My Brother at 3 A.M.

Natalie Diaz

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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.

Natalie Diaz, “My Brother at 3 A.M.” from When My Brother Was an Aztec. Copyright © 2012 by Natalie Diaz. Reprinted by permission of Copper Canyon Press, https://www.coppercanyonpress.org/

Source: When My Brother Was an Aztec (Copper Canyon Press, 2012)

Dive in: 
  1. This poem is a pantoum: The second and fourth lines of each stanza are repeated as the first and third lines of the next stanza. The repeating lines seem to recreate while simultaneously deconstructing the scene. How do you think the repetition adds to the poem?
  2. Who is the speaker in this poem? What is the purpose of having the speaker in a nonparticipatory role? What is the speaker revealing in this witnessing?
  3. Note how in the third stanza the word choice in the repeating lines begin to vary. How does this modification to the pantoum form add, or detract, from the poem?
  4. How does the form mirror such an emotional scene in the dead of night with the sleepy confusion of the characters?
  5. The repeating lines spiral a calmness around the frantic energy of the brother. Try reciting the poem once calmly, and then in an agitated fashion. Which recitation suits your reading of the poem?
  6. How do you read the shift in the poem when the mother sees the devil and it is her son?
  7. Try writing your own pantoum. Consider how your repeating lines might change meaning throughout the poem. Make sure the lines are worth repeating. What do you want to explore in the echoing lines?

Useful links:

 

An interview with Natalie Diaz:

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/jul/02/natalie-diaz-postcolonial-love-poem-shortlisted-forward-prize-collection-interview