The Taxidermist’s Cut by Rajiv Mohabir

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To begin, consider the title. Consider the origins of taxidermy, a colonial pseudo-science. A modern inheritance from the Victorians, who returned from missions and conquests with exotic fauna, flushed with the impulse to survey, sketch, display curiosities, and publish authoritative studies. The imperial impulse to categorize and appear to have mastered, through simulacrum, frozen, known—determined.

To begin the taxidermy with incisions, multiple but educated, precise and efficient. To fill the body with wire, stuffing, wool, plaster, plastic, glass, clay. Then to sew, glue, pose, mount for display. To call upon to preserve.

But what if the line between taxidermist and the taxidermied is not very distinct? In Mohabir’s collection, The Taxidermist’s Cut, questions emerge: Which body is appropriate, necessary, of utility, or even possible? Which body tells the required story to family, church, community, nation? Which body gets to be human? Where can one display the not enough, the excessive? The internalized taxidermist, bringing with him a considerable amount of Victorian colonial history, is a set of forces against which queering then erupts. The sexualized, racialized body erupts in the parlor, the study, the suburb, simply by existing, feral.

Taste the burst
of liqueur-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.
(from “Ortolan”)

Even within the boundaried field of a pseudo-science, there is still room for a measure of self-definition, to choose aspects of being to perform. In Mohabir’s collection this seems to be a spiraling movement, returning to itself and back out, a ritualistic posture of skin and fur that sabotages any attempt at true mimicry. This introduces difference, a cultivation that cannot be tamed.

Mohabir‘s collection stalks itself, assembling and reassembling bodies, tracking their installation, sometimes as-is, sometimes wished against or for, never static. The body/animal/being slips from its own skin, modifies it, wears it. It is a rogue taxidermy, a multimedia modification of parts, cross-referential, cross-fertilizing. It nests in, rubs up against the dominant narrative of its genus, and also makes its own history, lineage, and taxonomy—choosing, selecting.

Cover your own skin with the hide that does not hide. Place your arms and legs in the empty pelt and sow yourself up.
(from “The Taxidermist’s Cut”)

Cutting and modification is also erasure, of what exists, what precedes. Life, death, life. And so The Taxidermist’s Cut is full of erasures, of taxidermy guides, field guides, books of knowledge that exist to outline the boundaries of its own area of knowledge. Cutting and erasure digs into the viscera of a text, snipping, transplanting, grafting, sewing.

I am not inside that skin you fix.
(from “Field Care”)

Within the collection’s pages, we find tracking, stalking, sewing, zipping, tearing, ripping, pelt, skin, fur, mouth, surgery, incision, pinning, welts, thorn, feather, burn, wing, light, moth, phantasm, hymn, throat.

When you cut mouths along your forearm
your whole body gasps.
(from “Cutter”)

Throughout it all, the collection travels along the edge of life and death, since taxidermy is a negotiation of both. Still, ultimately taxidermy as such is a failed mimicry of life, but in that space of failure there germinates a kind of alternate life, untamed, erotic, a raw energy. Unsublimated, but ready to be directed, shaped, embodied.

What darkness endures
if this body is a lantern?
(from “Rhincodon typus“)

Mohabir’s The Taxidermist’s Cut is a collection of destruction and reconstruction, and we the readers are left among the moonlit ruins, with a strange ache of recognition.

Kenji C. Liu is author of Monsters I Have Been (Alice James Books, 2019) and Map of an Onion, national winner of the 2015 Hillary Gravendyk Poetry Prize (Inlandia Institute). His poetry is in numerous journals, anthologies, magazines, and two chapbooks, Craters: A Field Guide (2017) and You Left Without Your Shoes (2009). An alumnus of Kundiman, VONA/Voices, the Djerassi Resident Artist Program, and the Community of Writers, he lives in Los Ángeles where he is a lecturer at UCLA and Occidental College. More from this author →