Smart, funny, tender, and always sharp with language, Joanne Diaz’s new book of poems My Favorite Tyrants is both elegy and celebration of those tyrants—cultural, historical, mythical, and personal—that shape our understanding of our current selves and the world we’ve produced. Divided into three sections, “The Perimeter of Pleasure,” “Elegy,” and “Metastasis,” the occasion for these poems is centered around the sudden and tragic loss of the speaker’s mother, a mother while dearly loved and respected, was perhaps, in her own way, a bit of a (shall I say it?) tyrant.
Diaz’s poems contain complex narratives and formal structures that beckon for close readings. Her voice is unexpected at times, ironic, and also humorous—one of the hardest gestures to make in poetry. In the first section of the book, Diaz calls out to historical tyrants: Dhugashvili, Franco, and Lenin to name a few. She also suggests certain cultural ones, too: Brian Williams, Cesar Millan, and Larry David. But, there are personal ones mingling: the Queen Bee (her mother), a neighbor’s husband, and family members. Of course, these aren’t all tyrants in the traditional sense. If anything, Diaz exposes the tyrant self in all of us, approaching each poem—each tyrant rather—with sarcasm, cynicism, and above all else, tenderness. She writes, “Don’t get me wrong— / I have my favorite tyrants.” In this same poem, “a la Turka,” she describes Lenin’s preserved body not yet buried and the people who must clean it, ending with, “It’s astonishing, that face, like a clean machine made of sadness.” Just when we expect Diaz to be highly critical, she surprises us with a sudden melancholy.
At her best, Diaz is highly lyric and elegiac: “. . . when our struggle to wake each day is the perimeter / of our pleasure, will you remember those days of fire, / when we burned to touch and be touched by all things?” This lyricism is embedded in a deep sense of form and control. Often writing in couplets or tercets, Diaz uses the line to create a precise tension, so tangible in these poems, that we can almost hold it.
The second section, “Elegy,” grapples with the loss of a mother and the new world without her. In “Barbershop,” Diaz walks us through a town, past elementary schools, libraries, the rotary, and a senior center. At first she describes, but then the poem slowly reveals details: her mother’s flu shot, the funeral home, the flower shop. Finally, we arrive at the barbershop, where her father now receives his first haircut, the first after forty-eight years of marriage, and he must learn a new language among strangers: “My wife has died.” We later learn that the woman who thought she’d never die was buried against her wishes, instead of having been cremated. What is at stake in these poems is the honest and raw sense of grief. The poems attack loss at different angles: some with avoidance, withdrawal, and detachment, others with apology.
Despite this, though, Diaz does not romanticize an idealized version of her mother; rather, she’s tough with her, offering complex histories that explore a complicated world. In a personal favorite poem, “Cuba Libre,” the speaker’s parents dress up their baby son as Fidel Castro for Halloween. Diaz opens the poem: “It’s hard to know how or when an emotion turns / from its original liquid into the mineral hardness / of finished feeling. . . .” Diaz weaves personal and historical narrative seamlessly, ultimately arriving a present that is critical but also empathetic of the past.
In the third section, we receive the most of the lyric “I.” “Pride and Prejudice” offers a cautionary tale of leading a book discussion for an “heiress of a major American department store” and the pitfalls of approaching a conversation about finances in the book. Surprisingly witty and comic, Diaz also tells of herself and reappearing friend “Lori Dembkoski” as young girls who later read from Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex* (but were afraid to ask). We see that toward the end of the book Diaz is surfacing from a season of grieving: “Nearly done now with this winter of grieving / and everywhere I see a wing, a flourish, / a flower emerging from the pupa // of February’s closet.”
My Favorite Tyrants by Joanne Diaz is a must read. These poems are diverse, humble, witty, smart, and always striking. Diaz so wonderfully explores the many voices of the poet, a voice that ends on a note of strength and hope.