The Cowherd's Son
Winner of the 2015 Kundiman Prize
May 2017 from Tupelo Press
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 The Cowherd's Son
"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
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.” (May)"
-(Starred Review) Publishers Weekly
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.
Reviewers often look for some weakness to cite, as if to prove our objectivity or our distance from the author. Here there are none. Individually, each of the poems in this collection compels rereading. Together, they present a complex portrait of a person whose position in the world seems unstable but only because it is so intricately layered.
The Cowherd’s Son is an impressive collection marked by honest vulnerability. It humbly displays a harrowed family history and the ensuing feeling of being an outlier. Struggles with homophobia, racism, violence, and xenophobia all serve to help the speaker achieve a deeper sense of self-acceptance. Ultimately, The Cowherd’s Son enlists darkness to empower the potential for goodness.
-Tom Griffen, Los Angeles Review
Rajiv Mohabir, The Cowherd’s Son. It was fortuitous that I did have a student of South Asian descent who was able to point to Mohabir’s use of language, a specific dialect from a specific part of South Asia. This student was also able to explain Mohabir’s knowledge of Indian epics, via a vital and lovely talk story, via the speaker’s grandmother and elders, not formally schooled, comprising the labor class in the West Indies. This kind of specificity enabled us to go in on the creole to compare and contrast different versions of story, given the contextual translations Mohabir provides. It’s amazing how much we are able to understand, if intuitively, and really love about the voice of Mohabir’s speaker, and his insistence of centering his family/home language and narrative.
Throughout the collection there are profound scenes where Mohabir lets us into the speaker’s mouth, the speaker’s bed, where we can see how much the weight of heritage affects his intimate life. This tension between epic gesture and private stillness pushes the collection forward and transcends setting, making The Cowherd’s Son an incredible symphony of movement and place, where identity is constantly redefined and reimagined in the context of historical memory.
-Lily Starr, Gulf Stream Magazine