Natalie Diaz’s highly anticipated second collection of poetry, entitled “Postcolonial Love Poem” (2020), was released on March 3. Diaz is a Mojave American poet, and her debut poetry collection, titled “When My Brother Was an Aztec,” was published in 2012. Diaz is also an educator and activist, along with being a former professional basketball player.
Her collection was published by Graywolf Press, an independent, nonprofit literary publisher focused on amplifying new and diverse 21st century American voices and transnational literature. According to the organization’s mission statement, Graywolf is committed to giving platforms to marginalized and underrepresented voices within the American marketplace, and Diaz’s collection fits right in among its diversity of publications.
“Postcolonial Love Poem” is linguistically gorgeous. Diaz deliberately places each word, making political and socially important statements and beautiful poetry all at the same time. The opening poem, “Postcolonial Love Poem,” talks about how “the war never ended and somehow begins again,” which frames her whole collection. Diaz illustrates the multifaceted elements of this “war,” the harm it has done and continues to do, and her hopefulness for the future throughout “Postcolonial Love Poem.”
A lot of her poems are concerned with bodies: bodies of Latina, black and brown women. But also bodies seen in nature: vast expanses of land and water. Her deep connection to the natural world is palpable, one that has been passed down from her ancestors and exists as a vital element of her blood. Diaz connects her own body to natural areas like the Colorado River in “The First Water Is the Body.”
Other than her connection to nature, Diaz also takes back elements of American society that inherently belong to her culture. Her poem “Manhattan Is a Lenape Word” asks “Where have all the natives gone?” while pairing urban and natural elements to show the void that was created from the near wiping out of Manhattan’s native people. Diaz is protesting the erasure of her body and the bodies of her people from history. She does not let the reader shy away from the truth behind the foundation of the United States and the blood it is built on. She is a master of poetic activism.
The poem after “Manhattan Is a Lenape Word” is entitled “American Arithmetic.” This poem begins with statistics outlining the way that Native Americans have been targeted and oppressed. She pairs nature with politics, matching bodies of the earth and bodies of the oppressed. There are so many stunning lines that force you awake, like “We do a better job of dying by the police than we do existing.” Diaz is pleading to “let me be alone but not invisible.”
She also includes prose among her poetry, like in “Run’n’Gun” and “Ink-Light.” There is an additional poem titled “Top Ten Reasons Why Indians Are Good at Basketball.” Each of these poems is distinct from her more lyrical ones, though they are still very poetic in their use of language and expressive nature. Her sarcasm found elsewhere in the collection is heightened in “Top Ten Reasons Why Indians Are Good at Basketball.” This poem, along with others on historical genocide and oppression, are steeped in sarcasm.
Diaz’s poem,“exhibits from The American Water Museum,” is also distinct from the collection’s other pieces. Diaz lists for pages all sorts of captions that you might see for elements in a museum, playing on what might seem like reverence in a museum but showing the ways that our museums are doing the opposite. There are also connections to real historical events, as she includes the prayer of a Navajo Elder who was shot while protesting the construction of a pipeline. The coupling of both serious, freeform and lyrical poems with prose gives the reader multiple formats through which to understand her message.
The end of the collection features a notes section. Here, Diaz gives insights into the creation of different poems, allowing the reader to peek into the stories behind some of her pieces. This not only features the different influences that helped or inspired her for various poems, but also the historical connections to social events and other poetry that played a hand in her collection.
Diaz is begging not only to be heard, but to also be clearly and bluntly seen in “Postcolonial Love Poem.” Being vaguely heard is not enough. Diaz is not allowing anyone to make her “invisible.” At the same time, she is loving herself and her fellow Native Americans, Mojave or not. Her love for her Native American culture and people is obvious. Each of these elements comes together to build a future for herself and for her people. Diaz focuses on the suffering, while also focusing on the hope.