FROM THE WINNER OF THE 2021 PULITZER PRIZE IN POETRY
When My Brother Was an Aztec is a work of courage and invention - one that foregrounds the particularities of family dynamics and individual passion against the backdrop of Western mythologies and a deeply rooted cultural history. Natalie Diaz's arresting debut explores a brother's addiction and its devastating effects on a household, while offering a political critique of our nations and their pasts. It acknowledges absences and uncomfortable silences, as well as conjuring vivid voices and presences, from Antigone and Houdini to Huitzilopochtli and Jesus.
Stolen cowboy boots, violins on fire; a mariachi band playing in the bathroom, a black bayonet carried between the shoulder blades; the beauty of busted fruit, the sight of hellish visions - Diaz both revels and reveals through her distinctive use of language and imagery, bringing to life every intimate and communal encounter, blooming abundance from scarcity. The result is a wrenching portrayal of sacrifice, want, despair and fortitude that feels truly transformative.
In her debut, Diaz portrays experiences rooted in Native American life with personal and mythic power. The poems are narrative and surreal bodies are wracked by addiction and diabetes, but sometimes "a gunnysack full of tigers wrestles in our chests." In the book's first section, stories of reservation life are layered with history and culture. A basketball prodigy ends up selling tortillas from her car; government-issued food leaves those who eat it hungry. We learn how a "tongue will wrestle its mouth to death and lose / language is a cemetery." The third section presents a mix of tactile love poems focused on the female body "the door of your hip opening/to a room of light" and others about global politics. Most striking, however, are the poems of the middle section, which figure and refigure a meth-addicted brother whose "shadow flutters from his shoulders, a magician's cape" as he becomes a character in a series of myths.