The Cowherd’s Son
by Rajiv Mohabir
Winner of the Kundiman Poetry Prize, honoring exceptional work by Asian American poets
Rajiv Mohabir uses his queer and mixed-caste identities as grace notes to charm alienation into silence. Mohabir’s inheritance of myths, folk tales, and multilingual translations make a palimpsest of histories that bleed into one another.
“In this Kundiman Prize–winning follow-up to 2016’s The Taxidermist’s Cut, Mohabir continues to demonstrate an uncanny ability to compose exacting, tactile poems that musically leap off the page. These poems modulate between tales of Hindu deities, recollections of history and folklore: these are complicated family dynamics, queer intimacy (‘My love tasted of sea/ and relics’), acts of resistance, and accounts of shifting geographies and displacement. Mohabir’s candid work is steeped in the realities of being a mixed-caste, queer Indian-American; his speaker sings these lived experiences into verse—moving between pleasure, sensuality, hunger, alienation, and injury: ‘It shocks me to dream my body/ as a cut pomegranate.’ Mohabir even uses the quarter rest symbol from sheet music in the breaks between sections to make explicit the collection’s musical nature and the poetic silences the work necessitates. Each of the book’s seven sections approaches identity from a different angle, including that of the ancestral grief passed down through the Indian indenture system and chronicles of conquest and empire channeled through the mythical El Dorado. Mohabir offers much to appreciate, and even among the strife he records, there is a yearning for and pursuit of joy: ‘In this building of shattered whispers// I say your words at night to taste you.'” — Publishers Weekly starred review
“In The Taxidermist’s Cut, winner of the AWP Intro Journal Award and the Four Way Books Intro Prize in Poetry, Mohabir paralleled the hunted animal and the hunted human, whose love for his own gender makes him an outsider within a community that itself has outsider status. In his Kundiman Prize–winning second work, the rift with community remains (“Son, you are fit/ only for the greasy smoke/ of the body burning on its pyre”), and the poet’s anguish is expressed in an abundance of forceful images (“my palace will torment you/ with rubies you bleed/ when thorns prick your quick”). Here, though, Mohabir expands his reach, referencing Indian mythology (“the Cowlord rumbles, the sapphire/ hurricane of Yaduvansh rumbles”) as he works his way through Indian communities from Guyana to Trinidad to New York. He scathingly surveys the consequences of colonialism (“Brits distilled rum in coolie blood”) while capturing the sorrow of those far from home, often involuntarily (“Every night Sita dreamed an India that/ did not want her back.” There are moments, too, of superb tenderness (“I say your words at night to taste you”). VERDICT Gemlike poems that will reward many readers and surprise not a few.” — Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal
“Languid fire or tumultuous storm, mythic cow herder or drunken Queens teenager — these poems by Rajiv Mohabir will not let up and won’t let you go. Be fierce, dear reader, and join him in celebrating the queer, colored diaspora that begins in the gut and continues in the heart. Mohabir is one of the most urgent poets to break into the scene. Hands down.” — Kimiko Hahn
Winner of the Kundiman Poetry Prize
2018 Eric Hoffer Book Awards in Poetry, Honorable Mention
Rajiv Mohabir uses his queer and mixed-caste identities as grace notes to charm alienation into silence. Mohabir’s inheritance of myths, folk tales, and multilingual translations make a palimpsest of histories that bleed into one another. A descendant of indentureship survivors, the poet-narrator creates an allegorical chronicle of dislocations and relocations, linking India, Guyana, Trinidad, New York, Orlando, Toronto, and Honolulu, combining the amplitude of mythology with direct witness and sensual reckoning, all the while seeking joy in testimony.
Praise for Rajiv Mohabir’s previous book:
“In his excellent debut, Mohabir exposes desire and inner turmoil through the measured incantations of a queer, Indian-American voice that refuses the burdens of a homophobic and racist world. He eloquently describes how the brown body survives, clinging vigilantly to longing, lust, and love. . . . Mohabir illuminates his own wounds, and as the reader watches him dresses and stitches those wounds, ‘A queer flutter knocks about your ribs.’” — Publishers Weekly
Rajiv Mohabir’s The Taxidermist’s Cut was Winner of the AWP Intro Journal Award and the 2014 Intro Prize in Poetry from Four Way Books. Recipient of a PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant, he has also received fellowships from the Voices of Our Nation’s Artist foundation, Kundiman, and the American Institute of Indian Studies language program. He received his MFA in Poetry and Translation from at Queens College, City University of New York, and is currently pursuing a PhD in English from the University of Hawai’i, where he teaches poetry and composition.
Interviews with Rajiv Mohabir:
Kundiman Interview with Rajiv Mohabir
Scroll.in Interview with Rajiv Mohabir
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If you want a poem that obeys
the strictures of doha and dactyl,
then I am unlettered. A crab dog
from backdam and bush shaping
cane into couplet. What do I know
of convention, my father a cowherd
my mother maharajin. The prophet ascended
the heights of verse when the Almighty stoked
fire in his blood. Recite. Recite.
Tell me in rhyme, of this turmoil within
that sears Jibril’s whisper into
the pith of this body.
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