First, a portion of “American Arithmetic” to set the tone:
At the National Museum of the American Indian,
68 percent of the collection is from the United States.
I am doing my best to not become a museum
of myself. I am doing my best to breathe in and out.
I am begging: Let me be lonely but not invisible.
And also from the same piece: “I do not remember the days before America— / I do not remember the days when we were all here.” Natalie Diaz’s Postcolonial Love Poem is a plea to be visible. To be seen.
The book begins: “I’ve been taught bloodstones can cure snakebite, / can stop the bleeding—most people forgot this.” Stop here for a second. Take note of the way these lines breathe.
(No really, take note.)
And while you do this, imagine a river of air flowing into and out of you. Imagine this metaphor is not, in fact, a metaphor. Imagine, as Diaz says in “The First Water is the Body,” that river is “a verb. A happening. It is moving within me right now”:
This is not juxtaposition. Body and water are not two unlike things—they
are more than close together or side by side. They are same—body, being,
energy, prayer, current, motion, medicine.
Now, look again at the book’s opening line and read it aloud. Then read this specific portion of the phrase: “Bloodstones can cure snakebite.” Go on—say it again, bloodstones can cure snakebite. Give voice to these six syllables until they glide comfortably across your tongue. Out of your mouth. Let them be your words. Welcome them into your body’s river. Wash the banks with overflow.
(A reminder: This is not metaphor.)
But wait. Hold on. Let’s back up a bit. Maybe you don’t know what a bloodstone is? Which would mean the line, “Bloodstones can cure snakebite,” makes little logical sense. This is fine. I got you. Which is to say, we got this. I suggest a rewording. How about, Love can cure pain. Is that better? Love can cure pain? If so, repeat the overture. Know that its energy and rhythm echoes from your energy center. Our energy center. Feel the river’s pebbly knees and chest.
Context: Bloodstone is jasper. A stone believed to have originated from the supreme nurturer. Its properties: to guide, to empower, to heal. When polished it is smooth as an earlobe. Imagine holding it in your hand. Let it root you to earth. To each other. To intimacies and violences. To beauty and ugliness. To everything.
(Blood is always a symbol and not a symbol.)
Diaz’s poems adroitly reflect on her own journey of discovery toward something akin to truth. But she makes no revelatory assumptions about what this truth is. Nothing within her stunning collection is meant to be unveiled—no attempts at profundity. Diaz’s goal, or so it seems, is to accept—not to try and makes sense of it all. She does suggest we are in control of our stories, that what we imagine becomes real. Just look at Diaz’s “It Was the Animals.” In this work her brother brings home a piece of the ark wrapped in a white grocery bag. Yes, that ark.
He set it on the table the way people on television
set things when they’re afraid those things might blow up
or go off—he set it right next to my empty coffee cup.
It was no ark—
it was the broken end of a picture frame
with a floral design carved into its surface.
Diaz’s brother’s invents reality. Animals, two by two, parade into her house, “cracked the doorframe with their hooves and hips / marched past me, into my kitchen, into my brother.” All while the room fills with water. Of course this did not, and can not happen. But are not our personal narratives to blame for our beliefs? And do not our beliefs lead to our propensity for our violence, for our love? Additional lines in “I, Minotaur” sanction this meditation on fact:
The tumbleweed turns and turns,
until it bursts free all its spores to the wind,
until it his only what it might become.
There is no such thing as time or June,
only what you’re born into.
It is profound to think there’s no such thing as a calendar month—a taken-for-granted thing that has, for most of us, always existed in our worlds, like God. Maybe identifying and eliminating such fictions is the necessary step to encountering true beauty within our selves and each other? Maybe we need to get rid of the likes of June once and for all? Maybe we need to get rid of all that we have invented?
(In “Like Church,” Diaz says, “A good window lets the outside participate.”)
Diaz believes pleasure coexists with pain. Strike that—Instead of a cliché pleasure-pain dichotomy, let’s consider the possibility of pleasure and pain’s symbiotic relationship. Where one requires the other. In “Wolf OR-7” Diaz illustrates, “ I confuse instinct for desire—isn’t bite also touch?” Because if bite is also touch, then all between bite and touch is similarly named. A similar example may ponder the difference, if there is one, between want and satisfaction.
Note, too, Diaz’s additional supporting thoughts from, “Like Church.” Every line is double-spaced and followed by a moment of emptiness. A dry riverbed. Readers come up for air and wonder about the possibility of balance in imbalance.
Remind yourself, your friends.
There are only light because we are dark.
If we didn’t exist, it wouldn’t be long before
they had to invent us. Like the light switch.
Now go to, “Top Ten Reasons Why Indians Are Good at Basketball.” See #7 for another example of this pleasurepain asymmetry and coupling:
Indians are not afraid to try sky hooks in real games, even though no Indian
has ever made a sky hook, no Indian from a federally recognized tribe,
anyway. But still, our shamelessness to attempt sky hooks in warm-ups
strikes fear in our opponents, thus giving us a mental edge.
End the read by revisiting the title poem. Find within a summary of what you’ve just experienced.
We pleasure to hurt, leave marks
the size of stones—each a cabochon polished
by our mouths. I, your lapidary, your lapidary wheel
turning—green mottled red—
the jaspers of our desires.
There are wild flowers in my desert
which take up to twenty years to bloom.
These are lines to liken hurt and desire. Allow them to be one and the same. They remind us to engulf our paths with patience. With gratitude. Find the delights embedded within.
Ultimately, Natalie Diaz’s collection is a reminder that compassion is a requirement for life. And though Diaz’s journey is uniquely hers, the lessons within Postcolonial Love Poem are widely applicable, if not universal. We are the dirt in ourselves and each other. We are also the water that will wash it all away.
(“Bloodstones can cure snakebite.”)
(Love can cure pain.)
Tom Griffen is a writer and artist currently living in Spokane, WA. He holds an MFA in Poetry from Pacific University. His work has appeared in PANK Magazine, The Rumpus, The Los Angeles Review, Prairie Schooner and others. In 2018 Tom walked across the United States. A book about his journey is forthcoming. Follow him on Instagram at @tomgriffen. More at www.tom-griffen.com.