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Yaguareté White: Poems

By Diego Báez

Diego Báez’s debut collection, Yaguareté White, explores the sense of alienation that accompanies those who hold multiple, sometimes contesting identities. A second-generation immigrant of mixed Paraguayan and white European descent, the American-born Báez wrestles with his heritage and with what it means to feel perpetually out of place: “Some immigrants stuff language into duffel bags like contraband / Other children never learn to handle the baggage of their claim.” Acutely conscious of Paraguay’s lesser status as an often overlooked Latin American country, Báez laments, in “Football Poem,” the lack of “a single infamous moment” in the country’s “sporting history.” Elsewhere, he tells of Paraguayan dictators and wars in the tone of an aggrieved poet playing the part of a reluctant historian.

Many of the poem titles and section headings are in Guaraní or Spanish (the titular yaguareté is Guaraní for “jaguar,” which the poet has said is central to Guaraní mythology). While Báez does not speak either language, he is able to access extra-lingual qualities that allow for moments from his childhood to burn bright on the page.

In “Abuelo Delouses Mister,” the speaker recalls witnessing his grandfather’s cruel treatment of a dog: “Rubber hose in one hand, / pumping with the other, / Abuelo douses the poor mutt/ in kerosene.” The speaker and his brothers “stand there aghast, / like straight men or suckers / like three gringo amigos / made up like mariachis.” Along with the fear and shock, what registers for the speaker is a sense of his own foreignness, even among family. Many such moments of familial unease run through this book. At times, however, linguistic and cultural barriers all but disappear:

We couldn’t speak then, and they’d learn English eventually, but the silence exploded with laughter and handcraft, crudity, horseplay: retrospect dialling back memory, liquifying every journey in this fictive, lusty sequence.

In the touching poem “Assumption of Whiteness,” the teenage speaker’s mother suggests the “application of a basic white” concealer, “key to hiding the bright-red splotches” on his “budding chin cleft.” The very next poem, “Basic White,” interrogates the “[a]ssumption[s] of [w]hiteness” itself:

basic white is so basic right
basic white is doublespeak for supremacy
basic white enshrines individual liberty
basic white lives for private property
Reviewed By Janani Ambikapathy
Cover of Yaguareté White: Poems by Diego Báez
Publisher University of Arizona Press
Pages 112
Date February 20, 2024
Price $17.95