Review: The Taxidermist’s Cut by Rajiv Mohabir

Four Way Books, 2016 ISBN-13 978-1-935536-72-7 Paperback: 98pp; $15.95

Four Way Books, 2016
ISBN-13 978-1-935536-72-7
Paperback: 98pp; $15.95

The Taxidermist’s Cut mines its title for everything it’s worth, but the arresting poems found in the first full-length collection from Rajiv Mohabir show no signs of the strain of over-extended metaphor, nor do they suffer under the awkward weight of an over-determined symbol. Rather, these poems expose their literal and figurative layers slowly, anatomizing the starling who “beats his beak / against the skylight glass” alongside the “bone close to the body” and “the echo of a nightstalker, streaked / brown on white” with the same tenderness as lovers’ fingertips or the telling scars on the falconer’s wrist, each one “a lifeline lifting to flight.” Precise, incisive, and utterly convincing, phrases like these play on the book’s central subject without ever taking on too much grandiosity or devolving into bad puns.

Although many of the poems grow out of clearly personal material, Mohabir avoids the “I”-driven syndrome so common in American poetry by taking full advantage of shifts in point of view. In procedural poems like “Ortolan,” a submerged “you” becomes the addressee of a series of merciless commands: “Take the bird alive and blind it.” When the master taxidermist instructs the apprentice, it’s tempting to read the poem as a conceit in which the poet offers advice to a former self as that self encounters the unfolding cruelties of desire. The speaker goes on:

…When you

put this songbird between your lips

and bite down, veil your face

with my mother’s silk sari.

Contemporary poetry so often errs on the side of the self-aware and snide that few indeed are the poets who would risk the word “songbird,” which carries remnants of an effete and genteel poetic tradition; but in its threatening context—and in the larger oh-so-queer context of the collection—the word glimmers, accentuating the vulnerability of beautiful things. More devastating, the sharp shift to the first person implicit in the phrase “my mother’s silk sari” rips away the distance maintained speaker and listener in preparation for poem’s the memorable ending: “Taste every man // who has ever put me in his mouth.”  In this way, virtually every poem slices down to the root.

Mohabir’s speakers give voice to tremendous brutality, all of it earned by an America sick with irony, a country lost in the contradictions between what it promises and what it delivers. And in poems like “[Last night],” Mohabir delivers easy-to-botch commentary with economy and grace. Composed of only ten lines and choreographed in couplets and two single-line stanzas, the poem begins with a seemingly innocuous conversation about film history that broadens into an accomplished critique on race and on queer identity:

 

you ask me if I consider myself white.

I imagine dipping a brush into the fallen

 

stars in my own hands to paint you Technicolor.

 

The deadpan delivery of “you ask me if I consider myself white” intensifies the relief this reader experiences when the poem glides toward wonder in the lines that follow. The almost magical realism inherent in the image of the star-dipped brush exemplifies Mohabir’s ability to balance depictions of wounds, wounding, and the wounded against the compensatory power of poetry—the ability of a poem to provide poet, speaker, and reader with access to worlds of greater possibility.

The poems in The Taxidermist’s Cut shimmer and shudder, and they deserve to be celebrated. Rajiv Mohabir is a brave poet. He’s armed with a razor and a map of the heart.

– Josh Davis, PWM Associate Editor

Poetry Witch editor Josh Davis earned an MA in English from Pittsburgh State University, an MFA in Creative Writing-Poetry from Stonecoast MFA Program, and an MFA in Poetry from the University of Mississippi. He is a PhD student at Ohio University. His poems have been published widely.