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31 March 2021updated 04 Sep 2021 6:01pm

Natalie Diaz’s Postcolonial Love Poem: a powerful reckoning with violence

 To say that this Forward Prize-shortlisted poetry collection is about colonialism, or oppression, would be to overlook its deliberate and dizzying range.

Natalie Diaz’s Forward Prize-shortlisted second collection, Postcolonial Love Poem (Faber) reckons with colonial violence – past and present – on Native people in the US. In a country where “police kill Native Americans more/than any other race”, Diaz’s use of “postcolonial” seems to come with a raised eyebrow. But to say that this is a book about colonialism, or oppression, would be to overlook its deliberate and dizzying range. Throughout the collection, violence is twisted together with pleasure, desire and sadness, and a rejection of assumptions about identity.

Diaz is Mojave, and has worked alongside the last living speakers of the Mojave language on programmes to preserve this threatened language. As a linguist, her attention to the complexities and possibilities of language is displayed to great effect in her poems. Words recur and contort – “weight” is misheard as “wait”, longing becomes cruel as “we pleasure to hurt”, the water takes on an active agency as “we are rivered”. Wounds are inflicted and opened countless times: “we touch our bodies like wounds”, “I move like a wound”, “press and part you like a wound”, “even a watch must be wound”. Diaz holds the prism of pain against the light, revealing its many facets, its endless depths.  

By writing primarily in English, Diaz exposes its limits. Language confers a reality, but Diaz asks who that language is built to serve. In the long prose-poem, “The First Water is the Body”:

The Colorado River is the most endangered river in the United States–
also, it is a part of my body.
I carry a river. It is who I am: ‘Aha Makav. This is not a metaphor.

Here, the constraints of English become clear: Diaz gestures to a mode of connection between body and land that sits outside of Western structures of thought. “In American imaginations,” she writes, “the logic of this image will lend itself to surrealism or magical realism.” Colonialism works to undermine such logic: “What threatens white people is often dismissed as myth.”

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Later in the poem, the speaker muses that “Natives have been called red forever. I have never met a red Native… The only red people I’ve seen are white tourists sunburned after staying out on the water too long.” With scalpel-like precision, Diaz uncovers the carelessness behind lazy linguistic categories. She wonders “what if/we stopped saying whiteness so it meant anything”: what would happen if the dominant language was used with accuracy?

In contemporary America, it’s impossible to determine exactly where colonial influences begin or end. Pop-culture references abound in the collection, from Beyoncé to Rihanna to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. History is layered beneath the present: “Who lies beneath streets, universities, art museums?/My people!” She resists the “American way of forgetting Natives”: the American project of erasing the violence in its history.

The flattening presumptions of white America can be felt throughout the collection. In “Like Church”, “They think/brown people fuck better when we are sad.” The white gaze expects tragedy of brown people: “It’s hard, isn’t it? Not to perform/what they say about our sadness.” In the face of this, Diaz’s heady reclamation of delight in “I, Minotaur” feels defiant: “I know what it’s like… to dare bloom pleasure from your wounds.” Joy is allowed to flourish from sites of pain, and desire fizzes as an active force. In “Ink-Light”, the speaker revels in devotion, the recklessness of longing:

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I burn on the silver sparks of her breath moving out of her body. The miracle. No. The power and the glory glory glory of her–: she breathes. Out­–:  Out­–: twenty red seats of desire, I break every one.

In an interview with the Rumpus, Diaz stated that “this nation doesn’t want us to be whole, and so identity becomes this weapon used against us”. Throughout Postcolonial Love Poem, she refuses to carve herself into discrete identities, but instead calls for more care and complexity in the ways that we think of ourselves and one another.

Postcolonial Love Poem
Natalie Diaz
Faber, 128pp, £10.99