Review by Emma Bussi
Perhaps the best way to begin with Natalie Diaz’s much anticipated second collection, Postcolonial Love Poem (Faber, 2020), is through a proposition it makes to the reader in a poem called ‘Snake-Light’:
Let’s say it’s all text – the animal, the dune,
the wind in the cottonwood, and the body.
Here, it really is text: the dune, and the cottonwood, and especially, the body. One of the ways this collection stands out is how these things find their way onto the page, into text. Over the course of this stunning collection, words are revised, deconstructed, and meanings shift as Diaz translates a world into text. What is at issue then is the slippage, what gets lost in translation, and who a translation is for. At heart is the dangerous intimacy – love, even – of such a relationship.
This love, which is indicated by the title and which animates this collection as it moves between shorter lyrics and longer, more ambitious poems, is transfigured through the body of the speaker and that of the listener: ‘I’ve only ever escaped through her body’, the speaker intimates in ‘Like Church’. The body of the beloved in these poems is an intimate space through which one can be translated into something else, a means of escaping one’s own subjectivity.
Of course, how this is managed when one is alone, effectively isolated by race and culture, is another question:
I’m the only Native American
on the 8th floor of this hotel or any,
looking out any window
of a turn-of-the-century building
By suggesting the textuality of everything, the collection becomes an exploration of what it means to understand, to know and to share knowledge. Knowledge here, however, has less to do with a taking of information than as a mode of being – one that must, in a profound sense, be shared. All the same, there is a sense that Diaz recognises the persistent boundaries between the speaker of the poems and the recipients. Where, in one moment, she asserts knowledge, in the next, she rewrites or revises it. ‘The things I know aren’t easy,’ she admits.
And of course, they aren’t. As a Native American woman, the languages she speaks and how its colonial history has altered them is something that is always at issue. At times, she treats these issues with a dispassionate accuracy, whilst, at others, with a tonality that might suggest mercy. ‘I am begging’, the speaker says in ‘American Arithmetic’: ‘Let me be lonely but not invisible.’
What haunts these poems, as they are ‘translated’ through the body of the speaker, is the question of the listener, the recipient, the beloved. Just how much of one’s experience can be shared without distorting it beyond recognition? ‘Who is this translation for and will they come to my language’s four-night funeral to grieve what has been lost in my efforts at translation?’, Diaz’s speaker wonders. The question of the consequences of translation, of making something broadly comprehensible, are left, painfully open.
One of the most compelling features of this collection is the many ways Diaz explicitly refuses to ‘translate’ her knowledge for audiences, many – if not most – of whom are likely white. Some lines in Spanish and Mojave are deliberately left untranslated. In other instances, such as in ‘The First Water Is the Body’, Diaz attempts to translate a Mojave saying, ‘‘Aha Makav’, which Diaz translates into English as ‘the river runs through the middle of our body, the same way it runs through the middle of our land.’ All the same, Diaz acknowledges that ‘this is a poor translation, like all translations.’
This weaving of attempts to translate that are then rescinded further demonstrates how engaging with this collection goes beyond traditional acts of reading and acquiring knowledge, since the poems are often resistant to any 1-to-1 meaning-making. There is the text of course, but this text is an act of translation, an act in which the reader is asked to participate rather than passively receive. This refusal of fixed meaning recalls J.H. Prynne’s definition of resistance
as an alternative criterion of intelligibility, one which does not undermine the “presence, actuality and existence” of an object or person, but which makes accessible the fact of its existence without impairing its status as a substantial, independent entity.
(‘Resistance and Difficulty’, 1961).
Exemplifying the inherent instability of translation in ‘The First Water Is the Body’, Diaz takes a poetic trope of the river and translates it not just once, but over and over again. Yes, water is a part of our body, but Diaz expands this to include the fate of an entire group of people – not just one body but bodies in relation with one another. ‘If I say, My river is disappearing, do I also mean, My people are disappearing?’ It is a sober reminder of the climate crisis, and of the communities that will (and have already begun to) suffer first.
This is where the collection finds itself touching on the ecopoetic, a topic that, in comparison to the others, feels somewhat incomplete. The topic is just so all-encompassing that these few lines don’t feel sufficient, nor are they woven through the rest of the poems.
Diaz remains at her most piercingly centred when she combines the questions around knowledge and love, both themes that exist at the site of the body. She writes in ‘Manhattan Is a Lenape Word’:
Somewhere far from New York City,
an American drone finds then loves
a body—the radiant nectar it seeks
through great darkness—makes
a candle—hour of it, and burns
gently along it, like American touch,
an unbearable heat
This extract, apart from exposing Diaz at her most syntactically compelling, demonstrates the ways in which Diaz exploits the tenuous understanding of what it means to love a body. It is a deeply upsetting but lucid take on the American violence that accompanies love. The intimacy presented here extends to the intimacy of translation in all its multitudes, whether it be by escaping through another’s body, translating one’s knowledges for someone else, even the horrible intimacy of an American drone being translated into American touch.
This is easily one of the most powerful collections to be released this year, but there’s no denying that what these poems offer is far from easy. To sit with them, to translate them into one’s body, is important, even as it is to take an almost ‘unbearable heat.’
Emma Bussi is a poet and MLitt student at St Andrews. Their research interests include trans poetics and the diaries of Paul Klee.