Alberto Ríos’s “Nani”

I just realized this week that I have not yet posted a Latino poem. Time to rectify that omission by presenting a poem from one of my favorite Mexican American writers, Alberto Ríos. This poem comes from Ríos’s book Whispering to Fool the Wind, which won the Walt Whitman Award (for emerging poets) in 1982.


Sitting at her table, she serves
the sopa de arroz to me
instinctively, and I watch her,
the absolute mamá, and eat words
I might have had to say more
out of embarrassment. To speak,
now-foreign words I used to speak,
too, dribble down her mouth as she serves
me albondigas. No more
than a third are easy to me.
By the stove she does something with words
and looks at me only with her
back. I am full. I tell her
I taste the mint, and watch her speak
smiles at the stove. All my words
make her smile. Nani never serves
herself, she only watches me
with her skin, her hair. I ask for more.

I watch the mamá warming more
tortillas for me. I watch her
fingers in the flame for me.
Near her mouth, I see a wrinkle speak
of a man whose body serves
the ants like she serves me, then more words
from more wrinkles about children, words
about this and that, flowing more
easily from these other mouths. Each serves
as a tremendous string around her,
holding her together. They speak
nani was this and that to me
and I wonder just how much of me
will die with her, what were the words
I could have been, or was. Her insides speak
through a hundred wrinkles, now, more
than she can bear, steel around her,
shouting, then, What is this thing she serves?

She asks me if I want more.
I own no words to stop her.
Even before I speak, she serves.

“Nani” is a sestina, which is a complicated fixed form that requires the repetition of the final words of each of the first six lines according to a set pattern, which you can read more about here. A strict sestina has six stanzas of six lines each, with a three-line “envoi,” or short stanza at the end. Ríos’s poem has the requisite 39 lines, and repeats the line-ending words (me, more, words, her, speak, and serve) in the appropriate order, but he divides his poem only into two larger stanzas and the envoi. I love the way that the repeated words take on different shades of meaning with each iteration. At some points, “serve” means “function,” as in “each serves / as a tremendous string around her.” At other points, it denotes the immediate action of delivering food, as in “she serves / the sopa de arroz.” And at the end of the poem, it takes on a much broader symbolic significance, connoting submission and self-sacrifice.

The poem is about the speaker’s feeling that he cannot adequately communicate with his grandmother, his “nani,” because of a language barrier that has grown up between them. This is familiar territory for Latino literature, as writers consistently depict language as a scene alternately of struggle and empowerment, misunderstanding and reconciliation. The speaker yearns for a feeling of intimacy that can overcome the language barrier, and I think the poem leaves open the question of whether he does or ever can achieve that intimacy.

“Nani” resonates deeply with me on a personal level because of my experience growing up monolingual in a bilingual family. Both of my parents speak Spanish fluently, and I grew up very close (both physically and relationally) to my Mexican grandparents, who speak only a little English. I learned Spanish as a Mormon missionary when I was 19, but before that I spoke to my grandparents in English and they spoke in Spanish. Nevertheless, my abiding childhood memories of my grandparents all center on feelings of absolute love, intimacy, and acceptance.

And food, of course. In “Nani” the grandmother attempts to bridge the gap between herself and her grandson through food, but it’s about more than the food. I love that the final repeated word of the sestina is “serves.” She serves, with the implication is always that she is giving him more than just food. She is giving him part of herself.

In part, I think that the poem might be slightly ironic, slightly critical of its own speaker. He can’t help agonize about their relationship, over-thinking the significance of every gesture. He thinks that their relationship needs words, and thus adds layers of bricks and mortar to the language wall between them. What if the poem were from Nani’s point of view?

I don’t know. I don’t have a nani. I have a Guelita. But I suspect that she might say, shut up and eat, mijo. It’s not about the words. Even before we speak, she serves.