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Cutting: On Poetry and Navigating Pain

Cutting: On Poetry and Navigating Pain

Author: Rajiv Mohabir

June 2, 2016

As a youth I kept my razors in a marble box. Every time I opened it a cloud of crows lifted. Cutting was not about externalizing the pain of being a misfit. It was about winding disparate threads of the ways I didn’t fit into one visible chord. My teeth were too big for my face, my hair was curly and untamable; I flitted about like a fairy and liked to play “girl” parts in school skits. Once at a Boy Scouts meeting I wore lipstick and oranges as breasts. This humiliated my father who whispered at me in the car ride home, Never play a girl again. His words were acerbic, razors. I didn’t think that I did anything wrong. I wanted oranges.


My family is West Indian, Caribbean—but ethnically Indian. This was a difficult complication to navigate in a system that wants simple answers. Conversations about where I am from are filled with microaggressions about how I am not supposed to be from the Florida, and since-your-family-is-South-Asian-they-must-be-homophobic type of assumptions.

“Where are you from?”

“I am from Florida.”

“No, really. Where are you really from?”

“I was born in London but my parents are from Guyana.”


“Guyana—actually it’s part of South America.”

“Wait but you look Indian.”

“Well my great grandparents were indentured laborers brought to Guyana in the late 1800s to work the sugar plantations after the slave trade was “abolished.” Seventy- five years after my great grandparents suffered indenture servitude, my parents moved to the United States.”

“Oh…what do they think about you being gay?”


I cut from when I was 12 to 26. The urge to cut; to separate my skin into two banks with a river of crimson has not left. I would be lying to say that I didn’t receive any joy from the act. My flesh goosed, hungry for the stainless steel. I yearned to make sense of what I could not understand. I could never be: white, straight, attractive, a successful math/science son. In my child mind, these misalignments made me unlovable.

By cutting I concentrated all of the complexities of oppressions I encountered, all of the subconscious messages about what ways I don’t belong at school or at home into one point so that it could be manageable. Cutting allowed complexity to subside—I could deal with one single pain: a Canna lily under which a rhizome sprawls.


My cutting ritual was like this: I take a shower and then drag the razor down my forearms starting with my left arm.

The skin would part like lips; a sudden release.

Then I put on my orange long sleeve t-shirt to hide the tracks from my parents. Whether they saw or not they never said.

What I did to myself was as unspeakable as my queerness.

I look at myself in the mirror and hate my brown skin, my queer eyebrow dance, and my hairy body.

Once returning home late from some family event, headlights followed out car into the remotest, forested part of the then undeveloped Brumley Road. The pickup truck followed us onto our street. My father pulled over before showing exactly which home was ours on the cul-de-sac. Out came a white man with a goatee. My eleven-year-old body shook with fear.

“Where the fuck you think you’re going, Habib?” he spat.

“We are just going home,” said my father sheepishly.

“Get your motherfucking sand nigger asses out of our neighborhood, better yet, get the fuck out of our country, Sadam. You are not welcome here.” He reached into the bed of his truck to pull out a bat.

We watched with wide eyes. My father was never one to deescalate an argument, but this time he drove away. The man, deterred, peeled out and sped off. What terrified us was that he knew exactly where we lived. This was not the first, nor was it the last time that my family received threats like this.


Internal monologue during the act of cutting:

You are so ugly, so hairy.

You are stupid and not good at math.

You will never be a doctor and therefore have failed your parent’s dreams for your success.

You are a failure and a worthless crab-dog.

You will never amount to anything, faggot.

You bring shame to your family.

No wonder no one in school likes you.

You fucking brown piece of shit, who would ever love you?


Eventually I turned to writing poetry as a way to make sense of the complicated interconnections of these various strands of oppression in my life. The Taxidermist’s Cut concerns violent love, razors, and erasure. I wrote and wrote using guides to taxidermy as raw material through which I crafted poems. I wrote about my childhood in Chuluota, Florida and how being brown was an impossibility there. How I was constantly bombarded with reminders of how I didn’t fit. My parents denied any racism despite all of the threats. I wrote about how I cut. Poems became a place to hold complexities with their lines.


The thought of cutting myself still surfaces—it’s helped me cope for many years and is not completely unwelcomed. Cutting was a way I navigated systems of oppression. It gave me back my pulse. It made me human to myself. When it comes back, it comes back like an old friend who I remember and am thankful to but I don’t need its help right now.

Today I find that there are other ways for me to express a need for release that do not mark my body.

When I feel like cutting what I do instead is:

  1. Take a deep breath and center myself. I make sure to feel my feet on the ground and my stomach expand as I breathe.
  2. Write a poem.
  3. Call a friend and vent. I don’t have to tell the friend that you’re thinking of cutting.
  4. Remind myself that the white supremacist capitalist heteropatiarchy wants to erase me and I resist by loving myself.  I don’t have to be perfect at anything. I just have to be my whole flawed self.

If you are a cutter, I write for you. I write to let my voice fly as a songbird that brings an olive branch. I validate that racism is a thing that causes you to believe that you are lesser.


Rajiv Mohabir photo

About: Rajiv Mohabir

Winner of 2015 AWP Intro Journal Award and the 2014 Intro Prize in Poetry by Four Way Books for his first full-length collection The Taxidermist’s Cut (2016), and recipient of a PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant, Rajiv Mohabir received fellowships from Voices of Our Nation’s Artist foundation, Kundiman, and the American Institute of Indian Studies language program. His second book The Cowherd’s Son won the 2015 Kundiman Prize and is forthcoming from Tupelo Press in 2017. His poetry and translations are internationally published can be found in Best American Poetry 2015, Quarterly West, Guernica, Prairie Schooner, Crab Orchard Review, Drunken Boat, Great River Review, PANK, and Aufgabe. He received his MFA in Poetry and Translation from at Queens College, CUNY where he was Editor in Chief of the Ozone Park Literary Journal. Currently he is pursuing a PhD in English from the University of Hawai`i, where he teaches poetry and composition.

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