Kaveh Akbar, Calling A Wolf A Wolf (Alice James Books, 2017)


If you decide to read Calling a Wolf a Wolf, Kaveh Akbar's new book of poems, you'd be wise to look up from time to time to remember there's more to life than Kaveh Akbar. (The pronoun I appears about 440 times.) Dumbfoundedly imaginative and self-absorbed, his poetry engulfs the reader with so much turbulent rhetoric you're surprised he's capable of writing a poem as unwavering as "Learning to Pray":

                            My father moved patiently
cupping his hands beneath his chin,
                            kneeling on a janamaz

                                                                    then pressing his forehead to a circle
                                                                                       of Karbala clay. Occasionally
                                                                    he’d glance over at my clumsy mirroring,

              my too-big Packers T-shirt
and pebble-red shorts,
              and smile a little, despite himself.

                                                                    Bending there with his whole form
                                                                                     marbled in light, he looked like
                                                                    a photograph of a famous ghost.

              I ached to be so beautiful.
I hardly knew anything yet—
              not the boiling point of water

                                                                    or the capital of Iran,
                                                                                     not the five pillars of Islam
                                                                    or the Verse of the Sword—

              I knew only that I wanted
to be like him,
              that twilit stripe of father

                                                                    mesmerizing as the bluewhite Iznik tile
                                                                                    hanging in our kitchen, worshipped
                                                                    as the long faultless tongue of God.

Draped in an NFL jersey, metrically scrunched up next to his father's solemnity, the tensions between parent and child are treated nimbly by Akbar and although the last stanza drives the poem right off a cliff (perhaps still trying to impress dad), this tender scene—a reader wonders if his father really smiled—shows the poet's willingness to court restraint, a strategy his rhapsodic temperament rarely finds useful or even innate:

                                The barbarism of eating anything
seems almost unbearable. With drinking however
I’ve always been prodigious. A garden bucket filled with cream
would disappear, and seconds later I’d emerge
patting my belly. I swear, I could conjure rainclouds

from piles of ash, guzzle down whole human bodies,
the faces like goblets I’d drain then put back in the cupboard.
So trust me now: when I say thirst, I mean defeated,
abandoned-in-faith, lonely-as-the-slow-charge-into-a-bayonet

Akbar is a poet of desperate intensity. While Calling A Wolf A Wolf is mostly about his experiences with addiction and recovery, his essential subjects are self-legislation ("turning the chisel toward myself") and desire ("I charged into desire like a/tiger sprinting off the edge of/the world") and he often examines how the body generates—yet can't accommodate—his deepest ones ("A man creates the most joy in the abstract"). These dynamics are so viscerally felt by Akbar ("I lack nothing I need/unless you count everything I want") that he plunges the reader into a constellation of heightened emotion and takes individual lines that are delightful and torques them into poems that are not. While few poets write with such soaring richness as Akbar, few are as scatterbrained:

I am insatiable        every grievance levied against me
amounts to ingratitude        I need to be broken like an unruly mustang
like bitten skin       supposedly people hymned before names       their mouths
were zeroes little pleasure portals for taking in grape
leaves cloudberries the fingers of lovers       today words fly
in all directions         I don’t know how anyone does
anything       I miss my mouth sipping coffee and spend
the day explaining the dribble to strangers who patiently
endure my argle-bargle before returning
to their appetites        I am not a slow learner      I am a quick forgetter
such erasing makes one voracious       if you teach me something
beautiful       I will name it quickly before it floats away

Akbar's poems revel in excess ("I need to be broken like an unruly mustang") and in exaggeration ("I don’t know how anyone does anything") and white space zigzags through many of his poems, creating dramatic gaps between clauses that reflect the legerity of the poet's unglued mind. And while these gaps are presumably intended to be caesuras, they almost never read as actual pauses, but instead as saccadic agitations that accelerate readers (rather than delay them) into the next phrase. When taken together, all of these gestures are, for the most part, tedious. And yet sometimes worth enduring: grappling with Akbar's tentacular perceptions, as they shift between the ill-defined (the result of the poet's unrestrained use of indefinite pronouns and determiners) and the precise (expressed in his marvelous similes and metaphors) can be thrilling, but for the most part the combination of vagueness and specificity, which is sustained throughout Calling A Wolf A Wolf, is taxing.

every day someone finds what they need
in someone else
                             you tear into a body
and come out with a fistful of the exact
feathers you were looking for wondering
why anyone would want to swallow
so many perfect feathers
looks uglier naked or at least
I do my pillar of fuzz my damp
           I hoarded an entire decade
of bliss of brilliant dime-sized raptures
and this is what I have to show
for it a catastrophe of joints this
puddle I’m soaking in which came
from my crotch and never did
        the need
to comfort anyone else to pull
the sickle from their chest seems
unsummonable now as a childhood
pet as Farsi or tears
                                  I used to slow
dance with my mother in our living
room spiritless as any prince I felt
the bark of her spine softening I became
an agile brute she became a stuffed
ox I hear this happens
all over the world

It would be too toilsome (and impolite) to list each time Akbar takes non-specific language and jams it against striking imagery, but it's worth noting because it's a technique baked into so many of his poems. Once you notice it, it's impossible to ignore. (It's ironic that a book about alcoholism can so easily be turned into a drinking game.) This stylistic quirk (along with his regular deployment of melodramatic adverbs like always, oftenonce, never, sometimes) gives his speaker a storybook voice that's stomach-churning ("I remember someone/once sang here, once/strung together//a garland of near-holy moments") and since the poet's methods are so conspicuous, the poems in Calling A Wolf A Wolf often feel gimmicky.

And yet in some poems, like "Portrait of the Alcoholic with Craving," he manages to overcome this feeling of over-calculation, oddly enough, by maintaining his composure, which provides a satisfying aesthetic distance between reader and poem:

I’ve lost the unspendable coin I wore around
               my neck that protected me from you, leaving it
bodyhot in the sheets of a tiny bed in Vermont. If you
               could be anything in the world

                              you would. Just last week they found the glass eye
               of a saint buried in a mountain. I don’t remember
                              which saint or what mountain, only
               how they said the eye felt warm

in their palms. Do you like
              your new home, tucked
away between brainfolds? To hold you
              always seemed as unlikely

                           as catching the wind in an envelope. Now
               you are loudest before bed, humming like a child
                           put in a corner. I don’t mind
               much; I have never been a strong sleeper, and often

the tune is halfway lovely. Besides, if I ask you to leave
              you won’t. My hands love you more
than me, wanting only to feed you and feed you.
              Tonight I outrank them

                          but wisely you have prepared for famine.
              I am trying to learn from all this.
                          It was you who taught me that if a man
              stands in silence for long enough

eventually only the silence remains. Still,
              my desire to please you is absolute.

Sure, we see the indistinct phrase "if you/could be anything in the world" coming from a mile away as the poet arranges his scene of vivid miniatures—coin, neck, tiny bed, Vermont—and we roll our eyes as he goes on about a saint's glass one, but when he finally writes (addressing his addiction directly), "Now/you are loudest before bed, humming like a child/put in a corner" we're struck by the simile (it's one of Akbar's most engrossing) for what it initially suggests: that the poet's cravings are under control. After all, we think, how dangerous can a child "put in a corner" be? But when we drill down into the image—not too deep, but a little—we can see how cunning this so-called child really is: the "humming" (heard by the poet as loud) reflects two critical aspects about addiction: by appearing at ease, it shows the cruelty of its patience ("you have prepared for famine"), and Akbar's simile also shows how addiction plays upon the addict's habit of idealizing innocence by representing itself as a child. The poem, which begins with the lost amulet of protection (read: AA medallion), ends in dangerous nostalgic revelry ("there is no solace in history"), a reminder of not only of the dull loneliness of sobriety, but how addiction taunts the addict with the memory of bliss:

Remember the cold night we spent
                 spinning on my lawn?

                              I wore only basketball shorts
                 and a pair of broken sandals.
                              I tied my hair back and
                 laid out a hammer, some rope,

a knife. What I was building was a church.
                You were the preacher and I the congregation,
and I the stage and I the cross and I the choir.
                I drank all the wine and we sang until morning.

In the cross-pressures of intoxication and religion, the poem ends, and it points to Akbar's broader dilemma in Calling A Wolf A Wolf: if being wasted is no longer a viable way to access enchantment, where shall he find it in the "flat" districts of sobriety? 

The deeper Akbar goes into recovery, the more decisively he pivots to his Islamic faith and Persian heritage (Akbar is Iranian-American) to seek security as he spars with his animal drives. He writes, "When I wake, I ask God to slide into my head quickly before I do," but concedes that "even longing has its limits," which is to say the body is always present ("there is no end to wanting"), while God has to be continually invited into one's life: "I am ready for you to come back." To control his desires, he desires God, but then again it's not really God he wants to possess, confessing, eventually, that it's really "the flower behind God I treasure." This flower business is a reminder of what a fuss Akbar makes about naming in Calling A Wolf A Wolf (“Because I am here/each of these things has a name”), but his thoughts on the matter prove as interesting as a philosophy class offered at your local library. Here, he recalls discovering the pleasure of words:

                                                             I walked learning
the names of things each new title a tiny seizure
of joy      paleontologist tarpaper marshmallow    I polished them like trophies
eager in delight and color-blind         though I still loved crayons
for their names cerulean gunmetal and corn-
flower more than making up for the hues I couldn’t tell apart       even
our great-grandparents saw different blues owing
to the rapid evolution of rods and cones       now I resist
acknowledging the riches I’ve inherited       hard bones and a mind full
of names       

In short, Akbar's your basic dualist, and his mind and body seem forever at odds because he doesn't quite accept that the mind and body are both what Schopenhauer called "the objectification of the will." Akbar thinks they're divided. He writes somewhere that "The spirit lives in between//the parts of a name. It is vulnerable only to silence/and forgetting" and in another poem, says, "With a body like that, it’s easy to forget//about the spirit." Names, for the poet, distract him from what he lacks. Perhaps Akbar's interest in the subject of naming boils down to the name he's given himself to survive: alcoholic. It's one thing for others to call you an alcoholic, it's quite another to freely adopt it as a way to know yourself, but those in recovery that do are probably more likely to quit drinking because it addresses one of the reasons addicts used or picked-up in the first place—to ease the pain of meaninglessness caused from being at what Janaway calls the "beck and call of impersonal forces":

                   I’ve given this coldness many names         thinking if it had a name it
would have a solution     thinking if I called a wolf a wolf I might dull its fangs

Fangs, the stuff of animal consumption and violence, show up as well in the Carolus Linnæus epigraph preceding the poem, "Personal Inventory: Fearless (Temporis Fiaa)," a poem where Akbar says, "My straight white teeth have yellowed/and I can’t tell a crow from a blackbird," suggesting the cost or challenge of recovery (or depression) is not losing the ability to name, but struggling to know where to invest those names.

With so many contradictory notions coursing through Calling A Wolf A Wolf, a reader never knows whether to interpret them as part of some broader existential attitude held by the poet or if they're just the byproduct of Akbar's rapturous disposition or perhaps, more simply, an allegory for transformation. When he says, "I have been so careless with the words I already have," then later writes, "I choose/my words carefully" it reflects that his private allegiances have changed (or intend to) from desire to seeking transcendence. And here, Akbar disparages the body as a nuisance—"Every day//my body follows me around asking/for things"—but also views the body as a "mosque borrowed from Heaven" and admits to "trying to exalt/my own body." All this waffling can also be read as an attempt at synthesis and might explain the book's final words: "The boat I am building/will never be done." In other words, the poet is perpetually brainstorming; a spirit constantly in process.

Natalie Eilbert, Indictus (Noemi Press, 2018)

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