When My Brother Was an Aztec

UnknownWhen My Brother Was an Aztec by Natalie Diaz

Annotation by Alyssa Hanna

After reading Natalie Diaz’s When My Brother Was an Aztec, I felt I had forged a deeper connection to my Native American heritage and a better understanding of how a writer’s identity influences what and how she will write. In addition to the freedoms a poet may take with her voice, in reading this collection from Diaz I also learned how to use imagery and word choice to enhance the flow of a poem.

Diaz uses specificity to enhance each image. In the poem “Reservation Mary,” Diaz evokes a vivid image of the boy that seduced the main character of the poem, Mary: “a smooth-faced Mojave who had a jump shot / smoother than a silver can of commodity shortening and soared / for rebounds like he was made of red-tailed hawk feathers” (19). Diaz puts specifics into her imagery that pulls in the reader and demands immediate attention. For instance the way she describes this boy’s jump shot as “smoother than a silver can of commodity shortening,” The use of the specifics of silver and commodity add sharpness (the silver with shine and speed) and a sense of place and class (the implications of commodity food items). Similarly, Diaz’s depiction of a powwow in “Cloud Watching” evokes my fondest memories of running around and dancing at powwows when I was younger: “Blue gourds glow and rattle like a two-man band: / Hotchkiss on backup vocals and Gatling on drums. / The rhythm is set by our boys dancing the warpath” (21). With the rich imagery of the blue gourds and the dancing of the warpath, she captures how powwows can be both beautiful and sad, bringing the whole event to life even for those who many not have personal memories. I have struggled to create imagery that stood out in my poems; Diaz’s poems have helped me to create more vivid imagery through the use of specificity.

Imagery and word choice go hand in hand when it comes to a good poem. In the quote from “Cloud Watching” Diaz brings in the names of guns — “Hotchkiss” and “Gatling,” —  to insert the presence of war in the image. By using these names as members of the powwow, she is able to bring in the imagery of guns with the death they bring without using the words gun or death. Another example is in Diaz’s poem “Orange Alert,” where she writes, “words that mean bomb, blow up, jihad, hijack, terrorist, terrorism, terrorize, terrific fucking terror” (91). Here Diaz moves from bomb to terrorism in a litany of words that evoke images of violence and terror  Each word is explosive.  Explosions may be intentional or accidental, to harm (a bomb) or to entertain (fireworks). She starts off the litany with the word bomb, a simple yet specific word that indicates an explosions that is intentional, that is meant to harm. With her careful word choice Diaz is able to create connections for the reader, to guide the reader into specific scenarios and perspectives and has inspired me to bring better word choice to my poems as a tool to more precisely convey to my readers the images hope to create in my reader.

Diaz’s work exemplifies how in a poem strong word choice supports strong imagery, enabling the poet to both bring the poem to life and to sharpen the intention of the experience the poem hopes to give the reader. As a poet, I feel more confident in finding new ways to wield imagery and word choice effectively in my poems.

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