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Natalie Diaz, “When My Brother Was an Aztec,” Reviewed by Jeannine Hall Gailey

January 29, 2014 in Poetry Book Reviews, Poetry Reviews

natalie diaz when my brother was an aztec reviewed by jeannine hall gailey

Natalie Diaz When My Brother Was an Aztec

When My Brother Was an Aztec
By Natalie Diaz
Copper Canyon Press, 2012
Natalie Diaz’s When My Brother Was an Aztec is an ambitious first book written with all the confidence and skillful organization of a poet writing her third or fourth book. Taking on subjects—such as addiction and childhood on a reservation—that could, in less capable hands, teeter on the brink of melodrama, Diaz simultaneously provokes and reins in, creating poems that brim with power. In short, her book is intelligently playful while remaining entirely unafraid of the darkness.When My Brother Was an Aztec treats Diaz’s relationship with her brother—a drug addict and, eventually, a veteran—who acts as a reminder of what she could become. The title poem, “When My Brother Was an Aztec,” portrays her brother as an Aztec king, a hummingbird warrior, a devouring god: “My parents/ begged him to pluck their eyes out. He thought he was/ Huizilopochtli, a god, half-man half-hummingbird….” Diaz paints a vivid portrait of a world between cultures, presenting fragments of mythologies from multiple origins. With Mojave and Spanish phrases peppering her poems, she never allows the reader to rest satisfied with stereotypes. In the prose poem “The Last Mojave Indian Barbie,” which recalls Denise Duhamel’s Barbie poems in Kinky, Diaz pokes fun while revealing uncomfortable truths:

Wired to her display box were a pair of one-size-fits-all-Indian stiletto
moccasins, faux turquoise earrings, a dream catcher, a copy of Indian
Country Living, erasable markers for chin and forehead tattoos, and two
six-packs of mini magic beer bottles—when tilted up, the bottles turned
clear, when turned right-side up, the bottles refilled. Mojave Barbie
repeatedly drank Ken and Skipper under their pink plastic patio table sets.
Skipper said she drank like a boy.

These truths are eased by Diaz’s striking voice and vivid descriptions and make for a book that offers a magical transformation you won’t be able to resist.

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