October 22, 2020 | Arts and Culture
“these ever-blooming wounds”
softness and strength in “postcolonial love poem”
article by Nicole Kim
“The rain will eventually come, or not.
Until then, we touch our bodies like wounds –
the war never ended and somehow begins again.”
– “Postcolonial Love Poem” by Natalie Diaz
I began my junior year at Brown, as per usual, with too many courses in my C@B cart and an overflowing wellspring of motivation––one that has since been siphoned off by weeks of relentless intensity. This year, my two-day shopping spree left me with more than just sleepless nights. On the first day of a Literary Arts class I was shopping, the professor played a clip titled “A Celebration of Natalie Diaz.” In the video, poet Natalie Diaz stands behind a podium in a long-sleeved, white collared shirt. Her hair is pulled back in a bun, her face steady and sure. I was immediately absorbed by her quiet yet commanding presence as she read “Catching Copper,” one of the thirty-one poems in her 2020 collection. “My brothers have / a bullet,” Diaz begins, letting the words sink into the room. “They keep their bullet / on a leash shiny / as a whip of blood.”
There was something unfamiliar in the way Diaz read that made me want to know more about her. Her tone and inflection have an almost playful quality, while her writing is firmly grounded in generous nouns and adjectives. And when these elements come together, her words take on a life of their own, reverberating throughout the room (or virtual space). Even though I was hearing her through many pixelated layers––in a video from 2019, screenshared through Zoom––I felt the power of her voice like a clear channel of energy. She left me awestruck and itchy. I ordered her book off of Amazon that evening and decided not to take the class.
As I immersed myself in Postcolonial Love Poem, Diaz’s second collection and currently shortlisted for the Forward poetry prize (to be announced on October 25th), I was drawn to look more into Diaz’s biography. She grew up in the Fort Mojave Indian Village on the banks of the Colorado River, a body of water that appears throughout the collection as an extension of her physical and spiritual being. I was surprised to learn that she played professional basketball before entering the world of writing. The pieces in her collection are a palette of emotions, sweet and painful at times (“Insomnia is like spring that way—surprising / and many petaled”) and biting and cheeky at others (“I’m not good at math—can you blame me? / I’ve had an American education”).
The book begins with the poem from which it takes its name. “Postcolonial Love Poem” is a single, long stanza, an ode to an unnamed female lover and an emergence from a physical and historical landscape that allows us to gently slip into the world of the collection. The speaker traverses their lover’s body and caresses the desert-scape from which they write with a certainty that tapers off into softness in unexpected moments. “I was built by wage,” they declare. “So I wage love and worse” (1). The speaker’s desire for their lover does not dampen the agency that they establish, but enhances the speaker’s power: “I am in the dirt for you / Your hips are quartz-light and dangerous, / two rose-horned rams ascending a soft desert wash / before the November sky untethers a hundred-year flood–– / the desert returned suddenly to its ancient sea” (1).
The intimacy the speaker and their partner enter here shelters them from the harsh and beautiful world they occupy, like a flood of water that wets the desert. Diaz makes it clear that their being together is not a panacea for the pain and complexity they have inherited. Nevertheless, it is in this lack of resolution, in their thirsting for one another, that they find freedom and relief.
It’s in moments like these––moments that are both soft and powerful––that I find myself lost in Postcolonial Love Poem. Diaz does not romanticize the historical pain or contemporary condition of her people––usually the Mojave tribe, but sometimes Indigenous people at large. She also resists reducing their experience to violence. In this complicated landscape of both haunting and possibility, Postcolonial Love Poem excavates desire. Sometimes, it appears as an unquenchable thirst or a painful yearning, but it is never a weakness. Desire is the source from which the speaker draws their power and the place that allows the speaker to be vulnerable and soft.
As someone who has spent the better part of their teenage and young adult life struggling to balance softness with strength, I’m captivated by this book. Diaz resists dominant hegemonies––those systems that try to extinguish the speaker’s people, Indigeneity, woman-ness, and queerness––with sturdiness and vulnerability. Her resistance does not just appear as defiant actions and loud proclamations, but also wells up in moments of quietude and confusion. In a world that has always asked me to be strong, Postcolonial Love Poem tells me that it’s okay to be soft and reassures me that my unravelings do not diminish my strength.
Another poem in which the speaker leans into vulnerability is “They Don’t Love You Like I Love You,” the only piece featuring her mother. Riffing off of a Beyoncé lyric, the speaker recalls her mother telling her that “they don’t love you like I love you.” She reflects on her mother’s deeper intention of affirming her inherent value, writing that she understands now: “what my mother meant by, / Don’t stray, was that she knew / all about it––the way it feels to need / someone to love you, someone / not your kind, someone white” (19).
I almost choked up the first time I read these lines. I remember a time when I wanted that kind of love, too, wanted more than anything to be seen and loved by whiteness. Maybe it’s a desire I’m still recovering from, even. The speaker’s mother offers these words from a place of deep tenderness. She knows the difficulties her daughter will face in an American landscape that will repeatedly question her worth, understands what kind of desire is tormenting the speaker: “My mother has always known best, / knew that I’d been begging for them, / to lay my face against their white / laps, to be held in something more / than the loud light of their projectors” (19). The poem ends with a kind of homecoming, and the way her mother sees the speaker sutures something inside of me: “[W]hen my mother said, / They don’t love you like I love you, / she meant, / Natalie, that doesn’t mean / you aren’t good” (20).
Perhaps my favorite poem in the collection, though, is a prose-style, lyrical passage called “The Mustangs.” A vivid recollection of a high school basketball game, the piece pays homage to the beginnings of Diaz’s career as a basketball player, while turning the harmful trope of Native mascots on its head.
Throughout Postcolonial Love Poem and in much of her other work, Diaz’s older brother is a recurring figure. In “The Mustangs,” he plays on the court while the whole family watches him from the bleachers. The speaker describes him and his teammates as they enter the gymnasium to warm-up before the game: “Dressed in Mustang-blue tear-away warm-up pants and shirts, my brother / and his teammates––some of whom were from our reservation––were all / glide and finesse. Their high tops barely touched the floor. They circled / the court twice before crossing it and moving into a layup drill while / ‘Thunderstruck’ filled the gymnasium” (35).
Diaz brings this past moment into the present with her sharp description. Reading these lines, I can hear the AC/DC song ringing in my ears and the thumps and squeaks of the ball and the player’s shoes on the linoleum floor. I can feel the anticipation thrumming through the gymnasium, can imagine my annoyance at the squirming children and proud parents craning their necks to get a better look.
I am overwhelmed by the love and care with which the speaker remembers her brother’s younger self and the gentleness with which she writes him. In this moment before the game begins, her brother is free from all that she cannot save him from, safe from the bullets that haunt him in “Catching Copper.” He is light and unbounded, protected by Diaz’s removal of the scene from linear time that allows him to live forever in this moment. Knowing (from other pieces in the collection) the pain the speaker’s brother has caused her and will cause her after this game, a heaviness colors the edges of the memory. But through her writing and through her remembering, the speaker is able to give him freedom and peace. “I was ten years old and realized right there on those bleachers…that this game had the power to quiet what seemed / so loud in us,” the speaker recalls. “On those nights, we / were forgiven for all we would ever do wrong” (36).
I can’t help but think that this is what Diaz’s poetry, and poetry at large, does for me. Poetry lets me remember, imagine, and grieve without bounds, without the heaviness of the world on my shoulders. It reminds me of all the abundance that has carried me here and helps me to love all the people and memories that I cannot control.
When my desire for some other present feels too hard to bear, poetry makes me possible.
*Original illustration is by an artist who asked to remain unlisted, color editing done by Joanne Han.