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Thirteen weeks into this global pandemic, a poet whose work I admire and respect on the ground and on the page asked me to review Natalie Diaz’s Postcolonial Love Poem. During these past four months, I did not know if I had a tongue strong enough to carry both grief and love. As I came across the line “He held the jagged piece of wood so gently. I had forgotten my brother could be gentle” from It was the Animals, I was not sure if I could cradle anything that gently.

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Recently, in a free monthly workshop series, organized and co-hosted by poets Alán Palaez Lopez and Ariana Brown, they offered a prompt: how do you maintain your tenderness? In the ten minutes I had to write, I scribbled on my paper, I don’t know if I have any to begin with. Consider my offering as a “a poor translation, like all translations,” as Diaz writes in the poem “The First Water is the Body.” Postcolonial Love Poem is the second collection Diaz, a Mojave poet, has published since her first full-length collection My Brother was an Aztec. 

The violence of a settler colonialism project is constant, ongoing, and present in both poets’ expression of that violence.

In an interview with Claire Jimenez for Remezcla, Diaz points out that “a dangerous way of thinking lately is that we love as resistance… I was made to love; love was made for me. My Creator made us from clay, so that we might love this life, and this land.” That sentiment breathes throughout the book. Diaz describes a landscape of flesh and hunger, as in the titular poem: “there are wildflowers in my desert/which take up to twenty years to bloom.” Linear time does not matter in Diaz’s Postcolonial Love Poem. These poems show patience, existing outside colonial demands even while confronting its impact.

Diaz’s opulent language still holds the same simmer as When My Brother was an Aztec, but never dissolves into anguish. Rather, Diaz’s poems are languid explorations of love and desire, while themes from When My Brother was an Aztec reoccur. The subject of Catching Copper, which Diaz opens with “My brothers have a bullet,” calls to mind another poet, Casandra Lopez, whose book Brother Bullet also revisits devastating long-lasting effects of her brother’s murder.

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Lopez writes in the poem, “A New Language,” “My words are always collapsing/upon themselves, too tight in my mouth.” The violence of a settler colonialism project is constant, ongoing, and present in both poets’ expression of that violence. Though they are not directly in conversation with one another, both texts explore memory and wreckage of a lost sibling.

In the poem “American Arithmetic,” Diaz asks, “Who wins the race that isn’t a race?” While the tenor of questions syncopates throughout, Diaz is focused on intimacy through language. “From the Desire Field” and “Isn’t the Air Also a Body, Moving” originally appeared in a series of letters exchanged between Diaz and the poet Ada Limón, published in the New Yorker Magazine. Digging through those letters allow us another entry point with which to engage a postcolonial discourse on love. Here, Limón responds to Diaz in “From the Ash Inside the Bone”:

I want to write
of the body as desirous, reedy, fine on the tongue, 
on the thigh, but my blood’s got the spins again, twice
today the world went bonkers.

Platonic or romantic? In Postcolonial Love Poem, the distinction is not really required. Tension carves out space for thirst and hunger to co-exist, but Diaz never lets the body starve or desiccate. In the poem “Wolf OR-7”,  the poet declares, “I confuse instinct for desire—isn’t bite also touch?”

When I have questions, I turn to poetry, not for answers, but reflection.

Every element loosens through contact: human or nonhuman, land or water, as a past, present or future lover. Diaz never replicates violence, but instead, through the body and its various expressions and interpretations, shifts between eros, storge, and philia. None more important than the other. The ability to imagine a future of the poet’s design is central to the collection. In “Snake-Light,” Diaz writes, “Now I am a story—like the snake, I am my own future.”

The violence of coloniality remains present, but “what threatens white people is often dismissed as myth. I have never been true in America. America is a myth.” And we are watching the myth of the United States unravel in real time.

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In The Truth of Fiction, theorist Achille Mbembe said that “art is the human effort to create for oneself a different order of reality from that which is given to one; an aspiration to provide oneself with a second handle on existence through the imagination.” Although the problem of postcolonial history continues, so does an imagination of language that posits another possibility in the order of things and of living. 

We meet in the future. We meet in the space that tenderness made, which could be land, which could be body, which could be both; but it is ours. That is where the poems live. That is how we love.

When I have questions, I turn to poetry, not for answers, but reflection. 

During the pandemic, during the protests, during the time I spent with Postcolonial Love Poem, I asked myself: how do I love in this moment? In “The First Water is the Body”, Diaz writes that “In Mojave thinking, body and land are the same… you might not know if we are speaking about our body or our land. You might not know which has been injured, which is remembering, which is alive, which was dreamed, which needs care. You might not know we mean both.”

Out here, under hollering winds and dust streaked skies, on Apache, Comanche, Jumano land, I fell in love when quarantine began. They live far away, on Lenape land, far from the South. We meet in another realm. We meet in the future. We meet in the space that tenderness made, which could be land, which could be body, which could be both; but it is ours. That is where the poems live. That is how we love.

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mónica teresa ortiz

mónica teresa ortiz was born and raised in Texas. The author of the poetry collection, muted blood, and the chapbook, autobiography of a semiromantic anarchist, published in 2019, ortiz currently lives in the Texas Panhandle.