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The Poem “American Arithmetic” by Natalie Diaz

The “American Arithmetic” by Natalie Diaz is a poem that reflects the effect of racism and police brutality in America. The author narrates from the perspective of a Native American and expresses her dissatisfaction with racism and favoritism witnessed in the country. The poem describes the challenges facing native and non-native Americans and the factors influencing their interactions. The large numbers of Native Americans’ deaths reveal the role of the police in racism, segregation, and murder. I chose this poem due to its relevance and structure, which allows me to explore the points made and reflect on America’s past and current situation. I have always felt that Americans do not enjoy their lives as they should. The American dream seems to have remained just a dream. The author uses literary and rhetorical devices to package his message in an attractive and well-structured format prompting readers’ attention and interest. This essay addresses the poem’s ambiguous points by focusing on the authors’ use of rhetorical devices. The author uses hypophora, anaphora, and irony to introduce ambiguous points that can be interpreted through the lens of the rhetorical devices used.

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The author’s use of irony introduces an ambiguity in the poem “American Arithmetic.” The line “O, mine efficient country” is ironic and ambiguous (Diaz, 2018). The author talks of American segregation and unfair treatment of natives then refers to his country as efficient. This statement is ambiguous because the line of efficiency is not defined nor explained in the stanzas that follow. The ironic statement raises one question in me, “is inefficiency defined by the unfair treatment of Native Americans only? After careful analysis of the statement in line with the rhetorical device used, I realize that the author was reinforcing their idea of Native Americans’ importance. According to Diaz (2018), a country that does not consider the interests of its native citizens is inefficient.

The second ambiguous point appears in the seventh stanza, where the author uses hypophora. In the following lines, “I’m not good at math—can you blame me? I’ve had an American education.” the author presents an ambiguity that sparks some questions in my mind. Hypophora entails using a question that invites the reader to ponder about it than providing an answer. After reading the lines above, I had few questions in my mind. What has the American education got to do with being poor at Maths? How bad is American Education? Is the author referring to literary arithmetic analysis, or is this a rhetorical tool used to imply something entirely different? Whose responsibility is it to learn and comprehend Maths? After careful analysis of the lines above, I realize that the author implied that American education had not equipped them with arithmetic skills (Diaz, 2018). American education seems to have brainwashed people into following the rule of law without looking at losers and winners. The Native Americans seem to be on the losing side, and the author uses hypophora to prompt readers to ponder on the question of how good they are at math. The author asks the readers to question their analysis and realize that American education, not the classroom education but rather the circumstances surrounding American lives, has blinded them to the reality of their lives.

Ambiguity is presented in the author’s use of anaphora, as they emphasize their theme. The following lines reveal how the author used repetition of similar words in successive clauses:

“In an American city of one hundred people,
I am Native American—less than one, less than
Whole—I am less than myself. Only a fraction
of a body, let’s say I am only a hand—” (Diaz, 2018)

In the lines above, the author repeats the words “less than” to emphasize that Native Americans are not living their lives as they should. These lines are used to show the author’s disappointment of being made to live a life below what they should. They compare their existence to a hand, whereas they should be the whole body according to them. When the author says that in a city of one hundred Americans, they are less than one, I got the sense that they are implying non-existence. How can it be that Native Americans seem non-existent, whereas non-native Americans seem to be living well? After careful analysis of the text, I understood that the author was not referring to literal numbers but rather pointing out that being a Native American should mean more than it does at the moment. They should have a say, and their impact should be felt. Native Americans should not be just a hand but a more significant portion of the body. My analysis reveals that the author’s key message was not literal numbers of Americans who die in the hands of the police but rather the things that die inside Americans while they still live. This was not clear in the first read and only came out clearly after the analysis.

In conclusion, Diaz’s poem “American Arithmetic” illustrates how poets’ rhetorical strategies introduce ambiguity in their works. In this poem, the author used hypophora, anaphora, and irony, among other rhetoric strategies, to call for readers’ inquiry. The first body paragraph reveals that, unlike my original thoughts, the author’s message was about a weak political system that undermines American’s freedom. The second and third body paragraphs opened my mind to a great discovery that replaced my initial thoughts after the first read. After careful analysis of hypophora and anaphora, I realized that the author’s deep meaning was that although Native Americans are many, their numbers mean nothing. Diaz (2018) implies that a large population without freedom is ineffective and meaningless. The poem’s message of racism and discrimination is relevant because it reflects the issues that have recently caused social and political unrest in the U.S. This message is significant as it calls for people’s attention to eliminate racism because it has limited Americans’ freedom. Racism destroys national cohesion and limits economic growth and development.

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Diaz, N. (2018). American Arithmetic. (C. Forche, Ed). The Mighty Stream: Poems in celebration of Martin Luther King.

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