The Cowherd’s Son by Rajiv Mohabir
Winner of the Kundiman Prize
99 Pages, Paperback
Tupelo Press 2017
Review by Lily Starr.
In the first poem of The Cowherd’s Son, Rajiv Mohabir’s complicated, elastic collection of poems that considers the complexities of country, cultural memory, and queerness, we meet our speaker as “mixed-caste and queer-countried.” “I’m untouchable, the only Mohabir left / who still scores your shoklas,” he writes, already invoking the power of the Indian epic. These “shoklas,” become the foundation for the rest of the collection, reverberating through the Indian landscape and carrying across Queens, NY as our speaker grapples with questions of identity and inheritance.
In The Cowherd’s Son everything becomes a mirror; the earth, the city, the image of a lover on a bookshelf. At the center of this though, is not narcissism but a profound interest in colonization. What does it mean to be born from gods? What does it mean to be untouchable? How do we inherit the history of a nation? In “Indenture,” Mohabir writes “false teeth, diabetes, white masks, / Mercedes, Rum and Coca Cola, // Three-bedroom mortgages, 24-karat gold / eagle bands, El Dorado and Johnny Black. // Drink up. Drink up. Drink up. Drink up. Drink up. // Let’s see what blood recalls.” This recalling is constantly happening in the book, in prayer, in repetition, in music, and in stark remembering.
The fascination with collective memory, the ways in which we understand the places we come from by what has happened is a constant exploration for our speaker, who is equally omniscient and curious. Mohabir weaves through history and place with impressive sweeping motion; we are always shifting place in this book and yet feel anchored in the body always. In contrast to those grand gestures of place, though, are the small movements of romance and sex. It seems that the speaker is able to confront deity, to encase godliness in his own voice, but when it comes to private moments alone or with a lover, there’s a smallness that undercuts that epic rhythm. “Your every step / away from our bed darkens / the thin fictions sliding between us. / In this building of shattered whispers / I say your words at night to taste you.” 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.