Pushcart 2014: Natalie Diaz, “Cranes, Mafiosos and a Polaroid Camera” (Poetry) from Spillway, June 2012

Photo by Interaction Design majors, University of Washington

Photo by Interaction Design majors, University of Washington

Just tell me what to do. You know what to do, he pleaded.
I should know how to help my brother by now. He and I have had this
exact conversation before – if I love him, if I really love him,

why haven’t I learned to reassemble a Polaroid camera?
Instead, I told him about the sandbill cranes, the way they dance –
moving into and giving way to one another, bowing down,

cresting and collapsing their wings, necks and shoulders silver
curls of smoky rhythm – but he didn’t believe me. My brother believes
the mafia placed a transmitter deep within his Polaroid camera

but he can’t believe in dancing cranes….

Though the text of this poem isn’t available online, I did find a video of the poet reading (starting at the 3:55 mark). In the minutes before she gets to this poem, we hear a few important details, such as 1) she’s been obsessed with “the Jesus side wound and the variations of it” and 2) her brother is a meth addict and she’s been dealing with her feelings about it through poetry. While I was reading the poem, I understood her brother had some kind of disturbance, but I wasn’t sure what it was until I heard her remarks. Somehow, that makes it sadder – this was not inevitable – and more hopeful – the possibility for change exists. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death last week hit me hard; I hope change comes in time for this man.

The poem is narrative, with a repetitive rhythm to it: short connected phrases rolling into each other. I’m kind of stuck on the “couplets” as relationship thing from a few poems back, and I wonder if the three lines indicate the third person in this relationship, the drugs. But that’s probably a stretch. Because of the “Jesus wound” comment, I wonder if she had in mind instead a trinity.

I was from the start interested in the persona, the “I” of the poem. With fiction, I always find it an interesting exercise to keep a meta-reader eye on my vision of a first-person narrator (which usually starts off as a blank slate) and how it changes through the reading as clues add up: oh it’s a woman; oh, he’s someone named Jack and is 48 years old; oh, she likes to garden. At different points, what does the narrator look like, who does she resemble in my mind? Sometimes it’s me, sometimes it’s someone I know in a similar role or a character from a movie or even another story, sometimes, particularly with gender, it’s based on my impression of the writer. This leads to some interesting discoveries; it’s something I should document more. But I tend to read poetry more like non-fiction than fiction, to assume the “I” of a poem is the poet herself. Here, Diaz clearly takes ownership of the narrator with her prefatory comments, but is that a given? The poem is presented in this anthology in isolation, with no other information – no surrounding poems, no introduction or preface or even liner notes – and it could be a fictional persona; are we “supposed” to assume the “I” is the poet, is that rule of poetry reading? If not, why do we assume she is the narrator, until proved otherwise? Is that a wise assumption to make? How would a poet write a first-person narrative poem that was clearly not self-referential?

Sarah from ModPo drew my attention to the interaction between siblings:

She seems exhausted from the endless stress of their lives with her addicted brother, who is also under endless stress and hopelessness.
I wonder why she spoke about the cranes to him? To show him a part of nature? To allow for a miraculous healing moment to occur, even though it has not happened before? To demonstrate that there can be a little delay before attending to his question? To show that she has a tiny hope that he can connect with something which she can bring to their conversation, rather than stay locked in his own desperate world of need which he is bringing to her?

I’ve read that psychologists have to be on guard lest they enter the delusional systems of their patients, but instead show them a way out. I hear an anguished voice calling for help, and a calming voice, like a parent assuring a child there’s nothing to fear from the thunder. It’s interesting that the speaker of the poem seems to feel guilt that she hasn’t entered his world, she hasn’t come up with a practical solution to reassembling the camera, but I think she can’t, and doesn’t want to, enter his world; so she instead invites him into hers. He is the one who must choose, however.

The whole camera metaphor is pretty astonishing; not just the I’ve-taken-it-apart-help-me-put-it-back-together, the brokenness, fixit-ness, her vision of him in other cameras she sees, but the camera itself: I Am A Camera, observing, recording, but not affecting. Then there are the cranes. What does a crane, the machine, do: it builds, it lifts up, it carries. I’m not sure the camera is her brother and the crane is her, I think they’re both her, in her life she’s the machine crane lifting him as well as creating, and the dancing crane making poetry; but with him she’s also a camera, a poet observing and recording. I think if I were to shoot this as a film, I’d shoot it from the point of view of one of the cranes.

This may combine Sarah’s comment with my interest in POV: I wondered if the other character mentioned, the “she” at the retreat with the camera, is another writer, or if it’s Diaz, seeing herself at something of a distance. She takes the camera apart in her mind, looks at the mirrors. She sees the situation, analyzes it, watches herself, considers her options, then puts it back together. The aperture and wound: what is the difference? Is it in how we view them? How they’re created? How much they hurt, bleed? The camera’s aperture lets in light; can that be the function of a wound? Does her brother’s wound let in any light? Does hers?


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