Death / Feminism / Lit / Society & Culture

Poet Radar: Natalie Diaz on Womanhood


This past weekend, I went to the Brooklyn Book Festival. My world was utterly destroyed by Natalie Diaz. I was lucky enough to have heard Natalie read her poetry and discuss identity & womanhood at a panel hosted by St. Francis College, and moderated by Hafizah Geter.

Her words moved me; her words dove straight into my own mouth, restructuring my cells, taking away some and adding others both newer & stronger. The word ‘move’ is a verb which means, “a change of place or position.”

The noun is movement. After listening to her speak, her tongue rolling over each line-break, I felt I was in a completely new place–a new place where I couldn’t travel backwards. There was no return flight home. It is truly extraordinary to be awakened by the intangible, to re-examine and evaluate your current position, to make the decision to move forward.

I am privileged enough to let poetry shape my life, to be able to have studied it meticulously for six years, having studied literature and creative writing in undergraduate and then later as a graduate student. Education is a privilege most people take for granted; I have not.

Knowledge should not be a business with numbers attached, but a choice. Natalie eloquently touched upon the subject, stating she feels obligated to teach others, to impart what she has learned in her own community.

In her book When My Brother Was an Aztec, she doesn’t shy away from controversial, emotionally wrought subjects, such as tribal life on a reservation, her brother’s addiction to meth, womanhood, and poverty. Most importantly, she writes about being human. She is real about what it means to be human, to be her own person.

In her poem “The Red Blues,” Natalie describes menstruation in metaphoric detail–she does not make it pretty, she does not worry about the speaker censoring herself in an effort to appear “feminine.” The female body, as all bodies, are grotesque in nature. She destroys gender stereotyping with language: “There is a bull between my legs” (11, 8). The appearance of the bull is not only sexual, alluding perhaps to a lover, but transforms the female body as being rough, violent, animalistic, and dominating. The speaker’s body is controlled by the body, not by the mind; the speaker cannot control her menstruation, her womanhood.

In later stanzas, Natalie compares menstruation to a car wreck, a war, a martyr, broken baskets, a dirty bed, a period of exile. The female body is violent. Every month, it bleeds. It can create but also destroy–Natalie directly illustrates the complicated nature of what being a woman is, and dispels feminine stereotypes, particularly that women are submissive and non-violent, by using images such as a “gas tanker in flames,” “pulsing like a bullet hole,” and “the stench of metal.” She continually referred to menstruation, in particular, as grotesque, even describing it through images of waste and loss: “this crimson garbage truck,” “this dirty bed,” “crippled grandmothers…who teach me to vomit,” and ” this orchard stains / like a cemetery”.

During the panel, Natalie noted that many magazines and publishers have constantly rejected her work, because it didn’t fit their idea of what poetry regarding native culture should look like. She explained how many publishers don’t know what to do with her, that she isn’t universal enough. While I understand the inner workings of how poetry is marketed and published, I still sat in my chair amazed. I found her poetry to be nothing but relatable, heart-wrenching pieces of art that are impossible to overlook.

Image courtesy of Narrative Magazine.

Joanna C. Valente currently lives in Brooklyn, where she is a part-time mermaid. She received her MFA in poetry writing from Sarah Lawrence College. Some of her words can be found in decomP, Thrush Poetry Journal, La Fovea, The 22 Magazine, and other places. In 2010, she founded Yes, Poetry. Her ghost resides here@joannasaid


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