NATALIE DIAZ — WHEN MY BROTHER WAS AN AZTEC — 2012
This is an important collection of poems from an Indian woman. Important because it is poetry. Important because the poet is a woman. Important because the poetess is Indian. But we do have to get into it a lot deeper.
The opening poem that gives the title of the collection is describing this brother as a pure Aztec god, Huitzilopochtli, performing Aztec human sacrifice, morning after morning, on his own parents, ripping their hearts out of their chests over and over again. The poem also introduces another theme at the end:
“My parents gathered
what he left of their bodies, trying to stand without legs,
trying to defend his blows with missing arms, searching for their fingers
to pray, to climb out of whatever dark belly my brother, the Aztec,
their son, had fed them to.”
This sacrificial dismembering will come later with another meaning than this Aztec ritualistic perspective. And it is this crossing of an old heritage and a more recent curse that is essential in this poetry.
The first part is centered on the author’s vision. Her menstrual periods are seen as a metaphor of alienation as a woman, as an Indian and as a human being. This alienation of the Indian human being is then evoked as a legless man in a wheelchair. It is clear that this leglessness is the result of the colonial genocide of John Wayne’s movies. And yet the survivor, “the Injun That Could” survive in fact as a “Guy No-Horse” after the passage of the cavalry and you cannot be surprised by the fact the cavalry is running in his veins, in his blood, in Indian blood shed to the ground by cut up bodies trampled by the horses of General Custer and consorts, many consorts. Rivers of blood.
A legless woman can then intervene and this leglessness is the result of having committed the sin of accepting to be deculturated in order to be acculturated into the white skin of a soulless Indian. The worst crime is then not to kill millions of Indians, but to force the survivors out of their culture (no dancing, no drums, no music) into the white culture (short hair, proper clothing, brush your teeth, use the toilets, speak English, think normal, that is to say submissive and humbly crawling on the moral floor of the White God’s religion and principles). Be poor and rejoice in the great salvation God will provide you with after your death, of hunger if necessary.
The present curse is phenomenal. Grandmothers have danced the legs of the people off. Indians live in permanent dimness. Indian history is nothing but a collection of debris collected in some museums for the entertainment of white people. Indians went through a genocide that is unrecognized and unrepaired. Indians have to stop talking, meaning their languages, because “language is a cemetery.” The only hope of Indians is in tribal dentists who will restore the teeth of Indians and then teach them to bite back and bite first. Don’t expect anything but devouring biting molasses on the white side. Bite first and you may have some future. This collection can be summarized in these four words: BITE BACK! BITE FIRST!
So imagine Mojave Barbie meeting with white Ken and she “peek[ed] at Ken’s hard body and naked Mojave Barbie gripping his pistol, both mid-yenni and dripping wet.” A famous Yenni has become more than infamous on January 17, 2017: “The FBI has been looking into allegations that Jefferson Parish President Mike Yenni sent sexually explicit texts to a 17-year-old he first noticed at a high school function last year, in the middle of Yenni’s successful 2015 campaign for one of the region’s most powerful political offices.” The poem becomes then very explicit about how Mojave Barbie was abused and guess who is expelled? Or are we speaking of mids, mid-grade marijuana?
The life on the reservation is then described, touch after touch, to reach the blackmailing of white entrepreneurs towards Indian starving workers to start shoveling on an infrastructural project across a field that reveals itself to be a cemetery of Indian babies and infants. The Indians then refuse to work anymore and they are rejected morally as lazy, and Indians are rejected as barbaric since they bury children, infants and babies in baskets. Then the only thing left for Indians are prayers understood as being oubliettes, deep chasms in which Indians can starve to death and be completely forgotten. These oubliettes will come back twice more.
The second part concerns the ordeal of the author’s brother, the Aztec of the title. His drama is that he got addicted to methamphetamine. She attempts to penetrate his psychology and she describes the supportive love he can enjoy till his death. She captures the hallucinating fake vision he experiences, the fact that life is for him some kind of disguise of human beasts that are just some Halloween parade. This brother reenacts the Indian alienation by embodying, impersonating Judas, the traitor, and his thirty silver pieces, and he becomes the Judas of the Indian people in the very Christian reference the disguise carries.
Twenty years ago the brother was a normal teenager. But Indian alienation came bringing the brother’s addiction that brings the Indian dedication to death that leads the brother to destroying all sources of light (lamps, bulbs and others) and the parents out of love and support accept to turn their home into the funeral pyre of their own son in order not to embarrass him, though he is destroying the family temple, the only thing that should be sacred to him. That naturally leads to the evocation of Thais: “Thaïs was a famous Greek hetaera [a type of prostitute in ancient Greece] who lived during the time of Alexander the Great and accompanied him on his [colonizing] campaigns. She is most famous for instigating the burning of Persepolis. At the time, Thaïs was the lover of Ptolemy I Soter, one of Alexander’s generals. It has been suggested that she may also have been Alexander’s lover, on the basis of Athenaeus’s statement that Alexander liked to “keep Thais with him”, but this may simply mean he enjoyed her company. She is said to have been very witty and entertaining. Athenaeus also says that after Alexander’s death Ptolemy married Thaïs, who bore him three children.”
And the contact between the brother and this Thais, or rather the fire she represents since she is “an ember” that makes the brother “hard” and tonight he is going to “love [whatever he may think of] into blaze” and into “ash.” In the morning the “fields too will go to smoke.” And the brother like some “lamp-lit moths” will die but “gleaming with sex.”
This meth-addicted brother splits his own father into two different fathers, “one who weeps” and “the other who drags his feet down the hall.” And “the audience” can only dream the “doves [her] brother made disappear” may come back “like angels” to take her brother to the other side of this life, as psychopomps they are. But for the time being the brother is coring “not just an apple but the entire orchard, the family, even the dog.” This apple metaphor is going to come back with another meaning.
The author calls then Antigone to her help, “the daughter/sister of Oedipus and his mother, Jocasta,” and this Antigone “is the subject of a story in which she attempts to secure a respectable burial for her brother Polynices, who by decree of the uncle Creon is not to be buried or even mourned, on pain of death by stoning.” And this ancient metaphor is crossed with Jesus after his resurrection and the holes he has in his palms. The stigma in the right hand is a chasm in which the brother drops a knife and a candelabra, whereas he licks the stigma in the left hand and finds it “tastes like love.” Explicit though morbid metaphor. Then Antigone does not bury her brother but the horses the white European settlers and their cavalry have brought to America, thus symbolically getting rid of the whites. But that is another oubliette for Indians:
“We aren’t here to eat, we are being eaten.
Come, pretty girl. Let us devour our lives.”
The ultimate curse of Indians devouring themselves by accepting to be buried in the Christian oubliette of Jesus’ stigmata.
Then the brother can finally be buried, and yet he comes back as a revenant, a ghost, a haunting presence the author will never be able to get rid of.
“My brother finally showed up asking why
he hadn’t been invited and who baked the cake.
He told me I shouldn’t smile, that this whole party was shit
because I’d imagined it. The worst part he said was
he was still alive. The worst part he said was
he wasn’t even dead. I think he is right, but maybe
the worst part is that I’m still imagining the party, maybe
the worst part is that I can still taste the cake.”
Speaking of Post Traumatic Genocide Stress Syndrome, this is a fabulous demonstration of how the damage of a genocidal trauma is inerasable in the mind of a victim, not to mention a collective victim.
The third part is the author after her brother’s death. She explores her lesbian orientation and brings all types of metaphors together.
Love is like eating an apple and she wants to be that apple in order to be devoured by the woman she loves. To be cored out of love, because of love, submissive to this voracious love.
Love is war and the scene ends with her mouth on her lover’s thigh ready to bite and devour the person she loves. Loves is some cannibalistic war. If I accept what some psychiatrists say about drug-addicts, that they are cannibals to the people who try to help them, she has transferred the main characteristic of her meth-addicted brother onto herself in her lesbian love orientation.
No surprise that love is like an oubliette in which you get lost. And this oubliette is of course also a symbol of Indian alienation through genocide and colonization, Christianism and drug addiction. Can love regenerate this alienation?
Love is fire in the middle of the night and this love is reduced to ash at sunrise in the morning like so many lamp-lit moths.
Love then leads nowhere. The tongue with which she loves, with which she speaks is heretic in all the hateful rejection it contains, rejection of the dominant faith and rejection by the dominant faith. And her heart is like a red dress, the red dress of desire and prostitution. Love cannot be permanent and can only be some kind of episodic adventure.
Love is her Indian alienation and she loves in direct descent from her great grandmother who got her legs amputated, who, as we have seen, danced herself legless, who got amputated when the white victors imposed a total ban on dancing and drum playing. Then the tongue was the heretic of this rule because Indians could still sing.
Love is a mouth, which is a cathedral, with a vaulted ceiling, and its maxilla and mandible are the flying buttress of this cathedral. And this mouth of love is embodied in a zoo lion who out of boredom devoured a member of the audience who woke him up. Love is taming the devouring other into a cage but if you wake it up you will be devoured because love is a mouth against a thigh, ready to bite, and the lover has learned how to bite back and to bite first. And this mouth, this devouring love is also the fate of Indians in the hands of the cavalry and at the same time the future of Indians in their own hands when they have finally learned how to bite back and bite first.
A beautiful poetry of liberation for Indians who can only get out of the PTGenocideSS if they find the tribal doctors who will teach them to bite back and bite first. This call for liberation and historical healing can only come from a woman because Indian women have lived two traumas, first to be reduced to inferior women among Indians though historically they were equal in their tribes, and then to be reduced to surviving slaves in the post-colonial American society that is still entirely living on this colonial — and slavery — heritage.
It will take many people, voices, heretic tongues and tribal doctors to finally push aside this heritage of slavery and genocide in the psyche of whites, blacks and Indians equally, because they all share the traumas, as victims or as victimizers, and of course as descendants of victims and victimizers.
Dr. Jacques COULARDEAU