My Brother at 3 am by Natalie Diaz is written in a Malay verse form called pantoum. It consists of a specific repetition of verses. In this case, the second line of one stanza becomes the first line of the next, and the fourth line becomes the third. The poet sticks to this pattern exactly for the first couple stanzas but then the word choice begins to vary so that the main point of the line stays the same but it is not composed identically.
The poem was first published in Natalie Diaz’s 2012 volume When My Brother Was an Aztec.
The poem begins with the mother of the speaker and the main character, leaving the house at 3 a.m. to find her son on the porch. He is terrified and believes that someone is trying to kill him. She is in her nightgown and her husband, the son’s father, is asleep, completely unaware of what is going on.
The son is convinced that there is someone who wants to kill him. He feels it intensely. The mother asks who it is that wants to kill him, as she is unable to see anything dangerous outside.
The son reveals that it is in fact that devil, behind “the corner house” that is going to kill him.
The mother does not believe him and asks him what he is “on.” It becomes clear that the brother is not in his right mind, he is an addict and his addiction is causing him to hallucinate. The devil he sees is not really there but a product, and end result, of what he has done to himself.
The poem concludes with the devil drawing closer and finally revealing himself to the mother. Her son, the brother of the speaker, has become the devil. He is gone beyond the point of no return as did Lucifer when he fell from heaven.
The full poem can be read here.
‘My Brother at 3 AM’ speaks on a variety of themes. They include family, fear, addiction, and love. The first and last of these themes, family, and love, go together. But, in this poem, they are complicated by the fact of the brother’s addition. It’s clear at certain points in the poem that the family is at the end of their tether. Perhaps, they feel as if they’ve done all they can for him. Their love might not be gone, but it is becoming exhausted. A reader should also consider if there are limits to love, and if so, where they are.
The next, fear, is tied in directly with addition, as well as family and love. Without the bonds they have with one another their fear for the brother’s safety, and the initial fear that something terrible is happening (which it is but of a different nature) would not exist. It is because of the love that they fear for his safety and hate his addiction.
There is also a secondary aspect of fear in ‘My Brother at 3 AM’ that is, the fear that’s created in the reader as the drama builds and one slowly becomes aware of what’s going on. Even then, there is still a fear for the man’s safety and an expectation of the dangerous path his addiction is taking him down.
Analysis of My Brother at 3 AM
He sat cross-legged, weeping on the stepswhen Mom unlocked and opened the front door.O God, he said. O God.
He wants to kill me, Mom.
The speaker of this piece, the sister of the troubled main character, begins the poem by describing the state that her brother is in. At the start of the first stanza, the bother is outside the house, sitting on the stairs, “weeping.” The mother, of both the brother and speaker, exits the house and the brother turns to her. He says, “O God…O God.”
The brother is desperate and he seems to be panicking. He believes that something, or someone, “wants to kill [him].”
When Mom unlocked and opened the front door(…)looking over his shoulder.
As it will in each of the following stanzas, the second line of the first stanza is the first line of the second stanza and the fourth line of the first stanza becomes the third.
In this section of the poem the speaker is repeating what she has described in the first stanza but with some more detail. She inserts a few pieces of information that give the reader a clearer image of the situation and setting.
When the mom is unlocking the door it is “at 3 a.m.” and she is wearing her “nightgown.” This adds an element of darkness to the poem. The brother’s desperate state is not on a bright and sunny day but in the middle of the night. Although the reader is unsure what exactly is happening, and whether someone is really trying to kill the brother, one can assume it’s nothing good.
One difference between this stanza and the previous is the way in which the brother’s words are relayed. In the first stanza, there is that clear element of desperation but in the second stanza, he is calmer. As if this is something that he experiences all the time and he is just reminding his mother.
3 a.m. and in her nightgown, Dad asleep,(…)The devil does. Look at him, over there.
The same scene from the previous stanza is continuing as the fourth line becomes the third, and the second line becomes the first. It appears that the mother and perhaps the speaker, are the only ones that are awoken by the brother. The father, “Dad,” is asleep.
In this section the mother is able to question her son, asking, “What’s going on?” And “Who wants to kill you?” These words are not spoken in fear, as if she really believes there is someone outside who wants to hurt her son. Instead, it is as if she is just going along with the idea to see where it will lead. Perhaps, the reader might think, this has happened before. In the last line of this stanza, the brother reveals that is it the “devil” that wishes to kill him and that the brother can see him, “over there.”
She asked, What are you on? Who wants to kill you?(…)He pointed to the corner house.
At this point in ‘My Brother At 3 AM’, the reader realizes that what the brother is seeing is probably not real and that he may be hallucinating. This assumption is enhanced when the mom asks, “What are you on?”
Now it becomes clear that this entire situation revolves around drug use. The brother is a drug addict whose addiction has brought him out in the middle of the night at 3 a.m. and caused him to believe he is in physical danger from someone other than himself.
This stanza of ‘My Brother At 3 AM’ gives some more details about the setting and the type of night it is. The night itself is unusual and somewhat sickly seeming. It was not “black or blue” but coloured a “dying green.” The brother then proceeds to point away from him to the devil he sees at the “corner house.”
The sky wasn’t black or blue but the dying green of night.(…)His lips flickered with sores.
Once more the lines are repeated. The speaker describes the “Stars” as having “closed their eyes,” they have put out their pinpoints of light and “sheathed their knives.” These spots of brightness have disappeared leaving the sky that sickly green. The brother is still pointing across to the corner house and the light from the house illuminates his face so that the mother and speaker can see the “sores” on his lips. These sores were most likely caused by the consistent use of meth.
Stars had closed their eyes or sheathed their knives.(…)It’s sticking out from behind the house.
The mother continues to look at her son. Her eyes are focused, and stuck, on the sores on “his lips.” She does not look away. The son, on the other hand, is seeing the devil draw closer. He is panicked again. He says, “O God, I can see the tail…O God, look.” The devil is coming out from behind the corner house and moving closer to him. It is bearing down, ready to consume him.
O God, see the tail, he said. Look at the goddamned tail.(…)O God, O God, she said.
In the final stanza of ‘My Brother at 3 AM’, the brother has become the devil he feared. He has become death, and sin, and the epitome of all the bad decisions he has made. The brother continues to speak in this section, he sees the tail and says to his mother, “Look at the goddamned tail”. He is weeping, unable to control himself.
The poem ends with the mother finally seeing the devil, but not as her son did. The son has become the creature that was intended to kill him. He is “a hellish vision”. He is, the speaker believes, beyond reach. Just like the angel Lucifer, he has fallen with no hope of return.
About Natalie Diaz
Natalie Diaz was born in the Fort Mojave Indian Village in Needles, California. She is a memory of the Gila River Indian community and received her MFA from Old Dominion. Diaz has received a number of literary awards and commendations for her collection When My Brother Was an Aztec. She is a teacher at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona.