Reviewed by Anne Livingston
In Natalie Diaz’s second collection of poetry, Postcolonial Love Poem, language is at its most ecstatic. As its title declares, this is a book of love poems; a book full of bodies, breasts, hips and sensual pleasure. Diaz writes of a world green with wanting, a world where she and her lover “touch one another’s [our] bodies like wounds.” It is in this intersection of the erotic and the historical that Diaz’s words are at their most poignant, their most powerful. By naming her love poems “postcolonial,” she simultaneously writes towards and away from history. This is a book that first understands— and then uses this understanding to underscore— how the past predicts, (and therefore limits) the future for exactly as long as we allow it. Through occupying the space of the postcolonial with love poems, Diaz rewrites what is possible for the collective imagining of the postcolonial.
And what love poems they are! Diaz invents new ways to speak of want. She breaks down the language we use to talk of lust, breaks it down and makes it better. Or perhaps, merely allows language to do what it ought to have been doing all along. Early on she writes, “In me, a feeling—: white blossom with a red-sided icosahedron inside the velveteen car of a gold train vibrating the violet tunnel of my throat on its way to a dimmed station in my chest—: twenty seats of desire, and I am sitting in each one.” There is much to be said for her eloquence, much to be said for the impossible task of giving life to longing. Words cease to be just words, and instead become sensations: Here, we are more than a witness, less than a participant, as it feels we are there watching Diaz squirm in her “seats of desire.” Or, as Diaz later elaborates: “A good window lets the outside participate.”
Through simultaneously pulling the reader in and pushing us back, these poems allow us to encroach upon their private lives, while still keeping us at an arm's length. Diaz knows that distancing is what defines desire. One piece of this distancing lies in the punctuation. Borrowing from James Baldwin, Diaz makes use of the em dash and colon throughout. As she describes in an interview, this can “hold the reader back,” from the poem’s space that feels “both private and physical.” It is this push-and-pull sensation that draws the reader from one poem to the next and gives this collection an arc of attention to match the thematic arcs throughout.
Because in addition to being a book of poems that declare love for another, this book also declares love for the natural world. I do not mean to suggest that these two things don’t happen simultaneously— they often do. However, there are sections where the focus shifts from the physical landscape of Diaz’s lover’s “quartz-light” hips, towards the physical landscape of the land itself. Though it is imperative to note that the reverence with which either is regarded never shifts, nor lessens. This too is an urgent lesson; one of many in this wise collection.
Four stanzas into one of her long, winding poems, “The First Water is the Body,” Diaz writes, “So far I have said the word river in every stanza. I don’t want to waste water. I must preserve the river in my body. / In future stanzas, I will try to be more conservative.” A breath-taking poem, “The First Water is the Body” does many things; but “conserving” its use of the word “river” is not one of them. For in this poem alone she will write the word “river” another twenty-six times. Yet, the implication of wasting metaphor, wasting language, wasting words, is that we ought to spend our resources carefully. Diaz knows what she is doing, there are no accidents in this book. She knows she is writing in a world where we are so very unpracticed in the art of frugality. She knows she is writing in a world wherein we must, in fact, conserve towards the future should we want to arrive there. And yet, worst of all, Diaz knows she is writing in a world where we waste our natural resources without thought, without remorse. So why should she measure her words when no one seems to be measuring the damage done to the Colorado River? This may just be the point. And still the question hangs heavy in the air— can we waste our words?
It is a fascinating puzzle for Diaz to direct us towards, since her own repetition of language abounds in this book: In thirty-one poems Diaz employs the word “river” no less than seventy-seven times, the word “light” sixty-six times, and the word “hand(s)” forty-nine times. I’ll say it another way: there are only four poems in this breathtaking collection of thirty-one that do not contain “hands” or “mouths.” Why did I meticulously count words in a book of poetry? After all, doesn’t poetry aim to be more than the sum of its parts? But bear with me. Or rather, join me as I bear witness, that two poems from the last, Diaz writes, “Americans worship their obsessions in violent ways— / they write them down.” And so Diaz knows of the violence she is writing towards; she acknowledges her obsessions and the ways in which she worships them “by writing them down.” And yet, through the very act of her writing towards this violence, she also undoes it through troubling the superabundance of the dominant narrative. AKA, the narrative of the oppressor. It is in this way that the personal is the political.
In an interview after the release of this book, Diaz is quoted saying of her poems that she “[I] can’t knock down a border wall with them,” nor can she “eat them.” She says, “…the world needs so many things and all I have to offer are poems.” But I would like to humbly suggest to Diaz that her poems too are needed, even as they are not enough. Or, at least this collection of poems is needed, with its anthropomorphic visions of language, its vivid worlds of lust and land. In one of the final poems, Diaz writes, “Let’s say it’s all a text— the animal, the dune / the wind in the cottonwood, and the body. / Everything book: a form bound together. / This is also book: the skeleton of a rattlesnake.” And with these words the book we are holding is both so much more and so much less than what it was before. But it was always needed.
Anne Livingston graduated from Grand Valley State University in 2018. They are a queer, non-binary poet currently living in North Carolina, where they've been teaching writing and comics for the past two years. Their work is published in Iron Horse, Oakland Arts Review, Brainchild and Fishladder. They received a Brooklyn Poets Fellowship earlier this year.
Natalie Diaz was born in the Fort Mojave Indian Village in Needles, California. She is Mojave and an enrolled member of the Gila River Indian community. She is the author of the poetry collection When My Brother Was an Aztec (2012), which New York Times reviewer Eric McHenry described as an “ambitious…beautiful book.” Her honors and awards include the Nimrod/Hardman Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry, the Louis Untermeyer Scholarship in Poetry from Bread Loaf, the Narrative Poetry Prize, and a Lannan Literary Fellowship.