Spilling the Tea
(or a book review)
Natalie Diaz's POST COLONIAL LOVE POEM (Graywolf Press, 2020) Reviewed by Mark Ward
Diaz’s second collection – eight years after her first, When My Brother Was an Aztec – gave me that oft-sought after electric thrill of a good collection.
Lyric poetry, when done right, is a cause for elation, celebration. It is high oratory, however, I often avoid it because when done bad, it is torturous, however what separates Diaz, like whom she reminds me of – Pessoa - is her control. Her hand is always on the tiller throughout this book with rhapsodic but precise language. In an interview, she once said, “I write hungry sentences” and here, she has written a book of creation myths documenting her life and (it in) the world. You may not know all these words but we don’t know all of the world; this is why we read.
The title is a wonderful summation of the book. Life in this postcolonial world is the context – she is always fully immersing us in her life, her heritage and the world they impact. She reminds me of Danez Smith, but with a lighter touch – whereas Smith’s staunchly political poetry can get, at times, bogged down with forcefulness, I find that Diaz makes similar points using more nuanced language: “My brothers search their houses, / their bodies for a bullet, / and a little red ghost moans.”.
Of course, postcolonialism isn’t the subject. The title tells us that this is a love poem and the book is a celebration of the body, of love, of her lover. Whitman would read her odes to her female partner, documenting her Beloved’s Hips and whoop and cheer with recognition at lines like: “her city, where my hands went undone- / gone to ravel, to silhouette, to moths at the mercy / of the pale of her hips.” And despite the book’s intense imagery and considerable length, it feels bogged down by neither.
Throughout the book are recurring themes, such as light, which features generally throughout and in a quartet of which threads through the book, and the river, which is the most prevalent, examined and important theme:
I mean river as a verb. A happening. It is moving within me now.
Her use of this extended metaphor is the flesh of the book and has a freshness that I’ve rarely come across. It is in the weaving of these themes that the book lives. This is a book of fables, where metaphors of rivers and light – which would easily be clichéd in less skilled hands – are rendered into expansive worlds, essential touchstones. See her use of light in "Skin-Light":
To be filled-: light-well.
The light throbs everything, and songs
against her body, girdling the knee bone.
Our bodies -: light-harnessed, light-thrashed.
And these bodies, and their love is ever-present, but she recognizes that she is trying to document a constantly moving thing, this rivering of their love.
If I had to pick a standout, in a book of them, it would be “exhibits from The American Water Museum” where this rivering reaches its zenith. She is aware how the river erodes, how love can erode, and in Snake-Light realises that “to read a body is to break that body a little” so she is trying to document as much as possible, because ultimately they will be always “rivered. We are rearranged.”
To write a topography of a river seems as ridiculous as writing poems in Diaz’s world but she does, she must, and these essential poems sing and lift off the page. A book to bathe in and come back to again and again.