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I Judas Horse
[Note: Each month we feature a guest post from a contributor to Poetry’s current issue. Natalie Diaz’s “My Brother My Wound” and “It Was the Animals” appear in the March 2014 issue. Previous posts in this series can be found on the Editors’ Blog.]
So, how does it feel to still be writing about your brother? The easy nerve of the questioners used to anger me, until I realized that it’s not my question, so I owe it no answer. It’s someone else’s question, someone else’s expectation for my work, for their own work maybe.
Maybe my writing is never about my brother. Maybe it is always about me, what I don’t understand, what I fear the most. I fear my incapability to solve my brother’s suffering and the suffering he causes. Worse, I fear what I am capable of—my own capacity for despair, for the things unGod, for my ability to set both mine and my brother’s awkward hearts into the pool of lamplight on my desk and give them names.
It feels like a lot of things—like Judas, and horse, and love.
When the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) rounds up wild mustangs from the desert, it is called a “gather,” and it happens because the BLM says the mustangs devour the land’s resources, which the cattle need. Gathers are carried out by helicopter—flown low, pilot and machine tilted forward, rotors spinning like saws. So low they fly, dust from the stampede below is funneled high into the sky. So loud the rotors, the strike of hooves against earth is silenced, slow-motioned even. The helicopters are space-cowboy-like and press down upon the herd, driving the horses deep into washes, up over hills, and across the openness in the direction of the makeshift captivity corrals.
The gather of these wild beings also requires a great betrayer—a Judas-horse—trained by the BLM and released under cover into the herd, to lead them to the trap. The pied piper of horses parading them toward a dim end.
I have an obsession—a fear of—betrayal. The revelation of something that should be kept secret. The revelation of something that cannot be kept secret. The double-guilt of my brother’s story—first, the inability to change the conclusion of that story, second, the decision to tell it. But isn’t it my story too?
Judas Iscariot appears and disappears in many early drafts of my poems. Occasionally, he lasts. In the poem, which is also a fiction story, “How to Go to Dinner With a Brother On Drugs,” I arrive to take my brother to dinner. He comes to the door dressed as Judas. By the end of the poem, my brother’s Judasness is only a costume—one I have suggested he commit to more fully by wearing a lamp cord knotted around his neck. At dinner, a cock crows from inside him, but it is the speaker, the “I,” who presents the waitress and the reader with thirty pieces of silver. After all, didn’t Jesus say, The hand of my betrayer is with me on the table, and haven’t I betrayed my brother by inviting him to the table for my readers to witness?
Maybe this whole notion of Judas is complicated by the fact that my brother has recently begun calling himself a prophet. He has recounted several moments to me in which people from the small town where we grew up have lined the sidewalks and alleyways, tossing empty beer cans at his bare feet, calling out to him, Prophet! Prophet! And since the word prophet is connected to the Latin vates, his apostles can be interpreted as calling out to him, Poet! Poet!
The wild mustangs of the desert are supposedly descendants of Army Cavalry horses. The Cavalry men were brutal to Mojaves when they came to our lands. In some ways, my brother is a descendant of that Cavalry as well. The animals and ghosts those men left behind have been running, gathering speed, gathering dust storms, and thunder that booms in us today.
When I wrote the poem “It Was the Animals,” one of two poems included in the March issue of Poetry, the first version began in the real-life moment when my brother appeared at my door carrying his “ark.” I had been at my table writing. My notebook was open. I let him into my home, and he unwrapped his ark, speaking rapidly, aggressively, magically even. He often feels magic to me, perhaps because it is difficult for me to accept the reality of him. When he finally left, I wrote down verbatim the things he had said. That was the first draft of “It Was the Animals.” I didn’t write it down to build a poem. I wrote it down because that is what I do with the things that unravel me. I drag them across a page. When I look back at that entry now, I see that I barely touched my pen to the pages—the ink is faint, the letters unjoined, like they might disappear, like threads I might be able to sweep out of the book and onto the floor. Does this seeming hesitancy to write about it make me less Judas, less Judas-horse?
If so, then what about the pictures? I have pictures of that day too. I didn’t want to take them. He insisted. That is, my brother begged me to take pictures, For proof, he said, For when it happens. By “it,” he meant the flood, the thing that would drown us both.
Today, I can barely look at the pictures. My brother’s eyes seem to be moving in them, his face is agitated—like a Francis Bacon painting—charged, not like a photograph should be and even less like a brother should be.
There is a line in the poem, “He held the jagged piece of wood so gently,” and this gentleness is shown in the photos. It is an editable line, perhaps. Sentimental, maybe. Not obviously powerful or exciting. But the truest emotion I can remember, or at least one that I have fought to remember from that day. In those frantic, atom-static moments, my brother was gentle with his piece of ark, his sliver of salvation. And maybe that is why I have kept those pictures on my phone—because his ravaged hands seem for the first time like miracles, because I can see my brother in them—my real brother—and I will take any part of that boy that I can find.
Or, maybe it is the Judas part of me who wants to keep them. The part that wonders what they will allow me to betray of my love for him, what they will allow me to betray of this world where we gather handsome, wild things and lead them to slaughter.
Maybe if I read Borges’s “Three Versions of Judas” enough times, maybe then I will know an answer. Maybe the answer is that Jesus asked Judas to betray him, needed Judas to betray him. Doesn’t this answer transform my betrayal of my brother into my devotion of him? Or, maybe in the end I am no different from Runeberg, and I will use Judas as I need him, and in the end become Judas. Because I do feel it in me, the Judas—I wander through the garden of our despair and make it bloom—I lead you to my brother again and again. But don’t I also love him? Don’t I also kiss him on the cheek?