Book Review: Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz

Winner of the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, Natalie Diaz’s Postcolonial Love Poem is a powerful collection of ecopoetry that forefronts the interconnectedness of humans, animals, land, and water. Throughout, Diaz also underscores the relationship between the destruction of America’s natural landscapes and resources and the genocide of its indigenous peoples, demonstrating how ecological and racial violence are deeply linked to one another.

Many of the collection’s poems implore readers to think about—and, more, to feel—the devastation that comes with the polluting of our waters and destruction of our waterways.  Diaz was born and raised in the Fort Mojave Indian Village in Needles, California, on the banks of the Colorado River, and the river itself features prominently in her poems. In “How the Milky Way Was Made,” Diaz writes “my river was once unseparated. Was Colorado… Able to take / anything it could wet—in a wild rush / all the way to Mexico. / Now it is shattered by fifteen dams / over one thousand four hundred and fifty miles, / pipes and pumps filling / swimming pools and sprinklers / in Los Angeles and Las Vegas.”

In “The First Water Is the Body,” written partly to honor Standing Rock protestors, Diaz writes of the vital but increasingly vulnerable relationship between our waters and ourselves: “The Colorado River is the most endangered river in the United States—also, it is a part of my body. / I carry a river. It is who I am: …This is not a metaphor.” Emphasizing that water is “not external from our body, our self,” Diaz insists upon the importance of protecting bodies of water as we would protect human life—indeed, she suggests there is no real separation between the two: “the water we drink, like the air we breathe, is not a part of our body but is our body.”

The Colorado River is the most endangered river in the US and has been a focal point of the nation’s water and climate crisis

Other nations have begun to recognize and respect this vital relationship, Diaz notes: in New Zealand, for example, the Whanganui River now has the same legal rights as a human, and in India the Ganges and Yamuna Rivers hold the same legal status as human beings. In Slovenia, clean drinking water has been constitutionally declared a human right. But in America, “we are teargasing and rubber-bulleting and kenneling Natives trying to protect their water from pollution and contamination at Standing Rock in North Dakota. We have yet to discover what the effects of lead-contaminated water will be on the children of Flint, Michigan, who have been drinking it for years.” Black and brown bodies are particularly vulnerable to the effects of water pollution and contamination, and the contrast Diaz depicts between “swimming pools and sprinklers” in wealthy areas of Los Angeles and poisoned water running from the taps in Flint is a glaring one.

Protestors express opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline, with signs reading “Defend the Sacred” and “Water is Life”

In one of the book’s most powerful poems, “exhibits from The American Water Museum,” Diaz imagines what a Museum of American Water might consist of—the exhibits and artifacts it might have, the information it might share and withhold, the people it might cater to or ignore.  Among other things, Diaz’s imagined museum has “a dilapidated diorama of the mythical city of Flint, Michigan”; “blueprints from another water restoration project”; “marginalia from the BIA Watermongers Congressional Records, redacted”; and “grief counselors on site for those who / realize / they have entered The American Water Museum / not as / patrons but rather as parts of the new exhibit.” Admission to the museum, Diaz writes, would be “general and free / except for what the children pay— / and they pay in the kidneys.” This is a poem which asks us to look simultaneously to the past and to the future—to see the damage we have already done, as well as the destruction we may yet cause, both stretching over multiple generations. Elsewhere in the book, Diaz wonders whether it is already too late to change, to salvage our waters and ourselves: “do you think the water will forget,” she asks, “what we have / done, what we continue to do?”

Through haunting words like these, Postcolonial Love Poem urges readers to action, imploring us to love and care for the water and land as we do our most dearly beloveds: to make our relationship with the water and land that of a love poem.

Diaz, who is Mojave and a member of the Gila River Indian Tribe, is also the author of When My Brother Was an Aztec (2012). In addition to her creative work, she teaches at Arizona State University and works to preserve the Mojave language. Diaz was a 2018 recipient of the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship.

Postcolonial Love Poem joins several other recent collections of ecopoetry, including The Ecopoetry Anthology (2020) and Ghost Fishing: An Eco-Justice Poetry Anthology (2018).

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