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“Wiri Wiri” is not, as one might guess, some little-known dialect. Nor is Dan Vera’s Speaking Wiri Wiri (Red Hen Press) an attempt to appeal to the linguistically esoteric. The title is a term invented by Vera’s father to mean “gibberish.” Yet there is no gibberish to be found in Vera’s Letras Latinas-winning poetry collection. Rather, there is much to inspire awe and provoke reflection.
As the book’s title suggests, language is a key element in most of the pieces, whether the poet is engaging the politics of mispronunciation and reappropriation—as he does in “Kvetch”—looking at the humor inherent in linguistic misunderstanding—as he does in “Tower of Babel”—or reflecting on the relationship between colonized languages and colonized peoples—poignantly expressed in “How the Land Longs to be Loved.” Indeed, “the tongue” features prominently in Vera’s book, both as speaker of language and as taster of food; and sometimes as both. The poem “Garlic,” for example, explains that
The Mayan hieroglyph for garlic
is the shape of a starburst on the tongue.
It only appears with symbols
for human sacrifice and the afterlife.
Here and throughout the poem, Vera connects language, taste, and culture, showing us how pronouncing the full name of garlic, in Toltec legend, “would split/ the speaker’s tongue in two,” and from the crevice would grow “a green vine with white blossoms of garlic/ to season the celestial meats/ of Omeyocan, the heaven of the gods.” In this case, the split tongue points to both the division and unification of humanity and the divine. However, this image provides an apt lens for many of the other poems, as so much of Vera’s work is about a simultaneous “splitness” and “togetherness”—between Cuba and the United States; between English and Spanish; between revering history and lamenting its fallout.
History in Speaking Wiri Wiri is often engaged through the intermediary of familial relationships. A lively cast of parents, cousins, tias, and abuelos inhabit these pages. Some give advice; others reluctantly reveal secrets—particularly about the family’s seldom-acknowledged black ancestry; one expresses frustration at the “no-Spanglish” rules of Scrabble in a poem that, though humorous, effectively highlights the small, day-to-day reminders of otherness that ethnic and linguistic minorities face.
At times, Dan Vera puts me in mind of a male, Cuban Gloria Anzaldúa, the feminist/lesbian/Chicana, whose seminal, genre-bending Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza reflects on the various identities Mesoamericans have come to own and the many borders they have crossed. Vera’s concern with borders is apparent in poems such as “Queen Anne’s Lace” and “Monarch Butterfly,” which use transplanted flora and migrating fauna to interrogate what Vera refers to as “the false borders of men.” As in his dealings with language and family, Vera does not shy away from challenging dominant notions of separateness and togetherness, celebrating the beauty of border-crossing weeds and “all the names we give to [their] persistence.”
Thematic unity in a poetry book is important, but one must also ask oneself whether or not the poems work as poems. In the case of Speaking Wiri Wiri, they do. Pleasing language permeates this book. In the tender “My Double,” for example, Vera opens with the following quatrain:
I tease you about the dog’s affections.
You have his eye when you’re in the room
and when you walk away his ears keep pace
in case his feet must follow.
The diction here is simple, direct, and colloquial, yet peppered with enjoyable instances of alliteration (“when you walk away”; “feet must follow”). Long “e” sounds (“tease,” “ears,” “feet”) help to bind the lines together, and the use of enjambment in the third and fourth lines—breaking the third line at “pace” and ending the fourth line on “follow”—creates an interesting, circular movement…somewhat like a dog turning around three times before lying down.
Such subtle moments of linguistic craftsmanship occur throughout. In a late poem, “The Cuban Friendship Urn,” Vera writes of the eponymous urn:
Faraway from the prying eyes
of tourists to the capital city
or anyone who might discover
how friendship even etched in stone
can leave awkward silences in history.
The first four lines are euphonious, particularly “prying eyes,” “capital city,” and “even etched” yet the final line is a dissonant collection of unlinked sounds which drives home the poet’s point about how insincere monuments create a sense of “awkwardness.”
I would not call Dan Vera’s book a traditionally “gay book”—partly because there are very few references to the speaker’s sexuality. His male lover is alluded to at a few points, but that’s about it. It would be interesting to see how Vera—like Anzaldúa—sees his gayness fitting in with his ethnic, linguistic, and familial heritages. Nevertheless, there’s so much here to recommend Speaking Wiri Wiri, that it’s difficult to find fault with this wonderful collection.
Speaking Wiri Wiri
By Dan Vera
Red Hen Press
Paperback, 9781597092746, 80 pp.