Book Review: Natalie Díaz’s ‘Postcolonial Love Poem’

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Though it has been heavily lauded since its publication last year, and has since won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for poetry, I just recently read Natalie Díaz’s second book of poetry Postcolonial Love Poem this past weekend, interestingly right after Thanksgiving.

This weekend also capped off my first November in Peoria, Illinois, where I came across a “You’re on stolen land” sign. The simple white fabric with black lettering was hanging down from the overpass along I-74, conveniently across from the local shopping mall. Between the celebration of revisionist history and the consumerism that defines the December holiday season, seeing this message served as a reminder of my own habitation of stolen land, jolting me. In my move to Central Illinois, I never really considered or confronted how I, too, am part of this cycle of land dispossession, a place taken from its rightful inhabitants. It’s not just those who forcibly stripped Native Americans of their home that are responsible, but all of us staking a claim in these spaces, even centuries later. 

It was in this mindset that I approached Díaz’s book. Her work traces the historical wounds inflicted upon Native people through to the present where this injustice endures. “American Arithmetic” begins with the blunt fact of the ongoing violence against Indigenous people. She reminds us that “Native Americans make up less than/ 1 percent of the population of America” but “Native Americans make up 1.9 percent of all/ police killings, higher per capita than any race.” In this and other poems, Díaz traces the continual erasure of Native Americans through the metaphor of the museum. Museums are peculiar in that their supposed mission is to preserve history, yet the narrative of whose history is recounted has often served to set Native American peoples as no longer extant, relics of a far-removed American past. Díaz fights against this narrative, aware of her own need to keep this issue at the forefront by her direct reporting of statistics as verse, to not let today’s ongoing police violence against Native Americans be buried in the myth of the “vanishing Indian.” She very much sees the risk, noting “I am doing my best to not become a museum/ of myself.”

In teasing out her identity as an Indigenous, queer Latina throughout the book, Díaz confronts the ways white supremacy has cast demands for racial and gender equity as extremist actions, painting POC as always “angry” or “sad.” In “Like Church,” she writes: “They think/ brown people fuck better when we are sad./ Like horses. Or coyotes. All hoof or howl” and goes on to lament “But it’s hard, isn’t it? Not to perform/ what they say about our sadness, when we are/ always so sad. It is real work to not perform/ a fable.”

This really got me thinking again about the ways our rage and grief, and that of other POC, are constantly weaponized against us. We are seen as either the dangerous threat that wants to dredge up the past (and present) violations against marginalized folks, or we are the “liberal” cry-babies asking for handouts, like always. We always fit the script for whatever story those in power want to spin to maintain their control.

Though acknowledging the traumas experienced by Native Americans, Postcolonial Love Poem doesn’t just wallow in them, which would further perpetuate the “fable” from which Díaz herself struggles to break free. Instead, she offers up moments of resistance and resilience interspersed throughout her collection. The eponymous poem shows that from “ever-blooming wounds” appear “wildflowers in my desert.” Díaz and her lover challenge heteronormativity in protest, new ways of Indigenous being budding from the wages of the past. Their intimacy is a new creation, what she describes in “Ode to the Beloved’s Hips” as a “galactic carousel of burning/ comets and big Big Bangs.”

Queer love is just one victory Díaz muses on. Several poems center on basketball as, though seemingly small, an important site of momentary victory. “Run’n’Gun” re-envisions the wars between white people and American Indians, moving it to a ball court on a reservation where, on lands where they have some sovereignty, the Native kids clobbered their white opponents: “We played bigger and bigger until we began winning. And we/ won by doing what all Indians before us had done against their/ bigger, whiter opponents—we became coyotes and rivers.” The victorious squad also “learned to make guns of our hands” and “pulled triggers on jumpers all day” in a playful but poignant inversion of the cowboys-vs.-Indians narrative we always see, a reversal that rejects violence for jubilation.

This is not to say that Díaz is willing to substitute sports victories or a lover’s embrace for real-world action and change. She won’t let us be so naïve as she brings us back to BIPOC struggles that briefly garnered mass media exposure but have just as quickly been buried in the news cycle, seemingly relegated to the museum, to the past. She won’t let us forget that “we are tear-gassing and rubber-bulleting and kenneling Natives” that are protecting the water at Standing Rock, North Dakota, and that we still haven’t addressed what the fallout of “the lead-contaminated water will be on the children of Flint, Michigan.” Have we forgotten? I’m afraid many of us have. But, in  “exhibits from the American Water Museum,” Díaz creates her own exhibits of these tragedies, putting them on display, memorializing them as living “art of facts.” She triumphantly proclaims that “America’s thirst tried to drink us away./ And here we still are.”

Postcolonial Love Poem is a stark reminder, and a much-needed one, of the struggles Indigenous folks are still grappling with. Díaz’s text is an acknowledgment, not an antidote, since she notes that “You cannot drink poetry.” Art alone won’t give the land back. And the book itself cannot keep the struggle alive on its own, but it taps us on the shoulder, shifts our gaze, reorients us, makes us self-reflect, just like the simple tarp with the words “You’re on stolen land” scrawled on it hanging from a Midwest overpass.

 

Featured image: From the book cover of ‘Postcolonial Love Poems’ by Natalie Díaz (Courtesy of Graywolf Press)

Alexander Lalama is an Assistant Professor of English at Bradley University. Born and raised in the Inland Empire, California, he studied literature at Claremont Graduate University and spent several years working in Rhode Island and Massachusetts before settling in the Midwest. His interests lie in outsider subcultures such as punks, goths, metalheads, nerds, and brujo/a/xs. He can be often be found listening to punk records or reading while drinking copious amounts of coffee.

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