Throughout this piece are allusions to the speaker’s heritage and his connection, or lack thereof, to it. The poet also uses interesting images, such as Nani’s wrinkles, that help tell the story of her history and the family’s broader history. ‘Nani’ may leave readers with a few questions regarding the speaker’s opinion about his heritage and how he feels about the communication issues that arise from the beginning of the poem.
‘Nani’ by Alberto Ríos is a thoughtful poem in which the speaker addresses his heritage and his connection to his Nani.
The poem starts with the speaker describing being served a specific dish. As the lines progress, it becomes clear that he cares deeply for his Nani, as she does for him. But, there is some barrier to their ability to communicate clearly with one another. The speaker is often lost for words, and she’s using those that he no longer understands. He spends the second stanza describing his Nani and the life she led. There is evidence of it in all of her wrinkles. They tell stories about her connections to other people and other family members. The poem concludes with her serving the speaker more food before he can find the words to tell her whether he wants more or not.
You can read the full poem here.
Sitting at her table, she serves
the sopa de arroz to me
instinctively, and I watch her,
the absolute mamá, and eat words
now-foreign words I used to speak,
too, dribble down her mouth as she serves
me albóndigas. No more
than a third are easy to me.
herself, she only watches me
with her skin, her hair. I ask for more.
In the first stanza of ‘Nani,’ the speaker begins by noting that he’s in his Nani’s kitchen. She’s cooking for him (sopa de arroz or a Mexican rice soup) and speaking words that he only understands a third of. They are “now-foreign” words that he used to speak but is no longer able to. Despite this, they are connected through her cooking and her love of his words. They make “her smile.” She cooks, serves the speaker but never serves herself. She cares for him above all else at this moment. Even though the speaker is full, he asks for more food.
Through this long stanza, there are examples of caesura, such as “smiles at the stove. All my words” and alliteration, such as “her” and “her hair” in the last line. The poet draws attention to images, such as the latter, through his use of imagery. It’s easy to imagine exactly what it’s like to sit in this kitchen.
I watch the mamá warming more
tortillas for me. I watch her
fingers in the flame for me.
will die with her, what were the words
I could have been, 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?
In the second stanza, the speaker goes on, watching “mamá” warm-up tortillas and put her fingers “ in the flame” for him. These are little sacrifices that show how much she cares about him.
He analyzes her face, seeing in her allusions to her past, her children, and more. Her wrinkles, which tell her story, are like “tremendous strings” that hold her together. Through the following lines, her importance in his life and the lives of others is proven through his attachment and the “hundred wrinkles” that connect her to other people. The speaker describes her insides, speaking through a hundred wrinkles, shouting, “What its this thing she serves?” The food is a symbol of the speaker’s heritage, as is the Spanish Nani is speaking, and he’s struggling to.
She asks me if I want more.
I own no words to stop her.
Even before I speak, she serves.
The final stanza is a striking three-lines long. Here, the speaker returns to the food, and Nani asks him if he wants more. He can’t bring the words to mind to stop her. He doesn’t “own” them. This suggests that either he couldn’t think of them at that moment or alludes to something deeper, like the connection the two share. She serves him more food, delivering to him an image of his history and their connection. When he’s with her, he’s surrounded by reminders of his history and heritage.
Structure and Form
‘Nani’ by Alberto Ríos is a three-stanza poem that is separated into uneven sets of lines. The first and second stanzas contain eighteen lines, and the third has only three. The poem is written in free verse. This means that the lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. Despite this, there are examples of rhyme in the lines. For instance, the exact rhyme between “speak” and “speak” in the first stanza. “More” is also repeated between the last line of stanza one and the first line of stanza two.
Throughout ‘Nani,’ the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Enjambment: can be seen when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines seventeen and eighteen in stanza one and lines one and two of stanza two.
- Caesura: occurs when the poet inserts a pause into the middle of a line of verse. For example, “about this and that, flowing more” and “shouting, then, What is this thing she serves?”
- Imagery: can be seen when the poet creates especially effective and interesting descriptions. For example, “I tell her / I taste the mint, and watch her speak / smiles at the stove.”
- Alliteration: occurs when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of words. For example, “might” and “more” in line five of the first stanza and “mamá” and “more” in line one of stanza two.
The poem ‘Nani’ is about a speaker’s connection to his family, their language (Spanish), and traditional food items. It suggests that he’s not as connected as he used to be but that he’s still loved and accepted by his Nani.
The tone is conversational and descriptive. The speaker spends the lines addressing his relationship to his Nani. Some lines are more emotional than others, but they all describe his relationship to her, her history, and his connection to his heritage.
The mood is contemplative and perhaps nostalgic, depending on the reader. Some people are going to walk away from this poem unmoved, but others may find themselves feeling moved by the poet’s depiction of his Nani and his heritage in the form of food and language.
It’s likely the poet wrote this poem as a way of considering his own heritage. Whether or not he’s the speaker in this piece is unconfirmed, but it seems like this could be the case. He may have been wanting to express his emotions and the images connected to them.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Nani’ should also consider reading some related poems. For example:
- ‘Small-Scale Reflections on a Great House’ by A. K. Ramanujan – an incredible poem that uses a house and all the objects and memories, happy and sad, it contains to speak about a family’s personal history.
- ‘Primer for Blacks’ by Gwendolyn Brooks – speaks on the necessity of accepting one’s black heritage and the unified future that will result from that acceptance.
- ‘To Live in the Borderlands’ by Gloria Anzaldua – a complex, moving poem that investigates identity, heritage, and self-worth in the modern world.