Sundress Reads: Review of Whale Aria

A masterclass of poetic grace, scientific specificity, and deep cultural respect, Rajiv Mohabir’s Whale Aria (Four Way Books, 2023) weaves together songs of migration, cries against destruction, and the very essence of what it means to be alive.

Mohabir does not shy away from naming oppression, and this directness forces readers to confront the environments through which his speakers and subjects must navigate. In the sequence, “Sound Navigation and Ranging,” he states matter-of-factly, “Come, aggression is healthy, is American” (Mohabir 81). This sentence makes waves juxtaposed with the gorgeous aquatic and mammalian imagery that swims throughout Whale Aria’s pages.

“Invocation,” another sequence earlier in the collection, displays the soul and bioacoustics of whalesong. Mohabir visually evokes the various sounds, rhymes, and patterns of such majestic creatures. Some poems in the sequence boomerang down the page, while others are printed upside down, requiring readers to flip their books or turn their heads to follow along. On page 37, he maps out whale calls with a rising “O,” mapped onto English verse:

With musicality, generosity, and precision, Mohabir thoughtfully considers every moment in which he represents the stories and voices of these ancient animals.

Mohabir also asks questions throughout the collection, indicating both humility and self-assurance. His speakers know themselves; they know right from wrong, and they want to see where readers stand. For example: “have we forgotten how to speak to each other? You don’t understand my words until they’re blaring. Here is my universe” (Mohabir 77). The urgency in this speaker’s voice is tightly interwoven with a demand to be witnessed. A few pages later, Mohabir writes:

“Or do you feel the tidal pull of the ocean at your fins
as you graze your body in the surf’s wake…
How many brown people dry
in the sun? Have you ever lost your own balance? We are safe. We are
safe. The military secures us. Can you move? Who is crossing the kalapani
for you?” (82)

Especially stylized in italics, the repetition of “we are safe,” reads as mantra and prayer. Situated in the words surrounding it, however, the simple statement blends into a question. Are we safe? Who is actually safe, and by what means? At what cost?

In the collection’s final section, a stand-alone poem titled “Why Whales Are Back in New York City,” Mohabir gives both instruction and permission to those who have been pushed to the margins. The poem also acts as ode for New York (a place Mohabir has called/calls home) and for the book’s central figures, humpbacks, one of which graces Whale Aria’s cover. He writes:

“But now grace. bodies of song
return to us. Go to the seaside—
Hold your breath. Submerge.

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.” (Mohabir 97-98)

Not only does the final image of a whale breaching provide energy and life, but Mohabir expertly uses the first person plural to elicit unity. He acknowledges what a blessing it is to survive, and better yet, to thrive, encouraging readers to take witness to such splendor.

Part translation, part ballad, part historical record of witness, Whale Aria exceeds all expectations of the poetry genre. I especially appreciate that he offers a poem, “In Praise of Hawai’i,” specifically towards the people and land where much of his work was written, and to whom he shares strong personal ties. I feel so fortunate to be in a world where Mohabir’s words, like “the song-shine of stars” (54), guide readers towards revolution, liberation, empathy, and peace.

Whale Aria is available from Four Way Books

Livia Meneghin (she/her) is the author of Honey in My Hair and the Sundress Publications Reads Editor. She won Breakwater Review‘s 2022 Peseroff Prize and earned a 2022-2023 Poetry Fellowship from The Writers’ Room of Boston. Her writing has found homes in Gasher, Solstice Lit, Thrush, Whale Road Review, and elsewhere. She earned her MFA from Emerson College, where she now teaches writing and literature. She is a cancer survivor.


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