Calling a Wolf a Wolf is Kaveh Akbar’s debut full-length collection of poetry and an incisive look into addiction and sobriety. “It’s amazing what you can find / if you just dissect everything,” Akbar writes (“Wake Me Up When It’s my Birthday”), and his poems cut into the mind and body of the book’s subject, as if to test its edges. Working together, the poems form a loose narrative arc akin to that of Natalie Eilbert’s Swan Feast. The narrative of Calling a Wolf a Wolf gives the impression of a central character, a lyric “I” who can be seen in his struggle if not in one defined time or place. This speaker is present throughout the book, though perhaps most performatively so in the series of poems previously collected in the Sibling Rivalry chapbook Portrait of an Alcoholic.
Sometimes Akbar’s “I” is confessional, dually speaking to the reader and the self. In the poem “Do You Speak Persian?” the speaker says, “I have been so careless with the words I already have” and “For so long every step I’ve taken / has been from one tongue to another,” connecting his confessions to writing, bilingual code-switching, and sex. In this poem and others, Akbar then expands the world he’s created by turning to the surreal, with “The rest, left to a hungry jackal / in the back of my brain” (“Do You Speak Persian?”). In his speaker’s voice, language is held in tension, and the blend of familiar and strange imagery strikes emotional high notes again and again.
Moving through and beyond viscera, “you tear into a body / and come out with a fistful of the exact feathers you were looking for” (“Yeki Bood Yeki Nabood”), Akbar interweaves descriptions of the physical with expressions of spirituality and invocations of poets such as Rumi and Max Ritvo. Finding a place for the sacred and profane, Akbar borrows from the lyrical and confessional traditions but ultimately remakes them, and his poetic structures show great variation and dexterity. For instance, in his frequent, rhythmic substitution of white space for conventional punctuation, he enacts the natural caesuras of a spoken poem and the blank spaces that alcoholism can leave in one’s memory. Seemingly balancing intentionality with the charge of the unconscious, Akbar has crafted a strong first book with the lyrical desire for both the concrete and the figurative to live side by side.
Akbar was born in Tehran and lives in Tallahassee. He is the founder and editor of the interviews website Divedapper, where he archives conversations with poets such as Solmaz Sharif and Cynthia Cruz. Calling a Wolf a Wolf was released by Alice James Books this fall.
Calling a Wolf a Wolf by Kaveh AkbarSeptember 2017 * Alice James Books
Cover Image:FLAMERRichard Saja2017Cotton and rayon floss on linen toile28" x 36"