Review: Calling a Wolf a Wolf by Kaveh Akbar
I love a well-rendered addiction narrative. Maybe because my biological parents were addicts; maybe because of my own insatiable hunger for things that harm; or maybe it's simply that I'm human and addiction is just human nature, amplified. When I heard of Kaveh Akbar's debut collection, Calling a Wolf a Wolf, I knew I would need to read it, partially because of my predilection for addiction narratives, partially because I once wrote my own little chapbook chronicling my mother's addiction and my corresponding depression/suicidal ideation which was titled Letting in the Wolves. When one wolf howls another answers. I hear you, Kaveh Akbar. I feel the echo of your poems in my body.
What I wasn't prepared for was a book that had every bit as much to do with beauty, wonder, and gratitude as it does addiction.
The first line of the opening poem is, "Sometimes God comes to earth disguised as rust." And much of what follows is an extrapolation of that sentiment: we search for beauty and wonder as if they were rare, but opening our eyes to the present moment (rather than giving way to the distractions we create for ourselves) reveals the minutia as God. Late in the book Akbar writes "It's common to live properly, to pretend/you don't feel heat or grief..." and later, in the same poem, "It is comfortable to be alive this way,/especially now, but it makes you so vulnerable to shock--" It's easy to imagine what might send someone spiraling into addiction because it happens all the time; so many of us are not equipped to deal with pain or awkwardness or love. In "Yeki Bood Yeki Nabood" he writes,
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
The jammed-together syntax of this stanza seems to gesture at the quickness of the speaker's becoming, the quickness of his mother's becoming, how quickly we let ourselves be dulled and undignified, how the smallness of our lives can swallow us whole. And what's tragic in this moment is not just the absent spirit of the speaker but the fact that it's so ordinary: all over the world, people are dying unremarkably, blind to their own lives.
But Akbar's poems don't just hold a mirror up to our shared misery: they reflect much deeper than that. It's hard to write poems that feel both true and hardwired with hope. When he writes, "You just don't know yet which parts/of yourself to value--" it is like he is offering the reader a life vest. "Even the trap-caught fox/knew enough to chew away its leg," and it isn't too difficult to infer a lesson. "It's never too late to become/a new thing, to rip the fur/from your face and dive/dimplefirst into the strange." Can you imagine loving living enough to gnaw off your own flesh? Can you imagine walking away from that bloodied, abandoned piece of yourself and not just feeling haunted by it, but grateful to inhabit this new shape? In "Portrait of the Alcoholic Three Weeks Sober," Akbar writes,
Today, I'm finding problems in areas where I didn't have areas before.
I'm grateful to be trusted with any of it: the bluebrown ocean
undrinkable as a glass of scorpions, the omnipresent fragrant
honey and the bees that guard it. It just seems such a severe sort of
Once, when I was describing to a friend a situation with which I was struggling, she said, "Wow! What an incredible dilemma!" I believe she meant that both as validation - yes, I can see why you're struggling - and as a reminder that to have a dilemma (that one in particular, but also any dilemma at all) is a privilege. It is difficult and necessary to remember that, to stay thankful even and especially in the face of that which bewilders and challenges us. In "Unburnable the Cold is Flooding Our Lives," Akbar writes,
Rumi said the two most important things in life were beauty
and bewilderment this is likely a mistranslation
after thirty years in America my father now dreams in English
says he misses the dead relatives he used to be able to visit in sleep
how many times are you allowed to lose the same beloveds
before you stop believing they're gone
I've never been an alcoholic, and I've never lost a native tongue, but I imagine that sobriety will always feel in some ways a little foreign. An unanticipated life. A debt that cannot possibly be repaid. Akbar balances daily, unexpected joy with the inescapable longing that makes us human: "I am glad I still exist glad for cats and moss/and Turkish Indigo and yet to be light upon the earth/to be steel bent around an endless black to once again/be God's own tuning fork and yet and yet"
In some ways, Calling a Wolf a Wolf feels more than anything like a coming-of-age narrative, albeit one written with a bounty of dexterity and self-awareness. "We are learning so much so quickly. The sun/is dying. The atom is reducible. The god-harnesses/we thought we came with were just our tiny lungs." As a reader, I feel implicated in that "we." I feel stunned by my own insignificance even while experiencing the utter rapture of being part of something so much bigger than myself. What resonates so deeply with Akbar's poems is the discovery that only in our desire to become so much more remarkable than we are are we able to become our ultimate, powerful selves. Of this, he writes in "What Use is Knowing Anything If No One Is Around,"
The spirit lives in between
the parts of a name. It is vulnerable only to silence
and forgetting. I am vulnerable to hammers, fire,
and any number of poisons. The dream, then: to erupt
into a sturdier form, like a wild lotus bursting into
its tantrum of blades.
What's most captivating to me in this collection (and all of it captivates) is Akbar's ability to hold both the difficulty of getting free (in his case, of addiction, but it feels applicable to anything really that binds us) and the simplicity of it at the same time. Deep inside ourselves we have everything we need to blossom into our own "tantrum of blades"--after all, no one tells the lotus what to do. It is born knowing. It's not so much that we don't understand how to be free as that we are afraid of giving ourselves over to that freedom. It may be faster and wilder than we expect. We may have trouble catching our breath. In "Despite Their Size Children Are Easy to Remember They Watch You," Akbar writes,
I do only what comes naturally obey my gut
pray at takeoffs never landings mostly I look forward to sleep
my body shelved hallucinating tangled wood almond
blossoms wind near a river that smells like river it's lovely
because it's simple just say yes and step into the consequence
Life isn't just a word: it's a real thing with consequences. We can choose to be free but we're bound to experience the pain of growth. This choosing to be free even though it means opening yourself to difficulty is at the heart of the penultimate poem, "I Won't Lie This Plague of Gratitude." Akbar admits, "I was comfortable/in my native pessimism," but hiding from the world won't stop it from happening to us, and he goes on to write:
not long ago I was hard to even
hug like ribbons of cartilage cut
from a lamb I dressed in shredded roses
and pistachio shells I drank an entire language
and flung tar at whatever moved
until the world cut me open like a tube of paint
until it crushed me between its fingers
like a hornet none of it was graceful
I had to learn to love people one at a time
Surrendering to gracelessness is how we choose to re-enter the world: loving is messy and dangerous and there is no blueprint, no clearly labeled path, only trial and error, only giving ourselves over to the deliciousness and the ache and the overwhelming salt of it. "I Won't Lie This Plague of Gratitude" ends with the insufficiency of language to encompass or thoroughly describe the impossible mess of feelings we experience in any given moment of any given day--ordinary moments, the only moments we'll ever have--and as such, embraces its own limitations: "I weep openly at obnoxious/beauty cello music comes in/from blocks away and I lose it completely/there is a word for these fits of incomprehensible/delight I said it last night/when my mouth was full of cake" The speaker embraces the gracelessness of living; or, as Akbar writes earlier in the book, "I'm almost/ready to show you the mess I've made."