One of the most interesting poetry debuts of the last few years has been that of Natalie Diaz. Part of the interest in her is certainly because of a compelling personal story. Diaz grew up on the Fort Mojave Indian Reservation along the Colorado River. Her father was Spanish and her mother Native. After studying on the east coast and playing basketball professionally in Europe, she returned for graduate school and then a job working to revitalize the Mojave language. Much of this cultural information informs her poems and gives those of us who know little about it a glimpse into a rich history.

That cultural material and her family’s story also give the poems a deep sense of urgency. None of these poems feel frivolous. Although there are genuine moments of vision and humor in her first book, When My Brother Was an Aztec, there is also a very real anger. The title poem, which turns her brother’s drug addiction into a horrifying vision of the family he has damaged, begins: “He lived in our basement and sacrificed my parents / every morning. It was awful. Unforgivable. But they kept coming / back for more. They loved him, was all they could say.” Her brother’s addiction also becomes the telling image of the losses the Mojave people have suffered, even as it remains the tragic story of one man.

Diaz’s background, education, and reading have given her a broad range of reference. The brother becomes an Aztec god, “Huitzilopochtli, a god, half-man, half-hummingbird.” But more local myths and stories come in, too, as well as Christian and Greek mythology. Her literary references also move across cultures, from the Bible and the Koran to Spanish proverbs, Rimbaud, Whitman, Lorca, Borges, and a whole group of quieter references. This poet stretches all across the world to find the languages that can tell the story she needs to tell.

Diaz doesn’t find any easy answers to her devastating story. She doesn’t presume to say that love will be the answer for pain, even when she writes about the love she has for her family and her people. But at the very end of the book, she offers a measure of hope, one more powerful because of its restraint:

maybe you no longer haul those wounds with you

onto every bus, through the side streets of a new town,

maybe you have never set them rocking in the lamplight

on a nightstand beside a stranger’s bed, carrying your hurts

like two cracked pomegranates, because you haven’t learned

to see the beauty of a busted fruit, the bright stain it will leave

on your lips, the way it will make people want to kiss you.

Natalie Diaz reads at UMMA on February 26.