When My Brother Was an Aztec is Natalie Diaz’s debut collection of poetry — brilliant and complicated, it weaves through her world of painful family secrets, reservation life, and the complexities of her Native American culture. Her work has appeared in a variety of journals and magazines, but this collection published by Copper Canyon Press truly encapsulates her dark humor, wit and talent for wordplay.
Throughout Aztec, Diaz’s well-crafted verse and rich language evoke the familiar themes of death, deception, festivity and family. Her meth-head brother is brought up often in her poetry — especially in regards to how his addiction breaks down their parents. Both bit by bit and in giant, violent pieces.
My favorite poem about her brother is entitled, “How to Go to Dinner with a Brother on Drugs”, when she first admits that she has chosen this meal because, “…dinner is a thing with a clear beginning and end, a measured amount of time, a ritual everyone knows, even your brother. Sit down. Eat. Get up. Go home.“ (pg. 48) But of course everything is still a disaster — his lips are covered in sores, his jaw is grinding and flexing, his skin is itchy, he’s dressed as Judas, and now neither of them can eat.
Diaz also makes us laugh with her twisted humor. Her poem about “The Last Mojave Indian Barbie” where the Barbie has a drinking problem, secret liaisons with Ken, disdain for Skipper’s pale skin, and eventual banishment from the Dream House for her indiscretions — is wickedly funny and jolting.
“Of Course She Looked Back” is my favorite. The haunting and beautiful words about a woman surveying a distant city that she’s leaving behind. She sees, “…pigeons glinting like debris above ruined rooftops. Towers swaying. Women in broken skirts strewn along burned-out streets like busted red bells.” (pg. 88) So many vivid colors and images glimmer from each of Diaz’s words, and her first collection of poetry proves itself to be a poignant piece of work.