Much has been written and said about Natalie Diaz’s second collection, Postcolonial Love Poem. It is an extraordinary and complex book that discusses among many other things the long history of oppression in the United States of the Mojave people and the legacy of that oppression. As a nature poet however, I would like to focus on its power as a collection of nature poetry. Diaz discusses the function and power of water in California in a way that I have never seen it done before, directly addressing its importance to the person and the community and the casual way that we in the United States treat it.
I live in an area called the Inland Empire just to the east and north of Los Angeles that is much warmer and drier than Los Angeles itself. My friend who works for the water district tells me that typically a drop of water that lands in the mountains near my house will pass through three people before it reaches the ocean. It must be processed and reprocessed if we are to keep up with water supply demands. Diaz lives even farther inland where there is much less water.
There are people in inland California that treat water casually and do not understand its importance, and Diaz’s poetry illuminates the threats to it and its importance. In “The First Water Is the Body,” She writes, “The Colorado River is the most endangered river in the United States — also, it is a part of my body . . . We carry the river, its body of water, in our body” (46-47). Here, she illustrates the connection of river and person. In a real way, the two are not just interconnected. They are one. A river is not just the riverbed, but the entire watershed of a region, and humans, who carry that water are a part of the watershed, so much so, that the water district considered the people in the Inland Empire are considered a resevoir themselves. We often forget this, but here and throughout the collection, draws our attention to the fact again and again.
Having established the importance of all rivers to human existence and experience, Diaz then demonstrates how badly Americans treat all of their rivers. Perhaps, she does this most powerfully in “exhibits from The American Water Museum ” when she discusses the tragedy of Flint, Michigan where ill-conceived cost-saving measures ended up with lead being introduced into the drinking water. Though this happened years ago, the lead levels have been diminishing at a frustratingly slow pace, and people are not sure what effect this will have on the children of the area. Diaz uses the callous treatment of the people who live there as emblematic of the way water is treated throughout the United States. She writes of those children as she imagines a diorama in her Water Museum, “Now the children lie flat on the floor of the diorama, like they are sleeping, open-eyed to the sight, to what they have seen through their mouths” (65).
Diaz’s insight into the way the United States is destroying itself is tied to her postcolonial perspective. It is, of course, the marginalized communities who suffer most from environmental degredation because there is a false sense that some communities are in some way divorced from the natural world. Diaz illustrates how wrong and dangerous this notion is.
John Brantingham 26th January 2021