On Rajiv Mohabir, the Chutney Wordsmith

by Patrick Sylvain

As dwellers of and in language, we know the power of words, but what we do not know—or perhaps we know but aren’t able to predict the particular form and effects of—is the process by which language forms a spectacular house of meaning, such as the poetic edifice that Mohabir has built. Mohabir’s poems house his queer identity, diasporic existence, and multivalent violence—they are a construction of precise imageries and innovative hybridifications of interfacing languages.  

When three erudite scholars sit in a studio around broadcasting microphones (or in a recorded Zoom meeting) to discuss books and the ideas conveyed in them, the conversation is likely to be uplifting, edifying, and surprising. Surprising because there is always a new twist, a new angle, a new intersection where the exchange of ideas divulges new means of un-silencing the past in ways that even the author might not be fully aware of. Mohabir indicates (after a series of probing questions and observations by John Plotz and Ulka Anjaria) that: “I was expert at amnesia, in that, I didn’t know what was lying latent in me until I started to dig away.” Such is the process of meaning-making, of excavating knowledge, or simply having an excellent conversation with probing questions around a fascinating subject—in this case, Rajiv Mohabir’s well-seasoned poems. Mohabir’s cross-linguistic facility (as John Plotz described it in their conversation)  is a form of creolization where he inhabits deeper into the various tendrils of colonial and “subaltern” languages.

Arrival of East Indians in Suriname, Tropenmuseum

Listening to literary critics John Plotz and Ulka Anjaria as they interviewed the poet and chutney verbal mixer, Rajiv Mohabir around his electrically meticulous poems, was simply a delight. A gastronomical feast of poems was served with hybrid blisses where “turmeric lips bow to the ground” (Cutlish, 36), despite the fact that Mohabir’s ancestors were brought up in a land where “Colonization still erases our memories” (Cutlish, 38). The speaker in the poem “Offering” informs us that “In the land of erasure, I run myself clean / touch my lips to the bottle as I drink” (Cutlish, 37). Through various forms of consumption, memorization, re-memorization, and reverencing, the poet or the speaker of the poem offers us an arresting last line: “I worship foremothers. I eat the bird’s wild heart” (Cutlish, 37). Worship and eating are both consumptive and nourishing acts regardless of how each is done. I eat the bird’s wild heart” (Cutlish, 37). Worship and eating are both consumptive and nourishing acts regardless of how each is done.

Ortolan

Rajiv Mohabir first grabbed my attention after I read his 2016 poetry collection The Taxidermist’s Cut. What a clever and powerful title, I thought! As I began reading some of the beginning poems in the book, I found myself leaning against a bookshelf at Raven Bookstore in Harvard Square, re-reading the following lines several times from the poem entitled “Ortolan.”  The Ortolan is a bird that I always had a particular curiosity towards–it was considered a delicacy by members of the French aristocracy, who delighted their palates with exotic selections:

Take the bird alive and blind it.

 Keep it in a windowless room,

 or if there are windows, board them up.

It’s important that no light gets in         

The beauty in the precision of the language, the concrete image system coupled with the couplet as its stanzaic form, creates the illusion of a perfect pairing. Yet, there is a violence running through this poem that creates a sense of disbelief and pleasure—a desire to know more. A desire to enter the lightless room to see the blinded-bird and to understand this peculiar ritual.  Is the poem really about a bird, an Ortolan? Of course not, the poet is too clever. The form of the poem, particularly the content of the first octosyllabic couplet, signals an epigrammatic presence in the hand of a cunning poet. I braced myself for the twist, for the elemental metaphorical surprise that the bird is being used for concealment and discovery. Sure enough, it arrives 8 couplets later:

Hide your gluttony from the god

with hungry dog-eyes who envies,

our nocturnal commotion. Taste the burst

of liquor-flowers from the lungs

on your tongue. Taste the entire life

in the dark. Taste every man

who has ever put me in his mouth.

                                    (“Ortolan”, 2017: 8)

Ship carrying indentured workers from India

After I read and reread that poem I knew I had to purchase the book (The Taxidermist’s Cut) and follow the writings of Rajiv Mohabir. A poet who can create envy from a god as a result of blissful nocturnal commotion while offering semantic terror, is a poet that I ought to follow. I have since found myself completely drawn to his work.

The edifying conversation between John Plotz, Ulka Anjaria, and Mohabir reinforces my interest in him as a writer as I enter or re-enter into his work.  To my utter enjoyment, both Plotz and Anjaria zoomed in on the first full poem of Rajiv’s 2021 collection, Cutlish. The poem, “The Po-Co Kid” (and the collection in general), displays, as John Plotz remarks, the “neological exuberance” of Rajiv’s writing. “The Po-Co Kid,” or the post-colonial kid, reveals the witty mind of a semantically agile poet—a poet who is fully engaged with history, myths, and post-colonial entanglements. In reading that poem, my mind kept looping around a very arresting line: “I clip my yellow nails at dusk.”  Only a very attentive poet could offer such vivid imagery with temporal and corporeal specificities in order to construct deeper meaning that is situated between myth and personal defiance. The prohibited act of cutting one’s toenails at dusk is violated by the speaker of the poem so that his position of otherness could be queerly present with a cutlish and chutneyed stance. As the speaker of the poem emphasizes: “Let’s get one thing queer—I’m no Sabu-like sidekick, / I’m the main drag” (Cutlish, 5).  Defying Gayatri Spivak’s famous dictum, Mohabir, as a descendant of subalterns, does speak as he is “dreaming up a khuli (coolie) future”, and has provided room for his Aji (grandmother) to speak as well.

Callaloo prepared and displayed by Petra Lapiste of carifrique.com at her Trinidadian cooking event in Yokisuka, Japan, 29 January 2012. Photographed by Shivonne Du Barry. In Trinidad, “callaloo” is a synonym for creolization.

                                                                                                                                                                     

Patrick Sylvain is a Haitian-American educator, Pushcart Prize-nominated poet, social and literary critic, and lead author of Education Across Borders (Beacon Press, 2022). In the Fall, Sylvain will serve as Assistant Professor in Global/Transnational/Postcolonial Literature at Simmons University.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           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