in review: Calling a Wolf a Wolf
November 8, 2017
Calling a Wolf a Wolf
by Kaveh Akbar
Publication Date: September 12, 2017
Publisher: Alice James Books
“to make life first you need a dying star…” writes Kaveh Akbar in a poem from his debut full-length poetry collection. Calling a Wolf a Wolf is (in part) about redemption and the dream-like ways in which it both exists and does not exist. Like the star, Akbar must die to really live. At one point, he recalls telling his mother he has only six months left, thanks to the destruction of his addictions. To avoid near-certain death he begins the never-ending work of self-denial; as seen through the poems, he alternatively blooms and wilts so that he may be daily reborn into a body that is a little less broken than before.
Akbar’s salvation largely entails coming to terms with the visceral reality of his own body. He expresses his detachment from physical reality through shifting depictions of how he relates to his own form. Weaving in and out of the poems are recurring dissociations with the body that at once longs to live and works to kill him. At first, his body barely exists at all, envisioned as smoke, or a shadow that merely “follows [him] around.” As time goes on, he grows to appreciate his own form. One senses that Akbar’s journey to sobriety is a sort of out-of-body experience in which he must somehow reclaim ownership of his own corporality to truly heal. Still, the process is ongoing and always undoing itself, as he alternately embraces and dismisses his physical reality.
As the poems stretch onward, the reader senses that Akbar’s vacillating disassociations are much more than symptoms of his disease. As he continues to step out of himself to view himself as Other, he discovers who he wants to become. It seems that by observing himself from the viewpoint of a bystander he escapes the fear of self that is intrinsic to his addiction. At the same time, he contrasts this depersonalization with an oddly tender personification of addiction. He recalls with bittersweet nostalgia memories in which addiction appears as another person, one with whom he feels a sort of camaraderie. What’s more, as fear lessens, compassion grows. He loves his body “more than other bodies” and compares his former addiction to a tune that is “halfway lovely.” Nonetheless, as Akbar impresses via haunting imagery and trembling syntax, fear creeps in and compassion fades in and out.
Akbar’s poems abound with images presented as metaphors or similes for something else—hence the title, which insists on being taken literally. A body is a “mosque borrowed from Heaven,” and a girl who sobs after orgasm reminds the poet of addiction. The reader finds himself forging connections between seemingly unrelated ideas, a willing voyeur in a world where the sacred is mundane and beauty is sorrowful. Even the pace of the collection is both unpredictable and rhythmically pleasing; it deftly alternates between racing descriptions and slow epiphanies. Its rhythm feels vaguely nostalgic for the way it echoes the peaks and valleys of one’s own experience with suffering.
By the book’s close, the reader is achingly aware that Akbar’s battle with addiction is not only ongoing but eternal. He declares “I live in the gulf,” which is to say that he exists in a liminal state, not quite here nor there, but somewhere in-between, continuously becoming and “unbecoming.” In this way, Akbar intimates that his redemption, rather than a concrete entity, is an abstraction only made real through daily struggle. He will never be without struggle; rather, each day entails a renewed decision to become stronger, more intentional. What’s more, he demonstrates with otherworldly imagery that those who suffer possess an astonishing sensitivity to beauty, able to find it in even the saddest places. Indeed, Calling a Wolf a Wolf does precisely that.