January 21, 2019

Natalie Diaz: Devouring Her


Natalie Diaz was a successful professional basketball player before she was a poet. In the essay noted at the end of this book review, I've included a link to her essay, "A Body of Athletics," published by PEN America.  This essay also exemplifies her mind: she has a wide associational capacity. She gathers the wit and wisdom across several disciplines: sports, literature, media, Mojave language, religion, and music. She has participated in Standing Rock protests and has her work published in Orion magazine and several places. She is interested in language, in preserving the Mojave language, in protecting the land and the water, and she can synthesize and create astounding works of art.

Event: Poetry Book Club on Feb 13 at 5:30 pm at Zenith Books, facilitated by Sheila Packa https://www.zenithbookstore.com/. This is the selected book for discussion.
Book Review

Natalie Diaz has created an outstanding book of poems with strong figurative language, passion, and allusions to influential and mythic stories.  Hunger. Teeth. Mouth. Biting. Eating. Devouring. Apple. Fruit. Red.  The addict has an unending appetite, but he is devoured by the addiction. Family relationships are also fed upon by the addict who uses up resources and second chances. Love is used up, exhausted, broken and reclaimed.

Another kind of hunger: the lover feasts on the beloved.  "I Watch Her Eat the Apple" is a delicious and erotic love poem that evokes Eve in the Garden of Eden, but it's a contemporary woman who tears the sticker from the apple skin "...this woman / who is a city of apples, / there is only me licking the juice / from the streets of her palm."  This is one of the most beautiful lesbian love poems I've read.

Diaz draws on her American, Latinx and Mojave heritage (and a long heritage of literary tradition in Europe and the Middle East) to create powerful poems.  The title also brings in the images of the old Aztec culture in association with this brother who is addicted: art, poetry, rituals, junctions with Spanish explorers, and religious ceremonies that sometimes included human sacrifice.

At the same time that Diaz relates stories of growing up on the reservation and her brother's drug addiction, she speaks out against colonialism, racism, sexism in our contemporary culture. She claims herself and her right to have pleasure from the damaging effects of poverty and these -isms. There's sex, love, and death in her poems. As Muriel Rukeyser has said, the poem creates a form of theater. In Diaz's poetic theater, she claims the use of violent images, grief and sorrowful images, physical and sexual imagery.  This book of poems has wide reach.

The Passion

The word passion has its root in Latin, and it meant to suffer or endure. In Christianity, it was the crucifixion of Christ. In My Brother Was an Aztec by Natalie Diaz the suffering is caused by addiction, poverty, racism, and exploitation. Poems pick up images or words from Christianity: the gospel, Mary, mercy, prayers, Jesus, Eve, apple, and Gethsemane, heretics, charismatics, the Rapture. In the narrative forms, Diaz intertwines images from the passion of love into these tales of suffering.   
The grief is an intense, deep anguish and sorrow. Natalie Diaz: “My friend and I call grief the beautiful terrible because it is a wound that opens you but also shows you the miracles of what is inside you. Rather than try to escape my griefs, I’m trying to recognize them as a wildness I can submerge myself in, to be washed clean by the very thing that aches me so deeply. To give my grief to a beloved’s body, to take her grief into my body, to rearrange ourselves with it and become both more and less of one another and of our own selves—this is a lucky thing.” See this poem of hers, "Grief Work" archived at poets.org: https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/grief-work

Love and grief, passion and violence, sorrow and celebration animate these poems. The reader experiences the work's visceral and vivid images and its compelling immediacy. Octavio Paz says in The Bow and the Lyre:
Two opposing forces inhabit the poem: one of elevation or uprooting, which pulls the word from the language: the other of gravity, which makes it return. The poem is an original and unique creation, but it is also reading and recitation: participation. The poet creates it; the people, by recitation, re-create it. Poet and reader are two moments of a single reality.
In his review in Rumpus, Ryan Teitman describes the poems like this:
...They embrace what Lorca called the duende: the kind of force and struggle that—unlike the angel and the muse— “surges up, inside, from the soles of the feet.” They aren’t the kind of perfect, crystalline poems that seem to have fallen from the heavens. These are rangy, muscled works that have both a dancer’s grace and a mechanic’s oil-stained hands.
The duende was a spirit that enters the body of Spanish dancers and other artists. It is a dark spirit that is passionate, both erotic and close to death. Lorca describes this possession, and it lifts the work of the artist into spell-binding ecstatic expression. It is an experience that artists like Billie Holiday achieved, for instance.

The body of the poems

Diaz has used her own forms and some very ancient poetic forms. The title of Diaz's abecedarian evokes an antiquated Christian tract, but the poem itself reflects the voice of a contemporary narrator. The abecedarian is list poem. Each beginning line begins with the successive letter of the alphabet. an ancient form that was used in laments in medieval times which were commonly community expressions of grief, often the lamentation was conducted by an individual who specialized in this, like a shaman. The poem itself is an interrogation of Christianity's perspective toward Native American people and colonization.  "You better hope you never see angels on the rez. If you do, they'll be /marching you off to / Zion or Oklahoma, or some other hell they've mapped out for us." 

The pantoum is a usually built as a series of quatrains, with the second and fourth lines of each quatrain repeated as the first and third lines of the next.  Poet Nzotake Shange used the pantoum form skillfully.  

The triolet is a short poem of eight lines with two rhymes that recur inside of it. It's a French form, and in the 17th century, the triolet form was used by a Benedictine monk Patrick Carey in devotionals.  "Downhill Triolets" effectively use repetition to express the recurring crises that occur in the life of an addict.  

The ghazal also has a long history. It is made of anywhere from two to fifteen couplets. Each couplet can be thematically or emotionally distinct. The ghazal does not reflect a continuous narrative with sequential paragraphs or stanzas. According to poets.org: 
The first couplet introduces a scheme, made up of a rhyme followed by a refrain. Subsequent couplets pick up the same scheme in the second line only, repeating the refrain and rhyming the second line with both lines of the first stanza. The final couplet usually includes the poet’s signature, referring to the author in the first or third person, and frequently including the poet’s own name or a derivation of its meaning.
This was used by Lorca and many others, but this form originated in 7th century Arabia and later used by Iranian, Pakistani, and Indian musicians. The Minnesota poet Robert Bly and many American poets have used this form as well.  Bly described the ghazal as a form often used by women, and it carries a tone of intimate communication. 

The prose poem is also used very effectively in this book. The last poem, "A Wild Life Zoo," closes this book of poems with a visceral story of the mauling and death of a zoo visitor who has provoked the lion in its cage. "Here kitty, kitty..." also reminds me of a cat-call made by men to women.  Evocative images of fruit, red dress, teeth, a circle of teepees of Indians on the warpath, the salty olive-like eye, the asshole.  In the last line, the narrator also seems to provoke the same fate in the lines "rang my bowl against the cage to let them know." Them might be the Zoo's Delta Force Team who has shot tranquilizers at the lion (like a tambourine of pink aloe flowers) or it might be the crowds (like bandits) who have split and now are next to the electric koi and the snakes (boa constrictors).  The lion is a powerful metaphor. It is a poem so vivid that it leaves its mark on a reader.  

Poetry Society's Adrian Matejka writes: "At its center, this collection is about the transformation of traditions—the traditions of poverty, the traditions of Indigenousness, the traditions of poetics."  
Transformative, yes, she is. Natalie Diaz is a model for any woman dealing with the challenges of gender, race, and class.  She's a model for any poet who is interesting is literary allusions, metaphor, physical detail and word choice. This primary metaphor of devouring/being devoured evokes an earlier work of a French lesbian writer, Monique Wittig.  The Lesbian Body.  Diaz is also a strong lesbian voice who claims her identity, her pleasure, and her autonomy. Nobody can hold her back, and nobody should. This woman promises to bless everybody with her brilliant work. 

Notes: 

No comments:

Post a Comment