Natalie Diaz’s second collection of poetry, Postcolonial Love Poem, captures a sense of desire in many of the luminous poems. As the title indicates the subject matter also centers the ugly legacies of colonialism. Numerous poems express sensuality through visceral imagery, but they also create a new context for love poems—postcolonialism. In other words, Diaz has created a context uniquely her own by centering queer indigenous/Latinx experiences.
The book’s title is derived from the first poem “Postcolonial Love Poem,” a love poem set within the context of rapaciousness done to indigenous peoples. Diaz indicates that backdrop:
“most people forget when the war ended.
The war ended
depending on which war you mean. . .”
In order to be able to recover from war, bloodstones are recounted as a measure to “stop the bleeding.” In this poem, the author is conveying warring both literally and metaphorically. Colonial warring with indigenous in the Americas dates back at least five centuries with the advent of the Spanish, and later French and British colonizers.
Many of the poems confront that legacy such as “Manhattan Is a Lenape Word.” The narrator writes about a Manhattan as a springboard into colonialism. Domiciled in an eighth floor hotel room in Manhattan, the author is still aware of the origins of the popular New York borough. As it was once the tribal land of the Lenape tribe. Do Manhattanites even register the origins of Manhattan? Diaz writes,
“How can a century or a heart turn
if nobody asks, Where have all the Natives gone?”
Yet in the next stanza she likens her many New York lovers as “reparation loves” owing to the colonialism wrought by the Dutch nearly 400 years ago.
The legacy of colonialism is evident in the poem “They Don’t Love You Like I Love You,” which recounts the abiding love a mother has for her daughter while also cautioning against the rapacious forces of the U.S.:
“What is the United States if not a clot of clouds? If not spilled milk? Or blood? If not the place we were once in the millions? Maps are ghosts: white and layered with people and places I see through.”
In this poem a mother cautions her daughter about the weight that they carry as indigenous persons in the United States. The final word evokes a cautionary admonition to not succumb to internalized racism created by a country more intent on seeing people as stereotypes.
One lengthy poem titled “exhibits from The American Water Museum” examines the centrality of water, mainly as a natural resource but also as it impacts daily life. In multiple stanzas, an imaginary museum-goer is taking in the various exhibits related to water. There are numerous allusions hearkening to the violence perpetrated on Native peoples in conflicts over water resources. This reminded me of the violent strife over water resources on the Standing Rock Reservation. Some of the poem deals with the way in which indigenous people are oppressed when Europeans ransack their lands, establishing “Cities” where Native communities once resided.
Later in the same poem, Diaz connects to her Latina identity when she references la llorona as one who is forever crying out for her babies. The tale of la llorona runs deep in Latinx culture. La llorona is a cautionary tale about a woman who, spurned by her lover, drowns her children in the river. So, oftentimes, la llorona is referenced to scare children for their transgressions (“watch out or la llorona will come get you in your sleep”) or for transgressive men who are cautioned against la llorona coming to take them away for their misdeeds.
There are numerous poems that express sensuality such as the stunning poem “Ode to the Beloved Hips,” which depicts a torrid love affair with the body likened to the Catholic Church. In short, the poem is about two lovers whose bodies become one in a “transubstantiation bone—hips of bread” divine meeting. I cannot recall another love poem where the body has been likened to the rituals of Catholicism so vividly. In Diaz’s poem, references are to the communion of bodies and not a religious sacrament. The subversion of the Catholic imagery is postcolonial. By that, I mean that an institution—the Catholic Church—that has historically supplanted Native beliefs or made them go underground has now been subverted. It is a steamy poem to say the least.
It is powerful collection of poetry that I thoroughly enjoyed and recommend highly for those interested in poetry, Native literature, and Latinx literature.
Postcolonial Love Poems
By Natalie Diaz
116 pages. Graywolf Press 2020.