NPM Curated Poem 4: Natalie Diaz’s “My Brother at 3am”

Today’s poem is a pantoum by Natalie Diaz, who was once a professional basketball player in Europe and a successful NCAA basketball player in her college days.  She’s a great poet, obviously, too.

A pantoum is a Malayan form that’s been brought into French and English—you’ll see the form emerge as you read the poem, which I got from www.poetryfoundation.org:

 

My Brother at 3 A.M.

By Natalie Diaz

He sat cross-legged, weeping on the steps

when Mom unlocked and opened the front door.

        O God, he said. O God.

                He wants to kill me, Mom.

 

When Mom unlocked and opened the front door

at 3 a.m., she was in her nightgown, Dad was asleep.

        He wants to kill me, he told her,

                looking over his shoulder.

 

3 a.m. and in her nightgown, Dad asleep,

What’s going on? she asked. Who wants to kill you?

        He looked over his shoulder.

                The devil does. Look at him, over there.

 

She asked, What are you on? Who wants to kill you?

The sky wasn’t black or blue but the green of a dying night.

        The devil, look at him, over there.

                He pointed to the corner house.

 

The sky wasn’t black or blue but the dying green of night.

Stars had closed their eyes or sheathed their knives.

        My brother pointed to the corner house.

                His lips flickered with sores.

 

Stars had closed their eyes or sheathed their knives.

O God, I can see the tail, he said. O God, look.

        Mom winced at the sores on his lips.

                It’s sticking out from behind the house.

 

O God, see the tail, he said. Look at the goddamned tail.

He sat cross-legged, weeping on the front steps.

        Mom finally saw it, a hellish vision, my brother.

                O God, O God, she said.

 

I love the personification in “[s]tars had closed their eyes or sheathed their knives,” which lends them a danger that underscores what her brother has been going through in the middle of the night as he battles his addiction and the attendant hallucinations.  I also love the apposition in “Mom finally saw it, a hellish vision, my brother,” meaning that she both sees the brother for what he really is—that is, recognizes his addiction and its severity—and also as the “hellish vision” himself.  I also love that the brother’s “O God” becomes the mother’s “O God,” a movement made possible by the pantoum form.  It’s a great way to create content using form.

This poem is from Diaz’s great debut collection, When My Brother Was an Aztec (Copper Canyon, 2012), a favorite of my students for many good reasons (humor, “accessibility,” relatability, lyricism–I could go on).

YOUR ASSIGNMENT:  Write a pantoum.  You can find the instructions here.  Take the second and fourth lines of your first stanza, and make them the first and third lines of the second stanza.  Then, take the second and fourth lines of that stanza, and make them the first and third lines of the third stanza, and so on.  The repetitions should allow for variation of meaning as they appear in new contexts, as Diaz’s “O God” shifts from the brother’s to the mother’s mouth in the moment of the mother’s recognition of the brother’s situation.

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