Singing Towards Wholeness, a Review of Rajiv Mohabir's The Taxidermist’s Cut
Wonder and sorrow cohabitate while reading Rajiv Mohabir’s
The Taxidermist’s Cut, as they might while observing taxidermy.
Preservation and desecration stitch the same seams. Art
suggests life, makes a sculpture of death. These dualities are all at play, at odds, and
occasionally in apprehensive balance in Mohabir’s stunning debut collection.
As Mohabir explains in an interview with Queens College, his alma mater, The Taxidermist’s
Cut is itself a work of taxidermy: [The Taxidermist’s Cut] and The Cowherd’s Son
(winner of the 2015 Kundiman Prize) were both part of the same original manuscript–the poems that I didn’t use for my MFA thesis but I thought were cohesive. It was Oliver de la Paz who told
me to pull apart these two thematic strains and to build them into fuller collections. I did and
they both took flight. The Taxidermist’s Cut certainly flies. It is also populated by wildlife--
birds, particularly, but also coyotes, wolves, bears, and deer—all familiars of the rural South
where the poems’ speaker grew up.
The book is organized in seven sections that are in recursive, revelatory conversation with
each other. The majority of the book coalesces around the speaker’s experiences as an Indo-
Caribbean homosexual man, growing up in the southern United States and learning to accept
himself despite the hegemonic and heteronormative forces of mainstream American culture,
which threaten to erase him and his experience. The threat of invisibility is developed in
both content and form: many of the poems are Erasure” poems, featuring language from
outside media. Take for instance, “Preservation (erasure poem),” which borrows its language
from the YouTube video, “Life Size Mounting”: “The bone close to the body shines /
whitely in front of you, though / insects may devour this casing.” Through lineation and
subtraction, Mohabir not only makes poetry of instruction, but also subverts the text’s
original aims, calling into question taxidermy’s ability to fully reassemble a body.
Isolation, shame, and despair often fester unseen in the human heart; Mohabir renders these
experiences visible through metaphoric use of animals and landscape. Yet his poems don’t
make the false step of romanticizing nature—threat is ever present, for animal and human,
the texture of experience enhanced rather than flattened. In the opening poem, “Preface,”
whether you catch me or not is not the point.
You look first at wandering deer, the bigger prize,
full of meat, with hide to cure, but keep an eye
peeled for upland birds, too, smaller,
easier to mount once ensnared.
Mohabir’s selection of the word “mount” points to the layered experiences the book seeks
to uncover. Already, he forces us to think of sex and capture simultaneously, as no
experience is isolated in Mohabir’s universe.
The first section examines the many prongs of invisibility: as prey, being invisible is essential
to survival; as a creature desiring love and witness, invisibility starves the soul. Mohabir’s
poems invite us into both spaces through the hunt. His poems are rife with hunters and
hunted, pursuit and capture. Sometimes the speaker is the object of the hunt, and
sometimes, as in “The Complete Tracker,” he is the subject:
I trek the wreckage of myths:
toadstools on a felled tree, or
the crescent-shaped impression
from a hart’s escape to his denning
ground. His hoof print a split heart.
Again, Mohabir uses language to evoke the complexity of desire and desiring: while one
heart might escape, another splits. The speaker’s heart cracks again and again in this
collection: over his desire for other men and that desire’s dismissal by dominant culture, in
overcoming self-loathing, and after every encounter with racism and homophobia. How could his heart not split?
The hunted heart and its fragility are beautifully drawn in the second section, which includes the long title poem, and borrows language from taxidermy instruction manuals to articulate the speaker’s suicide attempt. The word “dress” surfaces as another container for layered experiences, indicating both putting on clothes and gutting a kill in the field. Mohabir writes, “Take off your skin right here. Dress yourself for the field. Pull out your / entrails and stuff your yellow belly with coals.” This dismantling and reassembling of the self comes from a
place of internalized shame and despair: “Inside you rain. You are a forgery. Not a wolf. Not
an Indian. Not a son.” By performing taxidermy on himself, the speaker tries to heal his wounds: “cover your own skin with the hide that does not hide. Place your arms / and legs in the empty pelt and sew yourself up.” In the speaker’s attempts to reclaim his body, to fully inhabit himself, his identity, and his desires, the book takes a turn toward an uneasy truce:
race and desire can neither go unnoticed nor fully witnessed by others. The speaker must
learn to live with these tensions as informing identity rather than obscuring it.
Particularly in the latter half of the book, animals become vessels for exploring these
tensions. In “ Rhincodon typus” (scientific name for the whale shark), the shark becomes a chord of hope: “There is joy in night. It summons you / between continents to whisper /
prayers into its ink,” ending with the question, “What darkness endures / if this body is a lantern?”
This joy in darkness, in a body filled with light, indicates an ornery hope that persists despite challenges that refuse reconciliation. The book’s final turn focuses on the speaker’s relationship to his lover(s) and father, the betrayal and adoration inherent to both types of relationships. However, unlike in the first few sections of the book, where despair seems the dominant emotion, the speaker gains confidence as he faces the father’s homophobia more directly. The speaker embraces his own “song,” his own story. In “ Tibicen auletes ” (cicada), Mohabir writes:
There are so many reasons
to burrow into earth's dark.
Do not fear desire's nightly resurrection.
There are so many more reasons
to break this shell and call dusk
with your open throat.
Mohabir’s debut is a wonder and a sorrow. He matches lyricism with deft narration, interweaving other texts with his own work exquisitely and harrowingly. A haunting collage, The Taxidermist’s Cut feels at once timely in its honest, vulnerable exposition of race and sexuality, and ancient, in its foundation in myth and the natural world. Mohabir is a deft taxidermist, selecting what to preserve and what to revise, thus limning the anxiety these seemingly contrary impulses create. He shows us how we are each cobbled together from borrowed and original parts, internal and external forces. From these motley notes, we each must fashion our own songs and “sing a human hymn / of imperfection,” and, hopefully, in the singing be made whole.
The Taxidermist's Cut is available from Four Way Books (publication date: March 1, 2016)
About the Author: Amie Whittemore is the author of the poetry collection Glass Harvest (Autumn House Press) and co-founder of the Charlottesville Reading Series in Virginia. Her poems have won numerous awards, including the Betty Gabehart Prize and a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Prize, and have appeared in The Gettysburg Review, North American Review, Sycamore Review, Smartish Pace, and elsewhere. She teaches English at Middle Tennessee State University.