Book Review: When My Brother Was an Aztec

Critical Review: When My Brother Was an Aztec

by Matt Larrimore

When “My Brother Was an Aztec” is Natalie Diaz’s first collection of poems. The book evidences the poet’s technical prowess, with precise word choice, deft use of imagery, sound, and form including excellent use of white space, to create striking poems that display the author’s intimacy and passion for her subjects. Diaz alternately works in humor, satire, and horror in creating the 103-page collection. The book is divided into three parts. The first two centered on family and community life, the second especially with dealing with a meth-addled brother. They form a critique of the poverty and living conditions mainstream America has forced Native Americans into. The examination of the brother character feels like picking at an open wound and is courageously unflinching. Only very occasionally does one of Diaz’s well-crafted images strike a sour note. The ordering of the sections might be a bit curious for some readers. The final section seems a bit off topic but then sustaining the gloom would have left Diaz’s reader depressed. The third section revisits the tragic figure of the brother and the horrors of living with an addict only twice with little resolution. As a whole the collection is an excellent exhibition of poetic skill that is a pleasure to read.

The title poem is placed as a preface for the book. It is an interesting mix of form, imagery, and tone. The poem is comprised of fifteen tercets with the second and third lines of each stanza successively indented. This visual arrangement is evocative of the stepped pyramids of the Aztec, and fits the poem quite nicely. The images and ideas that the poem includes are very striking. In the first line, the brother is ceremonially sacrificing the speaker’s parents, but they do not die, in fact, they come back for more. Immediately the reader knows that she is in for a strange and troubling ride. The imagery is thick if not specific. The poem includes “dirty breasted women” “Acrobats” “snakes” “diamonds” and “fire” in the middle of five stanzas where it is declared that the brother believes himself to be a half man, half humming bird god called Huitzilopochtli. By this point, the reader is knee deep in the world made of equal parts magical realism and Aztec mysticism. It is more than a little un-stabilizing. The poem continues in a similar manner until it dawns on the reader that the brother is under the influence of drugs with the line “… all the jewels a king could eat or smoke or shoot.” The destabilizing becomes a metaphor for the family’s experience caring for their loved one. This expertly crafted poem sets the tone for the rest of book.

The first section of the book is dedicated to capturing cultural snapshots of Native Americans and their communities. Some poems juxtapose glimpses of those communities against mainstream culture, as with “Cloud Watching” and “If Eve Side-Stealer & Mary Busted-Chest Ruled the World,” These and others create a critique of the impoverished conditions that many Native Americans are forced to live in and around reservations.

The absolute highlight of the section is “The Last Mojave Indian Barbie.” The lightly veiled critique of mainstream culture’s hypocritical stance toward Native Americans is made hilarious because it is wrapped in the see-through guise of the much-maligned doll Barbie. The piece is irreverent and scandalous, which makes the acts of the children’s playthings all the more humorous.

The second section takes a more serious tact and almost entirely refocuses on the brother character. His outrageous drug addicted behavior is expertly captured in “My Bother at 3am.” Using non-specific concrete details, Diaz transports the reader to the scene who can then nearly see the Brother’s hallucination of the devil, feel the brother’s terror, and feel his mother’s despair. It is among the best poems in the collection. The section ends with a ceremonial burial of the brother in “No More Cake Here.” The poem uses sound and imagery to capture the sister’s relief and guilt at being relived at her brother’s death. At the end, the reader is made unsure as the brother returns and tells the sister / narrator that he is not dead. At this point, the reader may suspect that the brother is a signifier for the wrongs of a modern culture and that the sister signifies modern society too worn out and too preoccupied, to deal with difficult issues.

The third section of the book is something else entirely. The first few poems form a sensuous trip thought the narrator’s intimate world replete with the pleasures of the flesh. The poems are engorged with lush but striking imagery and sound, while displaying careful word choice. However, the last six poems of the book vary from that subject matter. They are of varied topics which seem to center on war and death. This last dark look into the speaker’s world is again unsettling after the lavish beginning of the section. If that was the author’s intention then the poems are well placed. It does leave the reader wondering how one can find comfort in our modern violent world.

The poems of “When My Brother Was an Aztec” are expertly crafted using imagery, sound, and form to capture their individual subjects in striking manners. Also the book works as a whole, which is less common for first books of poetry. It functions as a critique of the issues of poverty and drug addictions facing mainstream and Native American society. Diaz is wholly successful with this, her first collection.

When My Brother Was an Aztec

by Natalie Diaz

Cooper Canyon Press

ISBN 978-1-55659-383-3

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