Review: The Apocalyptic Visions of Natalie Diaz: When My Brother was an Aztec

AztecNatalie Diaz
When My Brother Was an Aztec
Copper Canyon Press, 2012
103 pages, $16.00

 “And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who would attempt to poison and destroy my brothers” – Ezekiel 25:17

What can you do when the world breaks apart? Turn to Natalie Diaz and her debut poetry collection When My Brother was an Aztec, perhaps the most anguished, eloquent, mournful document emerging from American poetry in the past quarter century. Within three parts, the poet presents an apocalyptic triptych of ruin, disaster, and collapse, and the crushing consequences of their interrelatedness. Turn and stand with Ms. Diaz, amazed while you both witness a complete communal demise as everyone disappears, screaming into that collapsing planet we once called home.

And it all begins in a small house on a Native American Reservation. Diaz’ speaker records the seismic rupture in the book’s opening, title piece. She relays the following: “[H]e lived in our basement and sacrificed my parents / every morning. It was awful.” (1) While a cursory reading might bring the reader to believe this story addresses a single family, Diaz’ speaker claims generational post-traumatic stress disorder experienced by the entire post-Columbus Native American culture, stating, “He thought he was / Huitzilopochtli, a god, half-man half-hummingbird.” (1) In microcosm, a 500-year holocaust occurs in the confines of the tiny dwelling, its occupants quartered or thrown off cliffs, again and again and again.

One of the first victims of generational trauma is faith and spirituality, and Diaz’ speaker monitors this loss immediately. Part I investigates the damage firsthand. In “Abecedarian Requiring Further Examination of Anglikan Seraphym Subjugation of a Wild Indian Rezervation,” she writes, “. . . death / eats angels, I guess, because I haven’t seen an angel / fly through this valley ever.” (5) Further on, “The Gospel of Guy No-Horse” presents a nihilistic mixture of rage and impotence coupled with alcohol-fueled lust and power. And the results can’t be good.

Repeatedly, Diaz’ speaker invokes Judeo-Christian images. “Reservation Mary,” “The Clouds are Buffalo Limping towards Jesus,” and “Prayers or Oubliettes” all employ these sentiments, but they turn them inside out. In “If Eve Side-Stealer and Mary Busted-Chest Ruled the World,” the speaker asks,

            What if Mary was an Indian

            & when Gabriel visited her wigwam

            she was away at a monthly WIC clinic

            receiving eggs, boxed cheese

            & peanut butter instead of Jesus? (25)

And while she portrays the effects of empty rhetoric and a foreign culture’s imposition on Native American life, Diaz’ speaker poignantly exposes, both literally and figuratively, the constant tug of ancestral history in “The Facts of Art,” when Hopi workers encounter a Native graveyard during their work on a highway with the Transportation Department.

As with soldiers displaying PTSD when hearing or imagining gunshots, Diaz records sounds of warfare throughout the volume. From Hotchkiss rifles and Gatling guns to exploding bombs and rumbling tanks, the enemy is always engaging and destroying Native American people and culture. Even without the appearance of foreign cavalry, the effects of warfare, concentration camps, and loss of identity haunt the volume. The speaker provides a perfect example of this trauma in “Other Small Thunderings,” writing,

Our medicine bags are anchored with buffalo nickels –

sleek skulls etched by Gatlings.

How we plow and furrow the murky Styx, lovingly

digging with smooth dark oars –

like they are Grandmother’s missing legs – (31)

Then, however, in Part II, Diaz shifts focus violently from the communal to the individual in a series of eleven poems focusing on a meth-addicted brother, his descent into darkness, and the tragic effects of his loss. The pieces ostensibly chronicle the destruction of a nuclear family. In “My Brother at 3 A.M.,” the speaker states, “He sat cross-legged, weeping on the steps / when Mom unlocked and opened the front door.” (43) However, the larger effects of this ruin are captured in “As a Consequence of My Brother Stealing All the Lightbulbs.” Diaz writes, “—we are always digging each other out from an intimate / sort of rubble.” (54) The brother builds with the tiny house a funeral pyre where he and his family somehow live. But its ignition is spectacular, as the speaker records in “No More Cake Here;” the family throws a huge wake marking the brother’s passing.

In Part III, Diaz’ apocalypse slowly unfolds, the brother’s death being its catalyst. In “I Watch Her Eat the Apple,” the speaker unveils a new, if temporary, planet. She writes, “This blue world has never needed a woman / to eat an apple so badly, to destroy an apple, / to make the apple bone – / and she does it.” (74) The accumulative effects of personal and generational traumatic stress emerge in “Self-Portrait as Chimera.” She asks, “I am. I am and am and am. What have I done?”

As the volume approaches its close, apocalyptic signs increase and intensify. “[D]reaming a mesquite forest I once stripped to fire / before the sky went ash, undid its dark ribbons, and bent to the ground,” (84) Diaz writes in “Monday Aubade.” Reality and fantasy intermingle in terrifying fashion in “When the Beloved Asks, ‘What Would You Do if You Woke Up and I Was a Shark?’” In “Lorca’s Red Dresses,” the tempo increases as the speaker claims, “My tongue’s a heretic, prostrated. My heart’s a red dress.” (87) In the piece, “Of Course She Looked Back,” the disaster rapidly approaches. “Love Potion 2012” chronicles the world’s undoing, as the sea and the sky turn upside down. “This is no sea     Clouds not reef not stone,” (99) she declares.

But Diaz is not finished. She narrates events to the very end. In the closing “A Wild Life Zoo,” the speaker observes a lion attack a man who has entered his cage, in itself a horrifying sight. But the poet recognizes this inevitability, as the man’s trespass leads to his gruesome demise. “. . . I believed the lion and rang my bowl / against the cage to let them know.” (102) The world has collapsed. Everyone has fled and disappeared. And still, Diaz beats her jagged metal song alone against a cage of rigid bars.

***

Paul David Adkins lives in New York and works as a counselor.

Lynn Melnick Talks Feminism, VIDA, Please Excuse This Poem, & If I Should Say I Have Hope with GGP

Sarah Marcus: You do incredible work on the executive board at VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts, and you focus specifically on Social Media and Outreach. After my year as a VIDA Counter and two years as a Count Coordinator, I think our current literary landscape needs VIDA now more than ever! Can you tell us about how VIDA is changing the way they count? Why is counting so crucial, and how can writers help keep this conversation moving forward?

Lynn Melnick: Thank you so much, Sarah! I’m very proud of the work I do with VIDA, and of VIDA’s work in general. And, as much as I sometimes complain about the troll situation with social media, I love that I get to interact with our amazing followers every day and spread the word about VIDA and about bias issues in publishing in general.

I also want to thank you, Sarah, for the work you’ve done with VIDA as a Count Coordinator! Without that (likely often tedious) work, none of this would be possible. And I’m endlessly grateful to all the people who volunteer with us for the greater good, and not for their own personal gain. It gives me hope, and furthers my passion for this work.

I’m especially glad to be working with VIDA as we embark on a more intersectional approach to the VIDA Count. The next count will include numbers on race, disability, and the LGBTQ population. Counting is crucial because it often verifies what we suspect – that there is a bias in the literary world against women and other populations.

Counting moves the conversation forward away from speculation and into fact.

We’ve seen in the last two VIDA Counts especially that editors have begun to realize the importance of diversity. There are so many literary venues that are running their own internal counts now, which is wonderful. It is starting to really matter to the literary world that all voices are heard. And writers can help keep this conversation moving forward by holding editors and other gatekeepers accountable for whom they promote.

SM: You co-edited the beautifully fresh anthology Please Excuse This Poem: 100 Poets for the Next Generation (Viking Penguin, 2015). This is a diverse collection of 100 poems from 100 poets that moves from war to race to gender to sexuality to lost childhoods and through open wounds. I loved using this book to teach my senior Creative Writers because these poems were so relatable and so right now. Tell us how this project started. Who do you see as this anthology’s intended audience? Why is it important to continue to teach and represent these specific voices?

LM: It makes me so happy to hear that you have read Please Excuse This Poem with your students! They are exactly the readers we (my co-editor Brett Fletcher Lauer and I) had in mind when we set out to make this anthology. The goal of the book is to make poetry relevant to teenagers the way songs are so relevant to teenagers. We wanted to make poetry cool! And so it thrills me that your class found the poems relatable and of the moment. We worked very hard to include a range of voices, backgrounds and experiences because this is a diverse world we live in and the literature our kids are taught should reflect that, I think – and yet it so rarely does.

The idea for Please Excuse This Poem started basically out of years of conversations Brett and I had about our own difficult adolescences and the poetry that rescued us. And then we were like, “hey, what if we edited an anthology specifically with teenagers and their concerns and worries and experiences in mind?” And then we did!

We were also very fortunate to find an agent and an editor who totally understood this project and were as passionate as we were, even though you can imagine that poetry anthologies are not exactly the thing keeping the YA book industry afloat…

SM: Your poetry book, If I Should Say I Have Hope (YesYes Books, 2012), was a  Coldfront Magazine Top 40 Poetry Book for 2012! This book seems to accomplish so very much connecting physical space to memory while addressing a consistent uneasiness and the sorting of feelings and stories. What is your favorite poem in this book and why? What do you want your reader to walk away with? 

LM: Ah, you say such nice things, Sarah!! Thank you.

You know, I’ve never been asked what’s my favorite poem in the book! I’m not sure, actually. I guess it would depend on my mood. I can be a little hard on myself (or a lot) so I don’t often sit back and think “fuck yeah this is awesome!” but let me give this a shot.

Hmm.

Well, the last poem in the book, “Wallflower” was written for my husband and is basically about me thinking “holy crap someone sees me and respects me and loves me and holy crap maybe I deserve that.” So that’s a nice one to be a favorite, right?

My favorite poem to read at readings might be “Superstar Hollywood Home Tours” which is just a catalog of my misspent youth but in a really light-hearted way for a change, plus there’s hot pants in there and I really wanted hot pants in a poem. But sometimes I feel self-conscious about reading so many dark, heavy poems when I give readings so I’m relieved to also have this somewhat more fun one.

But this week – I’m answering this question the week after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of gay marriage – maybe “Town & Country” has been on my mind the most because I wrote it thinking about my friends who died of AIDS in the ‘90s and how they were so marginalized and things have changed so much and I wish they were all alive to experience it. So perhaps that’s my favorite poem at this particular moment.

SM: How do you feel inclusive feminism informs your work today? How have your views been impacted by the literary community? What can we look forward to seeing from you next?

LM: Inclusive, intersectional feminism is crucial to the many kinds of work that I do and I’m terrifically grateful to be a part of such a passionate, engaged literary community. My work with VIDA depends on it, of course. And in terms of what I read and what I teach, it is very important for me to listen and learn from all feminists.

And even in term of being a mother to two girls! For example, there are a lot of books about women’s suffrage for tween readers and my older daughter has perhaps read them all but one huge thing they tend to leave out is that no, not all women were granted the right to vote in 1920, it’s a terribly white-woman-centric feminism these books teach. It’s that kind of thing I try to correct if/where I can.

What’s next is I’m finishing up my second poetry collection! It’s kind of intense, mostly about sex, violence, sex work, and the landscape of California – and of course how language and memory both fail and enable the conversation around these complicated things. My obsessions rarely change, and my history of course hasn’t, but this new book will be a lot more fearless.

LynnPhotoLynn Melnick is author of If I Should Say I Have Hope (YesYes Books, 2012) and co-editor, with Brett Fletcher Lauer, of Please Excuse This Poem: 100 New Poets for the Next Generation (Viking, 2015).  She teaches at 92Y in NYC and is the social media & outreach director for VIDA: Women in Literary Arts.

Chapbook Review: Cecilia Woloch’s Earth

Cecilia Woloch
Earth
Two Sylvias Press, 2015
46 pages, $9.90

In Earth, winner of the 2014 Two Sylvias Press Chapbook Prize, Cecilia Woloch focuses on the major movements of life—across continents, between childhood and adulthood, and from life to death—in compelling poems that allow each transition its full measure of significance in a network of shifting pieces.

What I appreciate most about these poems is that they are not in a rush. Woloch develops each character, each family, and each natural setting to a fully-populated sense of self before reaching closure, and this strategy offers a particularly strong assertion of the pleasure of memory and meditation. In the elegiac “Harry and Pearl: A Villanelle,” for instance, the speaker entwines a couple in a dance-like repetition, attaching them to each other while tracing their habits of footwear into the afterlife. This surprising attention to the minute detail of family memory persists throughout the poems, which offer a balance of rich, symbolic imagery paired with rippling personal observation; trees, stones, and rivers serve as metaphors for transition and efforts at establishing a sense of home, while a mother bears “the wren’s / plain strength.”

These acts of noticing are often grounded in the position of the speaker within the family—often as a child, but always as a descendant examining the changing states of those around her. The connection and dissolution of the immigrant family predicates an interesting sense of being everywhere and not simultaneously; Woloch writes, “Once I was only a child in my sleep; then I awoke and was everywhere.” The interest in childhood also offers an optimism that feels simple and true, despite an atmosphere of persistent loss: “I walked around when I was small and spit my name into my hands. I wanted everything to shine.”

The poems are dense with the pleasures of alliteration and repetition—“streetcars slur” and the father appears a man “with his shadow in his shadow.” In many cases, these repetitions feel daring—their matter is often the imagery of the everyday, and yet the reader is challenged to allow each successive echo to be as joyful as the first (it is). In these poems, it is possible to exist and remain both within language and memory, yet to evade being transfixed by that location; one is able, also, to be present in a concrete location with a body and still not truly be present in the minds of others—“This is America, Teta. You’re dead,/ and our dying means nothing here.” Against the consistent struggle of location, the speaker turns again and again to the relative stability of her natural surroundings, both real and imagined—what if the role of grandmother is inhabited by a tree? Dreams prove an especially fertile ground for aligning the living and the dead.

The poems in Earth work to create a world that offers no particular resolution, but is at peace with the sense of movement, with the repetition of image, language, and character—where despite loss and upheaval, there is comfort in the act of narrative and the linked warmth of sound and image. Perhaps Woloch puts it best, in describing the final settlement within the narratives themselves: there is “no home but the story I’ve lived toward.”

***

Kate Partridge received her MFA in poetry from George Mason University, and her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Colorado Review, Arts & Letters, Blackbird, and Pleiades. She lives in Anchorage, where she teaches at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

Poet Barton Smock on Trauma, Feminism, & Self Publishing

Sarah Marcus: You are one of my unsung poet heroes! The first time we read together in Cleveland, Ohio I felt like I was being punched in the face (in a good way) by your subtle yet incredibly direct address of violence in your work. One of my favorite collections of yours is The Blood You Don’t See Is Fake. On many levels this work and many of your other books seem to be a chronicle of abuse, especially the ways in which we process or don’t process these memories and our experience of each moment as informed by trauma, past or present. Please tell us about your writing process. What messages do you hope to convey to your reader? Do you have any advice for people who are attempting to write about trauma narratives?

Barton Smock: I write in the hopes that Barton Smock, author, disappears. When I visit that thought, it is no secret there that an abuse, a trauma, an event can tattoo one to the world in spirit while, on the other side of public knowledge, the abuser does not think in specifics, and has a very broad, indistinct, sense of self. Writing is my way of saying this is my hologram’s prayer mat. I address the past to relocate it, to toss it ahead, to have it in front of me so I can confirm with it a later date. I think here of the man who died painlessly two days after being placed by god or by belief into another kind of pain. I want to be that man. Words change meaning over time. One person’s chronicle is another’s repetition. Mantra. Process is purge. But the purge needs an assigned symbol, I’ve found, for it to be written and touchable in the reading. I try to be careful with what I use. My mother. Yours. Both sides of conveyance should make one gentler. If I were to give advice in regards to trauma narratives, I guess I’d say remove yourself in the manner of an abuser. But don’t disappear.

SM: How does being a feminist inform your perspective and your work? Do you think our literary community has a responsibility to promote inclusive feminism?

BS: Too often in speaking aloud, in talking to oneself, in writing…one gets hung up on the word and not the context. I like to think of my informant as a religious individual in much the same way as I like to think of my kids as godless. Feminism informs my work because it is part of my transition from word to context. I don’t know everything. I was young, once. I was old. There’s a reason I look at my daughter and worry and look at my sons and don’t. And, yes, I do think any community that values the individual must promote inclusive feminism. As in, must promote community. It doesn’t seem to me a leap. Feminism isn’t monster, isn’t closet. And responsibility isn’t how cute the sleeping child is. It’s so hard to be awake, I know, but if community is to exist, to be nourished and to nourish, then we must at least clean the hand we eat from if we want it to become the hand we feed with.

SM: Your work is mostly self-published. How did you go about making that decision? Are there any important lessons you’ve learned in this process?

BS: I began self-publishing in 2011 mostly as an exercise, as a way to order the hundreds of poems I feared I would lose to word documents. The exercise allowed me to follow more thematically that which I’d let wander. At the time, I was working two jobs, and my youngest son had recently been diagnosed with a degenerative disorder, and time spent submitting wasn’t something I felt I could clock. Self-publishing gave me a way to come to a standstill. Now, it’s mostly ritual…though I do try to tweak the ceremony here and there. If I’m doing a reading, I’ll put together a short book of the poems I plan to give a voice and then order ten or so copies of the book to bring to the reading as a giveaway. I know it’s not selfless, but self-publishing has taught me to foster the social anxiety I belong to.

SM: What are you working on now, and what can we expect to see from you in the future? For someone who is new to your work, where would you suggest that they start?

BS: I am currently working on a longer book of poems, tentatively titled Spirit Nerve, but some of the poems I had for it are tied up in chapbook competition submissions, so I may need to revisit the theme of said book or abandon it altogether. For someone new to my work, I would suggest checking out the title you mentioned, The Blood You Don’t See Is Fake. It’s a better representation of when I was both word and context, form and fragment. My most recent title, Misreckon (December 2014), is also, I think, both return and disappearance. All titles of mine on Lulu include a preview of each book in its entirety. I do this so that if someone says, yes, I know they mean it. Also, I write daily at kingsoftrain.wordpress.com.

IMG_1439 Barton Smock lives in Columbus, Ohio, where he shares his wife and four children with themselves. His most recent work, self-published like all his work, is titled Misreckon and is available at http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/acolyteroad

(Micro)Chapbook (Micro)Review: Jonterri Gadson’s Interruptions

Jonterri Gadson
Interruptions
MIEL, 2014
Dimensions: 10cm square (cover), 9cm square (text)
Binding: staple
12 pages, €5.00

Jonterri Gadson’s Interruptions is the second book in MIEL’s microseries of tiny books—at 10x10cm, about the size of a coaster. What Gadson achieves in this miniature space, however, is quite remarkable; MIEL’s goal of publishing “difficult, interesting, intelligent, deeply felt” work is clearly realized here in three poems that press the brevity of life sharply against bodily experience.

Interruptions is guided by a significant re-framing of what it means to mother, in which physical power is limited by the needs of “each unrelenting mouth” and acts of mothering are complex and thick. Gadson doesn’t romanticize the physical demands of this relationship: the bodies of children have an instinct for destruction and an evolutionary need to consume, “asses that sit on grocery store eggs” and “hands that sever worms.” Still, the speaker addresses them on the grounds of their shared circumstance, the impossibility of responding to impermanence. Gadson writes:

          Children,
   what are we, if not interruptions? Our bodies

          impermanent tattoos on the air’s broad back. Nothing
             to stop us
   from believing even the space after a colon is meant for us.

The poems drive toward a raw empathy for the “interruptions” and toward a new consideration of what it means to sacrifice the body, in which choice does not negate the significance of pain. The long excerpt “Everything Else Requires My Approval” imagines a response to a son’s suicide with lucidity. As the speaker weighs the probability of the specifics, phone calls and notifications, she conveys the urgency of loss with the very human inquiries of the un-lost: where would he have gotten a gun? Would the rational brain be able to process this experience in the moment? The poem’s progression from process to halt is both formally interesting and emotionally resonant, reminiscent of the directness of Natalie Diaz’s poems on addiction.

What if, Gadson posits, we are not only brief, but helpless? What does a mother do, “having been instructed to call his bluff and watch”? The poems in Interruptions raise the best sort of unanswerable questions, and Gadson’s gift is in depicting the complexity of motherhood with a clarity that leaves them unanswered.

***

Kate Partridge received her MFA in poetry from George Mason University, and her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Colorado Review, Arts & Letters, Blackbird, and Pleiades. She lives in Anchorage, where she teaches at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

Contest Closed

Thanks to everyone who submitted work to our 2015 poetry chapbook contest and the inaugural prose chapbook contest! We are so grateful for the opportunity to read your work, and we’re excited to see such a range of interesting work in this batch.

We’ll share information about contest results later this summer, both here on our website and by email to all entrants.