I remember celebrating my fiftieth birthday in the Dordogne, and ordering all my favourite things at dinner: a starter of foie gras, a main course of magret de canard with pommes dauphinoises, cheese of course and then some suitable dessert concoction that would have involved sugar, eggs and cream. Washed down, of course, with some Saint-Emilion from down the road, and doubtless a glass of Sauternes at the end.
I also remember feeling a little bloated afterwards…
This memory came back to me on reading Natalie Diaz’ Postcolonial Love Poem, the richness of its language made all the more extravagant after the recent experience of Bhanu Khapil’s much sparer How to Wash a Heart.
"There are wildflowers in my desert which take up to twenty years to bloom. The seeds sleep like geodes beneath hot feldspar sand until a flash flood holds the arroyo, lifting them in its copper current, opens them with memory - they remember what their god whispered into their ribs: Wake up and ache for your life."
These lines from the title poem, which opens the collection, introduce a number of the recurring themes. The “desert” is both literal and metaphorical in a world where nature and human beings form part of an indivisible whole, where an emotional landscape merges with a real one:
"...So I wage love and worse - always another campaign to march across a desert night for the cannon flash of your pale skin settling in a silver lagoon of smoke at your breast."
Natalie Diaz is a Native American, a member of the Mojave people, who traditionally resided along the lower Colorado River in what are now the U.S. states of Arizona and California, as well as Mexico. But the river is not just a location representing home. In The First Water is the Body, Natalie Diaz writes:
"The Colorado River is the most endangered river in the United States - also, it is a part of my body. I carry a river. It is who I am: 'Aha Makav. This is not metaphor. When a Mojave says, Inyech 'Aha Makavch ithuum, we are saying our name. We are telling a story of our existence. The river runs through the middle of my body."
This melding of the natural and the human necessarily leads to environmental concerns, since damage to nature is damage to humans:
"We cannot live good, we cannot live at all, without water. If we poison and use up our water, how will we clean our wounds and our wrongs? How will we wash away what we must leave behind us? How will we make ourselves new?"
And in How the Milky Way Was Made:
"My river was once unseparated. Was Colorado. Red- fast flood. Able to take anything it could wet - in a wild rush - all the way to Mexico. Now it is shattered by fifteen dams over one thousand four hundred and fifty miles, pipes and pumps filling swimming pools and sprinklers in Los Angeles and Las Vegas."
This is more than mere pollution of the environment. It is an attack on the essence of life itself. In the superbly original “exhibits from The American Water Museum” the poet imagines a museum dedicated to water and lists a series of notes to the imagined exhibits, referencing all the gimmicks of modern exhibition techniques: a recording of a voice played from “somewhere high,/or low, floating up or down through the falling/dust-light”; a rock painting digitized on a wall-mounted monitor; a urinal inside a curtained booth. The notes are numbered seemingly at random. The sequence ends with the devastating exhibit 11, mysteriously titled “Art of Fact”:
"Let me tell you a story about water: Once upon a time there was us. America's thirst tried to drink us away. And here we still are."
In That Which Cannot Be Stilled, the poet writes “Back home, we believe in dreams”, and much of the writing has a surreal, dream-like quality that is most evident in the eroticism of the love poems. If I Should Come Upon Your House Lonely in the West Texas Desert begins:
"I will swing my lasso of headlights across your front porch, let it drop like a rope of knotted light at your feet. While I put the car in park, you will tie and tighten the loop of light around your waist - and I will be there with the other end wrapped three times around my hips horned with loneliness."
It is in the love poems that the language becomes ornate, encrusted with imagery. In Ode to the Beloved’s Hips the poet writes:
"O, the places I have laid them, knelt and scooped the amber—fast honey—from their openness, Ah Muzen Cab's hidden Temple of Tulum—licked smooth the sticky of her hip, heat-thrummed ossa coxae. Lambent slave to ilium and ischium—I never tire to shake this wild hive, split with thumb the sweet- dropped 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."
Another series of moving poems in the collection relate to the poet’s brother. Already with the second poem in the book, Blood Light, we realise that all is not well:
"My brother has a knife in his hand. He has decided to stab my father."
But in The Mustangs, which describes the local basketball team, “my brother and his teammates— some of whom were from our reservation—were all glide and finesse”. The brother’s degeneration is movingly described in It Was the Animals, where the brother brings his sister a jagged piece of wood which he refers to as Noah’s ark. Whether his state is caused by drugs or mental illness or both is unclear. The sister sits down and goes with his delusion:
"So I sat down, with my brother ruined open like that, and two by two the fantastical beasts parading him. I sat, as the water fell against my ankles, built itself up around me, filled my coffee cup before floating it away from the table. My brother—teeming with shadows— a hull of bones, lit by tooth and tusk, lifting his ark high in the air."
By the time we come to the penultimate poem in the book, My Brother, My Wound, the degeneration is complete:
"He said, Lift up your shirt. And I did. He slid his fork between my ribs. Yes, he sang. A Jesus side wound. It wouldn't stop bleeding. He reached inside and turned on the lamp. I never knew I was also a lamp, until the light fell out of me, dripped down my thigh, flew up in me, caught in my throat like a canary."
This is not a book to be read at one sitting. Like my birthday dinner, that will bring indigestion. The writing is too dense, too emotional, too laden with trauma, for that. It needs to be savoured. Read one or two of the poems, then put the book down and come back to it. The themes are universal. Nothing in it is trivial. Let it seep into you. Enjoy.
Note: apologies are owed to Natalie Diaz for the fact that some of the quotes from prose poems have been formatted above as if new linebreaks have been introduced. I have not been able to find an adequate solution to this.
“Postcolonial Love Poem” is published by Faber & Faber and was shortlisted for the 2021 T.S. Eliot Prize.