Natalie Diaz wrote When my Brother was an Aztec a collection that dares me time and time again to wield love skillfully and with grace. I return to their work when I need to be reminded of the ways we love the people in our lives through craft. Though it might not always be glitter and light because no family is perfect, Diaz’s work has shown me how to write what I know to be true: my emotions, my fears, and my urge to write towards understanding, forgiveness, and self-love as a radical tool for healing. Diaz’s poem “my brother at 3 a.m” is a pantoum that exemplifies the fragility and effects that drugs and mental illness have on people, at the same time expressing the patience and care one has for a family member who’s battling and trying to escape reality. In the poem, Diaz’s mother is trying to understand why her son is on thefront steps of their home having paranoid hallucinations of the devil wanting to kill him. These are lines from different parts of the poem that show the work of witness that Diaz does so well, where we have the speaker of the poem giving us a moment that we as the readers are pulled into the scene and can hear the voices and shifts in tone.
“What's going on? she asked. Who wants to kill you?”
“O God, see the tail, he said. Look at the goddamned tail.”
“Mom winced at the sores on his lips.”
“Mom finally saw it, a hellish vision, my brother.”
Diaz had also done something I had never experienced while reading a pantoum where every line (whether it was word for word as in the previous stanzas or not) had an entirely whole new life of its own. And that’s something to be said about the work Diaz does, you WILL NOT be bored reading this book or anything she writes and offers the universe, from the title poem to another poem in the second section of the book “How to Go to Dinner with a Brother on Drugs” where she uses the image of the heart being ripped out of the chest and it feels just as new and surprising as the first time.
In conversation with Mike Albo for the first installment of PEN's 3-part DIY: How To Series (which you can find on YouTube) Diaz says: “Yes Judas was the betrayer, but at the same time when he turned Jesus over in the garden, he also kissed Jesus on the cheek. And so that’s what I try to remember as I write about family, about brothers, as I dig into these things is I’m not going to ignore it. I’m going to look at the moon, I’m going to look at my brother no matter how painful it will be because he deserves for me to look at him. His suffering needs to be measured even when it’s its most immeasurable. And I still need to remember that yes there is violence, yes there is suffering but he is still my brother.”
Natalie Diaz has given me such great permission to say the things I may have kept to myself and I hope her work inspires more people to do the same.