Calling a Wolf a Wolf
Alice James Books
$16.95, 89 pp.
reviewed by Liza Flum
Calling a Wolf a Wolf, Kaveh Akbar’s debut, charts a terrain that’s always changing: the collection unfolds in the territory between addiction and health, childhood and adulthood, life and afterlife. These poems also rapidly traverse geographic and temporal space, navigating intergenerational intimacy and immigrant experience. In the present moment, looking back on a journey, this book forges a poetics of time-and-space travel.
In the collection’s opening poem, “Soot,” Akbar teaches us how to approach these temporal and imagistic leaps. Here, remembered grief catalyzes meditations on God, angels, nightmares, and televised images of violence:
…Regarding loss, I’m afraid
to keep it in the story,
worried what I might bring back to life,
like the marble angel who woke to find
his innards scattered around his feet.
Blood from the belly tastes sweeter
than blood from anywhere else. We know this
but don’t know why—the woman on TV
dabs a man’s gutwound with her hijab
then draws the cloth to her lips, confused.
I keep dreaming I’m a creature pulling out my claws…
A loss the speaker is afraid to name moves under the surface of this poem, stirring up dreams and memories. The trauma at the heart of the poem ripples outward; one revelation triggers another. As is often the case in Akbar’s poetics, this associative cascade carries us somewhere painfully tender: at the poem’s conclusion the earth embraces the speaker “with the gentleness / of someone delivering tragic news to a child.” If we follow Akbar’s metaphysical leaps, we may find ourselves transformed, like the speaker in “Soot,” by the time the poem touches down.
“So much of living is about understanding / scale,” insists Akbar’s speaker in a later poem. Just as a wounded man echoes an angel in “Soot,” the subjects of Akbar’s meditations often enlarge each other. His associative poems place disparate experiences on one plane, insisting on their similarity. A sensitive perception of scale also organizes many startling analogies; for instance, a fox is convincingly described as a “tiny… Plutonian moon.” There’s magic here: Akbar has transformed something huge (a moon) into something tiny (as a Plutonian moon might be when compared to other planets). This manipulation of scale allows many of Akbar’s most metaphysical moments to become breathtakingly concrete: “compared to even a small star/ the moon is tiny it is not God but the flower behind God I treasure”
Within these sweeping meditations, Akbar has created an anthology of insights, a collection of lines that might stop a reader in her tracks. “Milk splashes / into a bowl and coronates / itself with a crown of droplets.” Embedded in a longer piece, this excerpt stands on its own as a gem of Imagism. Elsewhere, human irises are described as having “a mothish obsession with the light.” Like the sharpest perceptions, Akbar’s insights seem obvious and timeless as soon as they’ve been said. It’s tempting to collect all such lines here as a commonplace book. But it’s enough to say that Akbar’s images can make time stand still with their arresting accuracy.
What does it mean for something in a poem to feel true? With Akbar’s images, I mean they feel precisely observed. When I think of the emotional presence of Calling a Wolf a Wolf, truth means something else. The changing textures of Akbar’s lines make me think about aesthetic density and intimacy—how they might enable each other. In the manner of Franz Wright, Akbar’s speaker sometimes assumes a spare, plain style: “Here, I am graceless. / No. Worse than that.” Like Wright, this speaker has a candid authority. At other times, the speaker explicitly dissociates from his experience through an appeal to artifice:
--Have you or somebody else been injured as a result of your drinking?
In fact, it is this desire to be “aes-theti-cized” that creates this collection’s frame: self-confrontation through portraiture. Threaded throughout the book are a series of portrait poems, variations on “Portrait of the Alcoholic,” that show a speaker in various stages of recovery. Reading these portraits, I can’t help but think of the Yeatsian desire to be turned into a bird of “hammered gold and gold enameling.” Turning one’s body into “gold” might be the position of ideal artistry. As with Yeats’ golden bird, making himself “aestheticized” allows the speaker to transcend time, space, and the limits of a fallible body. If portraits are objectifying, they are also emotionally enabling. For Akbar, the act of aestheticizing allows the poems to confront moments that would otherwise be unbearable.
While reading Calling a Wolf a Wolf, I returned to Peter Cole’s discussions of intricate imagery: “Ornament [can be] an essential element of the poem, not as fluff or decoration…. It acts as a conductor and modulator of attention and poetic currency.” I think we can see the imagistic nodes in Akbar’s work in a similar way: as a conductor to shape the poem’s energy. This approach to “ornament” communicates intensity while also enabling the speaker to express, through artifice, what cannot be approached head on. For example, in “Orchids are Sprouting from the Floorboards,” Akbar constructs an elaborate fantasy in which the world is overflowing with the most highly aestheticized of flowers:
The clouds are all orchids.
They are raining orchids.
The walls are all orchids,
the teapot is an orchid,
the blank easel is an orchid
and this cold is an orchid. Oh,
Lydia, we miss you terribly.
Under the accumulating weight of its imagistic conceit, the poem finally breaks open into a disclosure-- a mysterious, perhaps elegiac, appeal to “Lydia.” This release of abundance into intimacy seems like the perfect enactment of just how much ornament can do. A similar technique is at work in “Heritage,” a wrenching piece elegizing Reyhaneh Jabbari. The poem ends with Jabbari’s execution:
good bye now you mountain
you armada of flowers you entire miserable decade a lump in my throat
despite all our endlessly rehearsed rituals of mercy it was you we sent on
The intensifying descriptions of Jabbari, from “mountain” to “armada of flowers,” both “conduct and modulate” the energy of the poem. But they also avert our gaze from Jabbari’s actual person. There’s a gathering power here that we can’t directly confront yet. This escalating imagery finally resolves in a plainspoken admission of defeat, mourning or culpability: “it was you we sent on.” These moments of disclosure, in Akbar, feel both inevitable and true. And it’s possible that truth, carefully and gratefully handled, might be wisdom. Both wisdom and truth are words some might hesitate to apply to a young poet, but in Calling a Wolf a Wolf they make sense—and are the earned result of Akbar’s artistry.