Ode to Richmond Hill

Rajiv Mohabir

then the drunk teen scatters
a cascade of copper on cement,
the old Uncle yells, eyes silver
eyes in disbelief, Pick up yuh
paisa, na man! no worry
on this slate day youths dem
speak no Hindi to know paisa
means money, a taxi speeds 
by blaring chutney remix
Kaise Bani and you remember
your Aji dropping her rum
at Aunty’s party to jump up
and your mother’s awkward Hindi—
you bit your fingers with each roti
she rolled, each mantra she taught you
floods your throat in front
of this puja shop on 127th and Liberty
front strung with plastic marigolds,
a replica strung of polypropylene
like you are now and not like
long time when Par-Aja came
from India, you are a forgery
that will one day burn
not on a pyre but in an incinerator,
not on a riverbank, but
in a crematorium, your prayers
in Hindi accented in English alveolars
neither devas nor prophets
recognize as supplication
but on Liberty Avenue
in the waft of a spliff drag,
and sandalwood a coolie Uncle
in a kurta mouths Marley
as you walk by
you start to sing praise
to Queens where you are
Chandra’s son or so
and so’s buddy ke pickni,
where you wipe oil from doubles
on your jeans and cuss up
the car that backs into stacked crates
of strawberries, to where you
return after three years
and Richmond Hill opens
its coolie arms pulls you close
and in your ear whispers
dis time na long time.

More by Rajiv Mohabir

Why Whales Are Back in New York City

After a century, humpbacks migrate
again to Queens. They left
due to sewage and white froth

banking the shores from polychlorinated-
biphenyl-dumping into the Hudson
and winnowing menhaden schools.

But now grace, dark bodies of song
return. Go to the seaside—

Hold your breath. Submerge.
A black fluke silhouetted
against the Manhattan skyline.

Now ICE beats doors
down on Liberty Avenue
to deport. I sit alone on orange

A train seats, mouth sparkling
from Singh’s, no matter how
white supremacy gathers

at the sidewalks, flows down
the streets, we still beat our drums
wild. Watch their false-god statues

prostrate to black and brown hands.
They won’t keep us out
though they send us back.

Our songs will pierce the dark
fathoms. Behold the miracle:

what was once lost
now leaps before you.

Kabira

hathailiyan ke mehndi halki hoike gayaab
ii sarirwa mein bhala kaa tikaav

You will your house of clay and breath
a fortress. One day, ash and smoke will play fire

games in the courtyard. Remember this hovel
is of five senses —

Does wind stay trapped in a room when its windows
yawn? Without country it flows as river water,

a traceless origin. How can this structure
of earth and bone be home? Says Kabir, “However

beautiful — gold or silver — when the cage
door cracks what bird stays inside?”

                                       The palm’s mehndi lightens then disappears;
                                                        what permanence is in your body?

Vestigial Bones

jaunse tu bhagela ii toke nighalayihe
je andar rahe tohar jahaaj ke nast karihe

The remnant of hind limbs puppets an origin
play that strings baleen to terrestrial

ancestors. Occasionally whales sport hind legs —
as in Vancouver in 1949,

a harpooned humpback bore eighteen inches
of femur breaching its body wall. Disconnected

from the spine, what is their function but to rend
the book of Genesis into two? Why regard

scripture and exegesis as legs and fluke,
sure to fall away, and not eat beef or pork? Why

do I need Hindi in Hawaii as a skeletal
structure, a myth to hook my leviathan jaw?

                                                    What you run from will swallow you,
                                                       what’s inside will splinter your boat

Related Poems

You Tell Us What to Do

When we launched life
on the river of grief,
how vital were our arms, how ruby our blood.
With a few strokes, it seemed,
we would cross all pain,
we would soon disembark.
That didn't happen.
In the stillness of each wave we found invisible currents.
The boatmen, too, were unskilled,
their oars untested.
Investigate the matter as you will,
blame whomever, as much as you want,
but the river hasn't changed,
the raft is still the same.
Now you suggest what's to be done,
you tell us how to come ashore.

When we saw the wounds of our country
appear on our skins,
we believed each word of the healers.
Besides, we remembered so many cures,
it seemed at any moment
all troubles would end, each wound heal completely.
That didn't happen: our ailments
were so many, so deep within us
that all diagnoses proved false, each remedy useless.
Now do whatever, follow each clue,
accuse whomever, as much as you will,
our bodies are still the same,
our wounds still open.
Now tell us what we should do,
you tell us how to heal these wounds.