Book Review: When My Brother Was an Aztec, Natalie Diaz

Book Review: When My Brother Was an Aztec, Natalie Diaz

Poetry: When My Brother Was an Aztec, Natalie Diaz

The first line to the titular poem says, “he lived in our basement and sacrificed my parents / every morning. It was awful. Unforgivable. But they kept coming / back for more. They loved him, was all they could say.”

 

So opens the brutally personal and painful collection of poems by Natalie Diaz. When My Brother Was an Aztec is brilliant. I have a solid vocabulary, but Diaz’s dancing from English to Spanish to other languages, her use of English (I had to look up “oubliette,” among other words), her references to stories and myths and religions and historical events sometimes left me gasping for air and reaching for Google. It was challenging intellectually, which is always something I welcome.

 

More than that, it was challenging emotionally. Diaz’s brother has a meth addiction. And many of the poems in this collection deal very frankly with the emotions she feels when dealing with him. Her description of him as an Aztec talks about him draining her parents’ blood, about them offering themselves to him day after day. Somehow they are physically restored, then the addiction in her brother’s body requires that her parents sacrifice themselves again and again. She dreams of his death. She tries to take her brother out for dinner, knowing that there is a beginning, middle, and end to dinner and she will not be trapped. He takes all of the lightbulbs in her parents’ house to use as homemade meth bowls, forcing them to live in the dark. She compares her father to Sisyphus, driving to the jail at 2 a.m. knowing that it won’t matter, that he will push his heart to the jail again and again and again and again.

 

This is not to say that she hates her brother. Or rather, that hate is the only emotion. She loves him. She hates him. She is disgusted by him. She pities him. She wants him to get better. She wants him to die. She wants him to live. I cannot imagine the grief and despair and anger and longing that one might feel when faced with a loved one who is in these circumstances. Thanks to the power of Natalie Diaz’s poetry, though, I may have had a glimpse.

 

Mixed in with the poems about her family’s struggles are poems about lust and longing, about being Native American in a hostile world, and about her family at different (if not better) times. Even if those poems are not any easier to read emotionally or intellectually, they are a welcome respite from the despair engendered by her brother’s choices and addictions.

 

I am not trying to condemn or excuse her brother. Addiction is a disease, and for far too many it becomes incurable. But with any disease there are choices that people make. My sister has cancer. She chose to treat it. She will be on chemotherapy the rest of her (hopefully long) life. I have mental illness. Sometimes I get treatment. However, sometimes I convince myself that I am fine and don’t need any medicine (ironically enough, I usually make that decision when I am on the medicine, which is of course why I am “fine”). Those times inevitably result in pain and suffering for my loved ones, let alone the confusion and disorder they create in my own mind and circumstances. Diaz’s poetry helps me see things from the other side, the side where the sick person is loved and desired and wanted–and yet that same person has created through their choices and refusals a climate of pain and hurt for those who love them the most. I may have more in common with her brother than I want to admit.

 

Natalie Diaz grew up on the Mojave Reservation in Needles, CA. She played professional basketball overseas for many years before getting her MFA from Old Dominion in 2007. When My Brother Was an Aztec was her first book, published in 2012. I first heard her speak at the National Book Festival in Washington, DC in 2018. She is an amazing person and an amazing poet, and someone I hope we hear much more from in the years to come.

Book Review: When My Brother Was an Aztec, Natalie Diaz