Natalie Diaz was born and raised in the Fort Mojave Indian Village in Needles, California. She grew up on the banks of the Colorado river and water is her element. Her second collection, nominated for the Forward prize, is authoritative, original and sinuous. It is a fascinating plunge into Diaz’s culture, especially in The First Water Is the Body, a long, defiant, breathtaking poem in which she shares the way she sees river and person as one: “The river runs through the middle of my body.” Water and its fate are also fused with the treatment of Native American people as “exhibits from The American Water Museum” states plainly:
Let me tell you a story about water:
Once upon a time there was us.
America’s thirst tried to drink us away.
And here we still are.
Humanity is parched, poetry quenches. Diaz explores possession, makes us think about what it means to be possessed by a country, a lover, a river. Her take on sexual love is bold and complicated, balanced between surrender and resistance. In Postcolonial Love Poem, she uses the verb “wage”. Where others wage war, she wages love in poems of erotic confrontation in which there is more than a trace of forbidden fruit. Her image of “the cannon flash of your pale skin/settling in a silver lagoon of smoke at your breast” is more opening salvo than caress. And there is no missing the potential for harm: “We touch our bodies like wounds.” Other poems are sexily devotional. A lover’s hips are comically described as “the body’s Bible opened up to its Good News Gospel”. There is a touch of Sharon Olds about the physical precision of Diaz’s poetry, its bravado and uplift.
She is fearless about naked (in every sense) truths and always surprising. If I Should Come Upon Your House Lonely in the West Texas Desert is a startling searchlight of a love poem that helps itself to a line from Goldilocks: “Each steaming bowl will be, Just Right”. The familiar words seem gorgeously transgressive within their new context.
Her first collection, When My Brother Was an Aztec (winner of an American Book award), was about her addict brother. He has survived into this collection, too, variously and alarmingly reappearing with a knife, a gun and, most poignantly (It Was the Animals) a broken piece of picture frame – insisting it is an original piece of Noah’s ark. With imaginative sleight of hand and perfect control, Diaz turns this extraordinary poem into an anguished stampede of biblical animals overwhelming her brother’s mind and, at one remove, her own. She ends with a heartsore image:
My brother – teeming with shadows –
a hull of bones, lit by tooth and tusk,
lifting his ark high in the air.
Another stunning poem about her brother, Cranes, Mafiosos, and a Polaroid Camera, describes him ringing her in the small hours to ask how to fix his broken camera. It includes brilliant, winged cooperation from cranes which seem to belong to another world (she writes from a crane sanctuary in Nebraska). A third, The Mustangs, recalls a happier time, celebrating her brother in the university basketball team (the Mustangs) – a poem of remembered adrenaline, AC/DC’s Thunderstruck, pounding horses and hearts.
The collection is jewelled throughout with Native American words and stars and semi-precious stones – there is an ongoing phosphorescence to the writing. I learned the names of gems I had never heard of until now – Natalie Diaz is one of them.
• Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz is published by Faber (£10.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15
I’ve been taught bloodstones can cure a snakebite,
Can stop the bleeding – most people forgot this
when the war ended. The war ended
depending on which war you mean: those we started,
before those, millennia ago and onward,
those which started me, which I lost and won –
these ever-blooming wounds.
I was built by wage. So I wage love and worse –
always another campaign to march across
a desert night for the cannon flash of your pale skin
settling in a silver lagoon of smoke at your breast.
I dismount my dark horse, bend to you there, deliver you
The hard pull of all my thirsts –
I learned Drink in a country of drought.
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 wildflowers in my desert
which take up to twenty years to bloom.
The seeds sleep like geodes beneath hot feldspar sand
until a flash flood bolts the arroyo, lifting them
in its copper current, opens them with memory –
they remember what their god whispered
into their ribs: Wake up and ache for your life.