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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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Face

book by  Sherman Alexie 

annotation by Lisa Cheby

Alexie’s poetry is a hybrid of formal poetics and experimental genre bending compounded by the often-conflicted aesthetics of these various traditions.   In the guise of formal poetics, Alexie challenges the reader’s place in poetry and mocks almost all schools of poetry – reader response, biographical, confessional, historical, and formal.

Alexie divides his book into four sections.   The first section, “War Stories,” establishes conflicts to be woven throughout the text:  life versus death (“Avian Nights” and “The Father and Son Road Show”); fathers versus sons or old generations versus new; nature versus humans; whites versus Native Americans; Alexie versus his own histories.   In the second section, “Tuxedo with Eagle Feathers,” Alexie examines the multiplicity of cultures at his disposal as an artist and the multiplicity of worlds he must negotiate in asserting his identity.  The third section, “Size Matters,” moves into a celebration of mundane moments of humility.  The final section, “Ten Thousand Fathers,” gives us new and old mythologies of his origins as a poet.

The book declares war between the poet and critic, between the oppressor and the oppressed through a battle between formalism and experimentation.   Alexie appropriates the rules of form to undermine the history of literary domination by white men.   “War Stories” and “Vilify” are highly crafted formal poems dismantled and disrupted by extensive footnotes, a risky move, flirting with pretension and imitation (didn’t Eliot already challenge the folly of footnotes in “The Wasteland?”).  Alexie’s footnotes are commentary, digression, and political protest.  The reader must decide how to read the poem: straight through, or do we follow the trail away to find our way back to the base poem?  In “War Stories,” the first footnote undermines the speaker/poet’s authority, “He wasn’t really my uncle.  I lied” (18).  This footnote leads to another footnote to tell the true story, the truth of law, turning this poem about something akin to a bar fight into a dialogue with history.   Unlike Eliot’s footnotes that mock the self-referential nature of literature and academics, Alexie exploits allusion and exposes how poetry and literature often mask the stories that lie beneath.   While subverting dominant traditions, Alexie shows off his mastery of them:  the poem’s six tercets are matched by the six tercets of the numbered footnotes, which lead to a tercet of prose footnotes.   (Later it the book, he makes a similar move where the footnotes for a sonnet create a separate sonnet that adds commentary to the original sonnet.)   For Alexie, form is not just a tool; there is a deliberate link between form and content.   The form is a means for him to speak his truth in a world that wants to suppress his voice.   This forces me to examine how form functions for my poems and challenges me to see how form does not just add structure, but can actually subvert that from which it came.

Similarly, Alexie mixes formal verse with prose segments throughout the book.  In “Tuxedo with Eagle Feathers,” Alexie poignantly merges Native American storytelling with Western/American poetics.  The poem starts with a prose section whose mythic voice blurs the lines between truth and reality;  “Six years ago, or maybe it was eight or ten . . .” the speaker begins by inviting the audience to let go of the need for precision, a very western, formalist requirement (79).   Once the scene of the powwow is set, Alexie transitions into an English sonnet that recounts his encounter with a former bully.   At the end of the sonnet he relapses into expository prose to reflect on the lesson of this incident, the sonnet.  A pattern of dialogue between cultures and the two selves of the speaker is established between the prose and the sonnets.  The next sonnet focuses on another character that he must battle in his quest for identity.   He again uses the natural argument structure of the English sonnet to make the point that “It was all shoe goddamn texts / By all those damn dead white male and female writers / That first taught me how to be a fighter . . . ” (80).   Alexie resists the idea that his identity and power comes from only one culture; he claims the voice of both the Native Americans and western literary traditions.  To emphasize this unity of self, each sonnet and prose section is enjambed.  The next sonnet praises Dorothy Grant, who, through fashion, like Alexie through his poems, creates hybrids of Native American and mainstream expressions.   Interestingly, Alexie ends on a sonnet:  “This sonnet, like my reservation, keeps/ Its secrets hidden behind boundaries / That are simple and legal at first read . . . ” (81).   Though his prose seems audaciously honest and exposed, it is in the control and boundaries of the formal verse that Alexie reveals the more vulnerable, raw emotions and insights, like the quiet clarity after a storm of rage or grief, like the unspoken truth of every joke.   Likewise, the prose creates the mythic stories we create to explain our world, which may be just as true, or even “more impressive” than actual truth.   With constant play of language and story, the reader eventually gives up on the idea of absolute truth and autobiography or confession, is forced to meet the poem eye to eye, at face value, as we all want to be met in life.

There is much more to be extracted, for the writer, from Alexie’s Face:  the examination of his use vernacular, his depiction of the body (reminiscent of Olds), and his exploitation of the confessional voice.   Yet, for me, Alexie exemplifies how form can be used to serve the poem and the voice, rather than finding a poem or voice to serve a form.