimes race means run.
I’m not good at math–can you blame me?
I’ve had an American education.
For me, this line resonates on two planes. One being the obvious critique at the American education system that often fails students of color, but it also posits that an American education is to be forgetful or neglectful of our history.
Diaz meditates on the question of race by deconstructing the language, concluding that “race implies someone will win.” The existence of race, then, implies competition, and the winners have always been the ones with the full force of an imperialist history behind them. In “exhibits from The American Water Museum” Diaz focuses on environmental racism by zeroing in on two particular instances: the building of pipelines on Native lands and the fight for clean water in Flint, Michigan. Water itself has been the site of many civil rights activism: from segregated water fountains and city pools to pipeline construction and tainted rivers. For the speaker in this poem, water is more than a site of pain, it is an intrinsic part of the body and spirit. The lines “I am fluent in water. Water is fluent in my body— / It spoke my body into existence.” speak to this, letting the reader know that when the water is harmed, so is the body.
The connection between land and body is further illuminated in “American Arithmetic” when the speaker muses:
At the National Museum of the American Indian
68 percent of the collection is from the United States
I am doing my best to not become a museum
of myself. I am doing my best to breathe in and out
What are we as Americans to make of living in a nation that has done an efficient job at seeking to eradicate an entire race, only to then immortalize those crimes in a museum, under the guise of educating? Is this what winning means? There too is something important in the revelation that both of these poems take place in museums. Part of the American ethos is to want to shutter the past, to erect monuments to it in an attempt to pretend everything is bygone when there are real, present-day atrocities being committed that we have yet to answer for.
Some of the themes that stand out triumphantly in this collection are that of bodies of water, wetness, thirst, and desire. All of these themes are ever-present in the poem “I, Minotaur.” Thirst is examined as both a biological function and an emotional need. Diaz writes:
A head like mine was shaped on thirst
I dream what is wet or might quench–
aquifers, rivers, cenotes, canals
The dusked mirage of lake above you knee I sip and lick
The monstrous hunger of the minotaur is here transformed into something tender: a desire for connection and a thirst for natural water sources, to be connected to the land. The purpose of diverting from this common story of the minotaur can be described in these lines: “Like any desert, I learn myself by what’s desired of me/ and I am demoned by those desires/ for this, I move like a wound–always and fruiting/ sweetened by the thorn.” There is a loneliness described here that is echoed throughout the rest of the poem, leaving the reader to read this thirst as a real physiological need but also a desperate desire to be fulfilled.
Much like whoever writes history is the “winner,” it can be said that whoever writes a myth is the owner of that story. Whoever wrote the myth of the minotaur was able to shape how we viewed that creature throughout history, and the speaker in this poem also comes to ask who owns their story, or “whose toll am I?” This poem, then, also chronicles a desire to own the self, to take back the story and the power.
“Waist and Sway” is a breathtaking ode to the curves of a lover’s body and a meditation on the vulnerability we embark on when we fall in love.
her city, where my hands went undone
gone to ravel, to silhouette, to moths at the mercy
of the pale of her hips. Hips that in the early night
to light lit up — to shining sweet electricus,
to luminous and lamp— where ached to drink
I did till drunk
The hips as cup or chalice is imagery that appears again and again in this collection. The act described in these lines is one of giving and receiving, where the mouth is a channel for all forms of pleasure: “the single blessing I had to give was Mouth— / so gave and gave I did.” We give poetry with our mouths too, by reading works aloud to ourselves, to crowds of listeners, to loved ones. The mouth is a powerful tool and a gateway through which we can describe our thirst and quench it. Thirst itself becomes a living fixture in these poems, not a character, but something embodied and moving from page to page. It seems to have the power to voice and to question. The delight for a woman’s body is front and center in many of the poems, simmering on the hips and the glory of brown skin. Each becomes a celebration of love in the face of uncertain identity, loneliness, and violence.
The love poems in this collection are explicit, queer, and decadent. I come back to “Ode to the Beloved’s Hips” a hyper-focused look at an ardorous part of the body. What I love about this poem is that it never lets up, but becomes a more concentrated, exuberant look at the body. It is a thirsty poem, one that will leave you wanting to worship.
At night your legs, love, are boulevards
leading me beggared and hungry to your candy
house, your baroque mansion. Even when I am late
and the tables have been cleared,
in the kitchen of your hips, let me eat cake.
The desire described here feels insurmountable, like at any moment the reader and the speaker will burst. There’s something so powerful and delicate about the striking of each word, the way the hips become a home, a place to feast and to rest. There is a song in the lines, a drunkenness that makes the poem move ecstatically down the page as one would do dancing to music:
Lambent slave to ilium and ischium–I never tire
to shake this wild hive, split with thumb the sweet
dripped comb— hot hexagonal hole, dark diamond—
to its nectar-dervished queen. Maenad tongue—
come-drunk hum-tranced honey-puller–for her hips
I am— strummed-song and succubus
The use of em dashes gives a staccato feel to the rhythm of this section, heightening its joy and musicality. The poem also gives a sense of traveling. We go from sacrum to femur, from biblical times to the present day. We even travel through different languages, because one is not sufficient enough to describe the glory of the body. This traveling does not take away from the centrality of the hips, it only serves to highlight their grandeur. They cannot be contained in any time frame or physical space. The hips are a Kingdom and a site of religious revelation.
This ode and “These Hands, If Not Gods” are also a treatise on the power of touch, especially between two women. It might seem inflammatory to say I don’t think a man could write a poem like this, and maybe it is, but I believe it. “These Hands, If Not Gods” describes the “beautiful making” the hands do, so not only is touch a sensation, it is also an act of becoming. Here, the touch of a woman is a healing and revolutionary act.
My favorite poem of the collection, “Grief Work,” ends with:
We go where there is love,
to the river, on our knees beneath the sweet
water. I pull her under four times,
until we are rivered.
We are rearranged.
I wash the silk and silt of her from my hands— :
now who I come to, I come clean to,
I come good to.
It brings us back to the imagery of the river which, in turn, brings us back into the body. There are many ways that grief can manifest in the body and one of those ways is a predisposition to shrink the self. It is through the act of touching, the baptism that occurs in this rivered state, that the body can begin to open up and move forward.
The poem begins with “why not now go toward the things I love?”, a question that turns itself to the reader: why not? When we go toward the things we love we are often met with an embrace, an embrace that can further situate us within ourselves and the world around us. The river, an entity that has seen untold violence becomes a place of healing and resurrection. This poem makes the reader realize that there is a place beyond melancholy. After going through our own “grief work” we too can come clean. Coming clean not only means divulging one’s struggles but further, coming to someone as a strip formed of the self and anticipating love.
Natalie Diaz’s second collection is a powerhouse, filled with poems that will challenge you, comfort you, and arouse you. These are the kind of poems that inspire the reader to come to the page to make art of their own, and you will surely find your way to your own words.