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Natalie Diaz Essays


By Solmaz Sharif
98 pp. Graywolf Press. Paper, $16.

The poet and activist June Jordan once wrote that “poetry means taking control of the language of your life.” Solmaz Sharif does just that in her excellent debut collection, “Look,” pushing readers to acknowledge a lexicon of war she has drawn from the Defense Department’s Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms. Language, in this collection, is called upon as victim, executioner and witness.

According to the military dictionary, a “look” is “a period during which a mine circuit is receptive of an influence” — the word “influence” in this case a way to avoid the word “person.” Across Sharif’s pages, other terms like “battlefield illumination,” “dolly,” “hung ­weapon,” “penetration aids” and “act of mercy” are skillfully repurposed in narratives and lists, with the dual capacity for violence and tenderness. This is not simply a war language; this is an American language. In Sharif’s rendering, “Look” is at once a command to see and to grieve the people these words describe — and also a means of implicating the reader in the violence delivered upon those people.

The bodies this military lexicon surveils are the same bodies it attempts to make invisible. In “Look,” we recognize each body as human: a father, an uncle, a lover, a daughter, a niece, a wife, as well as the body of language itself. Sharif’s bodies, even in their survival, succumb to the war. In a tender moment of pleasure an ocean away from the battlefield, “Look” shows us the speaker’s body is still susceptible to its devastation, still touched by it: “Whereas the lover made my heat rise, rise so that if heat / sensors were trained on me, they could read / my thermal shadow through the roof and through / the wardrobe.”

At the book’s heart is “Personal Effects,” a stunning 31-page elegy for Sharif’s uncle Amoo, killed in the Iran-Iraq war. This feat of form contains prose, captions, sonnet, tercets, Wikipedia entries, bullet points, white space and erasure:

In a tarot card reading
A asks “Are you open
to love? Are you keeping love in mind?”

Amoo, I think.
The word a moan

a blown kiss
the soft things it makes a mouth do.

In the powerful poem “Mess Hall,” Sharif writes: “America, / you have found the dimensions / small enough to break / a man — / a wet rag, / a bullet.” This poem is one of many in which line breaks work as camera shutters, producing fragmented lyricisms and imagery with the accumulating impact of family pictures or news photographs of the war and recalling Roland Barthes’s adage “I am interested in language because it wounds or seduces me.” More from “Personal Effects”:

he surprises, he arrives,
eyes taped shut, torso held together
by black thread, fridge-cold —

grief is a closed area
cluttered with his fork against the plate
and other forgotten musics.

The language of “Look” is a body that cannot be separated from its maker — it is always the best and worst of its speakers’ desires, needs and actions. Language can never be innocent. An artful lexicographer, Sharif shows us that the diameter of a word is often as devastating as the diameter of a bomb. When she writes, “Let me look at you,” the mine detonates and a single line rings through the entire collection into the larger world of poetry and life: “It matters what you call a thing.”

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“In poems of brutal casting and unrepentant brilliance, Diaz commands winding lines of red geography, desert rocks, deep cenotes, cacti, camouflage, and the purple eyelets of peacocks’ fanned plumage. Diaz exhibits wit that is as much silly wordplay, puns, and one-liners as it is well-crafted humor, which is dark and dry, like the tense atmospheric static before a summer storm as thunderheads loom on the horizon.” —Booklist

“Diaz portrays experiences rooted in Native American life with personal and mythic power.” —Publishers Weekly 

Natalie Diaz was born and raised in the Fort Mojave Indian Village in Needles, California, on the banks of the Colorado River. She is Mojave and an enrolled member of the Gila River Indian Tribe. Her first poetry collection, When My Brother Was an Aztec, was published by Copper Canyon Press in 2012. Diaz’s work has also appeared  in Narrative Magazine, Gwarlingo, The Rumpus, and Ploughshares. Her poetry has has garnered the Nimrod/Hardman Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry, the Louis Untermeyer Scholarship in Poetry from Bread Loaf, the Narrative Poetry Prize, the Holmes National Poetry Prize from Princeton University, a US Artists Ford Fellowship, a Native Arts Council Foundation Artist Fellowship, and a Lannan Literary Fellowship. Her poems, folding Spanish and Mojave into American English, yield an urgent and important new voice to the cannon of contemporary Native American poetry, finding a place among the work of Leslie Marmon Silko and Joy Harjo.

When My Brother Was an Aztec blends questions of identity and belonging against the background of Diaz’s reservation upbringing. Called “beautiful” by the the New York Times Book Review, the collection was further praised by Coldfront as an illustration of Diaz’s “capacity for language and metaphor, while still heeding her personal experience.”

Diaz is also an advocate for the Mojave language and a director of the language preservation program at Fort Mojave. Her work with the three surviving fluent speakers of Mojave has been featured on news outlets including PBS NewsHour. She is a graduate of Old Dominion University, where she earned her MFA after playing professional basketball in Europe and Asia.

Natalie Diaz was born and raised in the Fort Mojave Indian Village in Needles, California, on the banks of the Colorado River. She is Mojave and an enrolled member of the Gila River Indian Tribe. After playing professional basketball for four years in Europe and Asia, Diaz returned to the states to complete her MFA at Old Dominion University. Her first poetry collection, When My Brother Was an Aztec, was published by Copper Canyon Press. She is a 2012 Lannan Literary Fellow and a 2012 Native Arts Council Foundation Artist Fellow. In 2014, she was awarded a Bread Loaf Fellowship, as well as the Holmes National Poetry Prize from Princeton University, and a US Artists Ford Fellowship. Diaz teaches at the Institute of American Indian Arts Low Residency MFA program and lives in Mohave Valley, Arizona, where she directs the Fort Mojave Language Recovery Program, working with the last remaining Mojave speakers at Fort Mojave to teach and revitalize the Mojave language.


“Natalie Diaz writes with heartfelt grandeur—and occasional needling wit.” —Library Journal

“I write hungry sentences,” Natalie Diaz once explained in an interview, “because they want more and more lyricism and imagery to satisfy them.” When My Brother Was an Aztec allows the reader to see inside the intimate moments of family life while it passionately narrates an investigation of one’s cultural myths and darkest histories. Fierce and humorous, this debut collection is a fast-paced tour of Mojave life and family narrative: a sister fights for or against a brother on meth, and everyone from Antigone, Houdini, Huitzilopochtli, and Jesus is invoked and invited to hash it out. Diaz’s poetry illuminates and intensifies the far corners of the heart.


Despair has a loose daughter.
I lay with her and read the body’s bones
like stories. I can tell you the year-long myth of her hips, how I numbered stars,
the abacus of her mouth.


The sheets are berserk with wind’s riddling.
All the beds of the past cannot dress the ghosts at my table. Their breasts rest on plates
like broken goblets whose rims I once thirsted at. Instead of grace, we rattle forks
in our empty bowls.

Read “The Cure for Melancholy is to Take the Horn” — The Paris-American

Read “ALACRÁN — SCORPION — CUT” — NYT Style Magazine


While she sleeps, I paint
Valencia oranges across her skin,
seven times the color orange,
a bright tree glittering the limestone grotto of her clavicle—
heaving bonfires pulsing each pale limb
like Nero’s condemned heretics sparking along Via Appia.

A small stream of Prussian blue I’ve trickled
down her bicep. A fat red nasturtium
eddies her inner elbow.

Against her swollen palms,
I’ve brushed glowing halves of avocados
lamping like bell-hipped women in ecstasy.

A wounded Saint Teresa sketched to each breast.

Her navel is a charcoal bowl of figs,
all stem thick with sour milk and gowned
in taffeta the color of bruises.

This is to offer up with our flophouse prayers—

God created us with absence
in our hands, but we will not return that way.
Not now, when we are both so capable of growing full
on banquets embroidered by Lorca’s gypsy nun.

She sleeps, gone to the needle’s gentle rocking,
and I lean out the window, a Horus
drunk on my own scent
and midnight’s slow drip of stars.

She has always been more orchard than loved,
I, more bite than mouth.

So much is empty in this hour—
the spoon, still warm, lost in the sheets,
the candle’s yellow-white thorn of flame,
and night, open as autumn’s unfilled basket
as the locusts feast the field.

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