Rajiv Mohabir’s “Dove” spirals the reader down a rollercoaster of a love story. The title itself plays with the reader’s expectations; doves are symbols of peace, hope, and purity, so the reader starts the poem with expectations of a positive experience. This is not so different from love. Going into love for the first time fills you with hope. After all, love is a good thing, right?
The first two lines are in hindi, and judging by this poem’s publication in “The Best American Poetry,” the audience isn’t supposed to be able to understand what they mean. This is much like that new love the reader is so hopeful about. We don’t know where it’s going quite yet, but we want to. It’s the poem’s opening. There’s so much possibility, so much emotion, but we can’t understand it.
The next two lines are jarring and not at all what we expected to read: “A scorpion stings me; its toxins swim my veins, / one ill prick from you and I writhe in your fever.” The first of these lines is in the third person, yet it changes to the second person in the second line. The speaker is deeply and painfully affected after a single encounter with this mysterious scorpion. Though the genders of the speaker and scorpion are unknown, the former will be referred to as male and the latter as female for simplicity. Our speaker can’t escape what’s inside of them, haunting them. Something about these lines make me believe the scorpion to be a love interest. Phrases like “swim in my veins” and “your fever” make it sound like the speaker is intoxicated by an obsession with this person, an obsession he does not want, and the scorpion did not necessarily mean to start, but isn’t really affected by either.
Next we have “I dream I cough up a songbird I release to the sky,” which would be a lovely piece of imagery were it not for that word “cough.” Coughing up anything is never good, let alone something as large as a bird, which is then released to the sky, a signal to whoever has caught the narrator’s attention, though it’s only a dream, and he is unable to produce such a message, even so much as a cough. This contrasts with the next line: “you board a plane to take you across the desert.” A songbird could never hope to catch up to an airplane, and deserts are inhospitable stretches of land that would be impossible for most animals to cross, let alone a songbird. The person boarding the plane is not aware of the speaker’s affections, or simply doesn’t care. However, upon closer inspection, it seems like the person knows exactly what the speaker thinks and wishes to isolate herself from him. The word choice of “to” rather than “that” as in “a plane to take you across the desert” rather than “a plane that takes you across the desert” makes it seem like the goal of this person is to get across the desert not because of some destination, but because she wishes to be separated from the speaker.
With the speaker and his love interest separated, the former “will tie messages to the feet of doves, / set them to sail at dusk with a map to your country.” He’s doing everything he can to ensure his message is received, including sending the doves out at night when it’s coolest and they have the best chance of making it across the desert. The speaker even provides them with maps to guide them.
That doesn’t end well at all. “Dizzy with thirst they fall, raining, from the sky, / their dried meat hardening in tawny feathers.” It’s not that the doves are rejected once they arrive, but they never make it there in the first place. All of the preparation possible was in vain. This person has isolated herself so much that no message can reach her. Another detail to notice is that the reason they can’t cross the desert is that they’re thirsty. There isn’t enough water for them to survive the journey. The motif of water will reappear later.
However, now that the message-carrying doves have failed to make it across the desert and died in the trip, the speaker becomes bitter. He “throw[s] stones at planes’ shadows, cursing iron / to crash, to burn in serrated-leafed cane fields.” He doesn’t want to see another airplane, not even if it’s carrying the original object of his affection back to him. And he wants the planes to crash into cane fields, wiping out acres of sugarcane because all the sweetness is gone from his life so why should anyone else have it. No, let it all burn, just like the planes that stole it away in the first place.
Now the speaker is closing himself off and resenting any sign of the one he cared for, but he must still take precautions: “So my skin never blisters with your desire.” He still can’t seem to let go. He has to take action to ensure he doesn’t feel any desire for that person anymore. What does he do? What could prevent him from wanting someone he’s evidently become so attached to?
“In birdbaths I empty vials of avicide.” This line. Birdbaths. Birds carry messages of love. Birds are the speaker’s feelings of love. These feelings are the songbird that never gets released to the sky; they’re the doves that can’t make it across the desert. The aforementioned birdbaths, where birds can rest, are absent in the desert. The water, or lack thereof, is what prevents the speaker’s doves from getting across said desert. It’s essential to the birds’ survival, and this birdbath is a place where they can find that rest and recuperation. Yet here the speaker “empt[ies] vials of avicide.” Not just one, but multiple vials. The speaker’s doves die in the desert and now nobody else’s doves will be stopping in his birdbath for a drink; no, none of them will make it to their loves either. And no more doves will come by and try to make a home. Not anywhere near the speaker. No, all doves everywhere can die as far as he’s concerned. He’s been hurt and he’s never making that mistake again. Instead of blaming the person for crossing the desert, he blames the doves. He blames love, not the lover.
Now we find out what those first lines in hindi meant. “The scorpion’s sting tears my veil, / the glance from your poisonous eyes.” This was happening all along. Ever since the start, this scorpion was doomed to kill the speaker. There is no secret message, no hidden truth. Love hurts.
Yet there’s still more. The theme of flight weaves throughout the poem. Why? The scorpion is presented as real and spoken of in the present tense, but with the doves it’s all “I dream” and “I will.” What’s the significance there?
Flight is one of the most constant and volatile things in existence. Constant in its role as the collective dream of mankind. Humans have longed to fly since before the first myths and legends about people who gained the wings of birds. Constant in its position as a proven fact of aerodynamics. A given object, under specific circumstances, will fly. But life is never quite as simple as they make it out to be in equations. Flight is volatile. At any moment, a wing could stall if airflow becomes insufficient, the structural integrity of the object could falter, or thrust could be compromised, and said object may be hurtling towards the ground. And is that not the same as love? Is love not what humans long for for their entire lives? Is love not a fact of our biochemistry? Yet nothing is ever that simple and love often proves to be more fleeting than a dove trying to cross an expansive desert.
Love, the fickle foundation, the fleeting fact, the capricious constant, remaining a riddle despite millennia of poems and ballads seeking to uncover its truths, once again evades comprehension. There’s nothing for it but to keep our birdbaths open and our eyes to the sky, dreaming of doves and loves. And love hurts, but hey, what doesn’t? You’re going to be disillusioned. So what? What’s the point of being bitter? What good is avicide doing anybody, anyway?
If you ever need a new birdbath, they’re 20 bucks at Walmart; just never be afraid to love.