New Ways to Howl: Calling a Wolf a Wolf by Kaveh Akbar
While reading Kaveh Akbar’s marvelous debut collection Calling a Wolf a Wolf, I was reminded of a quote from Dan Beachy-Quick’s essay “The Hut of Poetry,” “A poem initiates us into death, so as to awaken us into life, into this world that requires new eyes to see.” Akbar’s poems do just that, they hover near death in order to jolt us awake by throwing not only knives and blood our way, but also rosewater and the sweetest of figs. With these new eyes we encounter the sacred and profane; through words both rapturous and honest we experience the epic and eternal struggle between a person’s best and worse selves, understanding that no line of division is ever clear. What I found most remarkable in this collection was the relentless amount of energy stirring on each page; the poems in Calling a Wolf a Wolf are exciting, sensual, violent, luscious, prophetic, and ultimately restorative.
As in Akbar’s chapbook, Portrait of the Alcoholic, many of these poems, some of which appeared in the chapbook, center around the speaker’s desperate struggle towards sobriety and to save his life. While many of us know this struggle intimately in our own families and circles, and others have watched similar narratives unfold in film or read of them in novels, I have never encountered an artist who was able to capture the complex inner dialogue inside an alcoholic in recovery as well as Akbar. In “Portrait of the Alcoholic with Doubt and Kingfisher” Akbar writes:
Even the trap-caught fox
knew enough to chew away its leg,
delighting (if such a thing can be said)
at the relative softness of marrow.
Nature rewards this kind of courage—
a kingfisher shoots into a pond
and comes out with a stickleback.
Starving mice will often eat their own tails
before ceding to hunger. The lesson:
it’s never too late to become
a new thing, to rip the fur
from your face and dive
dimplefirst into the strange.
Some people don’t even want to drink,
aren’t tempted by the pools of liquor
all around them. This seems
It also takes a considerable amount of courage to write about personal struggles, fears and failures. In many ways when Akbar writes, “ The real world doesn’t care / about our spiritual conditions,” he’s right, so much of living is hiding away our true feelings and internal conflicts. It is why many of us turn to poetry, to share our own and relate to other people’s inner worlds, which otherwise rarely surface in the grind of everyday lives.
In “Heritage,” a poem that pays homage to an Iranian woman who was sentenced to death for killing a man who was trying to rape her, Akbar writes, “it’s a myth / that love lives in the heart it lives in the throat we push it out / when we speak.” There is a prodigious amount of heart in these utterances, these poems that do not turn away from the ugliness of this world, but instead seek truth in suffering. Because the speaker in these poems has experienced a state between life and death, these poems themselves exist between the seen and unseen worlds. Akbar’s poems move from observation to inner conflict, from summoning God to history and back again with the grace and power of a contemporary dancer. Only a master of syntax could control these sudden movements with such astonishing fluidity. Poems like “Against Dying” and “An Apology” and sweep down the page in such torrents of movement, they are utterly entrancing:
Lord, I meant to be helpless, sex-
less as a comma, quiet as
cotton floating on a pond. Instead,
I charged into desire like a
tiger sprinting off the edge of
the world. My ancestors shot bones
out of cannons and built homes where
they landed. This is to say, I
was born the king of nothing…
The lack of endstopped lines increases the speed of the poem, which spins and spins down the page leaving the reader in a dizzying spell of rapture. The tonal range of Akbar's poems is also worth noting, they are at times: witty, sincere, self-critical, confident, uncertain, and within these variations they exhibit the frantic pace of the modern mind.
Particularly in this time where addiction is destroying whole communities of people, especially youth communities, Akbar’s collection provides a beacon through a nightmare, and a salve for the wounded. Yet, through Akbar’s poems we know there is nothing simple about surviving, “Sometimes / you have to march all the way to Galilee / or the literal foot of God himself before you realize / you’ve already passed the place where / you were supposed to die.” Akbar’s words, and his personal commitment to enriching the poetry community, show it’s not only possible to survive the most harrowing parts of our lives, but it’s possible to transform that damage into something beautiful and even flourish. Akbar writes, “We all want / the same thing—to walk in sincere wonder,” within this collection there is a considerable amount of sincere wonder.
I found myself experiencing this wonder even within the book’s title. The title itself is a poem, it creates a doubling: there is the wolf and the being that should be called—wolf. Once an expression is isolated and placed in a new context, here as the title of a book, it becomes symbolic and takes on a deeper meaning. Within these five words the poet is questioning himself, or rather the self that was being consumed by alcoholism. The phrase can also be seen as a kind of call and response, distinct rhythms divide the phrase into two: the call is trochaic, and the response is iambic. The response—a wolf a wolf—recalls howling not only within the image, but in the sound of wolf, which is repeated the way cries are repeated. And make no mistake Kaveh Akbar’s debut collection absolutely howls, howls from that deep intimate place of uncertainty where the body and spirit confront one another.
At times when I was reading Calling a Wolf a Wolf, I was reminded of Shakespeare’s madmen who always had the best lines, particularly the tormented inner dialogue of characters like Hamlet, I was also reminded of the innovation and energy of American poets, Ginsberg and Whitman, and the tradition of the long line which Akbar not only uses admirably but infuses with a new energy, and I also felt echoes of the sensual spiritualism of Persian poets, particularly Rumi. There is even something of the self-knowledge of Dickinson; what makes Akbar’s poetry so stunning is that it can do so much without ever feeling overworked or overwritten. It makes it difficult in a way for a reviewer, as I find myself wanting to discuss so many different aspects of the work, but what a wonderful problem to have.
In discussing Richard Siken’s collection Crush as well as the great polarities within art and life, Louise Glück writes, “The great task has been to infuse clarity with passionate ferment of the inchoate, the chaotic.” Here, Akbar too, has accomplished this arduous task, and like Siken’s collection which not only influenced a great many young poets, but had the power to draw new readers to poetry and even to inspire people to become poets, Akbar’s collection has already started to cross that literary divide, bringing non-poets to drink from the well of poetry. It is a rare hand that can inspire such a devoted following, and a rare hand that can find clarity amidst such destructive forces; Akbar’s clarity comes from not denying the chaos, but from finding a way to thrive within it.
Ultimately, the poems in Calling a Wolf a Wolf exist in a state of emergency, only the poet admits in the opening poem of section one, “I have forgotten even the easy prayer I was supposed to use in emergencies.” Through this failure of language and memory, the prayer breaks open into the poem. This state of emergency allows for emergence of a new voice, a restlessly searching voice that reveals the doubt, anxiety, and perseverance of an entire generation. I have no doubt that Kaveh Akbar’s Calling a Wolf a Wolf will be loving carried around, dog-eared, and read by young poets and young people for many years to come.
Alice James Books
Further Reading: Before I knew anything about Kaveh Akbar the poet, I knew him as the interviewer deeply engaged in understanding the art of poetry on his site Divedapper. On Divedapper, Akbar interviews many of the greatest living poets alongside the rising stars of poetry. This collection of interviews is an incredible resource for any poet or educator, and I highly recommend reading it and sharing it with friends.
Brunch: Olive Oil Plum Cake: I rarely bake as it requires measuring things and following recipes, and I’d rather experiment. I’ve been told experimenting in baking tends to lead to failure—lopsided cakes, breads that don’t rise, etc… So I was very surprised when my plum cake actually looked and tasted quite delicious even though I made up the recipe on the spot, drawing from a few different recipes and doing my own thing. I'm not supposed to eat much sugar, so I used less than half a cup of coconut sugar, and for the fat I used olive oil, this made for a dense cake that cut cleanly without crumbling and yet had enough air in it to still have a nice springy texture. My favorite spice is cardamom, so I used this along with nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, almond extract, vanilla extract and a small amount of cocoa powder for flavor. I tossed the plums in a touch of honey before placing them at the bottom of the spring form pan, though I imagine soaking them in a little brandy would also be quite good, since the honey did make them stick a little to the pan. I suppose that’s the educational part of baking, learning from mistakes and making adjustments until a proper recipe takes shape. Note: Because this cake is a little dry it is best served with whipped cream or ice cream, it also tasted marvelous with blackberries.