Review of When My Brother Was An Aztec

When My Brother Was An Aztec, Natalie Diaz (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), Reviewed by Chris Beard

Natalie Diaz’ debut collection, When My Brother Was an Aztec, reveals her to be a stunning and fearless poet who manages to boil down the trials and tensions of her heritage to their essence. Taking a cue from the confessional tradition, she merges autobiographical conflict with surreal moments to manifest visceral emotional pain. So, while much of this book is unapologetically personal, the fictional and surreal elements of her narratives are what bring you closest, and they are what give the book its poetic power. Familiar traditions are also distorted, so that “tradition” merely becomes the skeleton beneath her poems, the bastardized thing that makes the conflict in the poems stranger and more heartbreaking.

The first poem, the title poem, is a stunning example. First, Diaz’ brother “sacrific[es her] parents / every morning” (1-2), pushing the historical commonplace about the Aztecs further, into the space of nightmare. Later, her parents “march behind him like effigies in a procession,” pick him up when he dies, and forget “who was dying, who was already dead” (5-8). The surreal space opened up by these statements asks the reader to reinterpret the pain on numerous levels. Diaz presses upon these impossibilities, but makes sure to ground the story often enough in a recognizable world that the consequences of violence remain palpable: “Like all bad kings, my brother / wore a crown, a green baseball cap turned backwards” (29-30). This anchoring allows the more extreme, “B-horror movie” moments to be more evocative because they draw from the blood of real experience. The poem “Cloud Watching” also benefits by channeling its energy in this way:

The rhythm is set by our boys dancing the warpath—
the meth 3-step. Grandmothers dance their legs off—

who now will teach us to stand?

We carry dimming lamps like god cages—

they help us to see that is dark. (10-14)

These lines, rooted in the real demon of hard drugs, are haunted by the figurative death and darkness that follows, thus they benefit from magnification, rather than suffering from its melodrama. It’s a remarkable debut, but one wonders how her voice will develop once she loosens her grip on her brother as subject matter, and finds a different muse.