Letting the Wolf in Through the Door

In Praise of Kaveh Akbar’s Book of Poetry, Calling a Wolf a Wolf

Whenever I write in my journal and try to pin down the thoughts swirling around in my head, I realize that the different parts of my mind are messy and extremely hard to map. I’m certain this is true for all us—we’re made up of warring passions, emotions, opinions, and beliefs that push constantly against each other, like ocean waves crashing in opposite directions. These battles never end, and the winners keep changing. My optimism might feel like the victor in one moment, but my cynicism can overpower it just a few hours later.

It’s difficult to come to grips with our complexities, to reflect on our personalities so acutely that we even contend with the parts of ourselves that we don’t like. This difficulty is one of the reasons why I think Kaveh Akbar’s new book of poetry, Calling a Wolf a Wolf, is a magnificent work of literature. After reading it, I felt like I’d witnessed a vivid and detailed self-portrait of the author.

I don’t want to equate the speaker of the poems with the real-life Akbar. After studying poetry in a few of my classes, I’ve learned that even poems that seem confessional are not always factually autobiographical and that poets often construct a persona as the speaker of a poem. Still, the persona can serve as an analog for the author’s self. After all, the persona is not wholly detached from the author because the author is the one who has constructed the persona.

In Akbar’s book, the speaker of the poems seems to allow for the author’s often metaphorical and figurative self-reflection. This self-reflection does not seem to be literally true due to certain fantastical details, but it still feels deeply piercing and honest because it firmly grapples with the complexities of a person and with the varied aspects of a person’s life. The pleasures and pains of life are viscerally related, such as when the speaker in the poem “Yeki Bood Yeki Nabood” says, “I hoarded an entire decade / of bliss of brilliant dime-sized raptures / and this is what I have to show / for it a catastrophe of joints this / puddle I’m soaking in.” Ten years of immense happiness, of numerous moments of ecstasy, the intensity of which comes through with the hard consonant sounds in “bliss” and “brilliant,” result in the speaker’s body becoming injured, perhaps even mangled.

Elsewhere, the speaker acknowledges his capacity to be both kind and callous. In “Against Hell,” he says, “Most days I try hard to act human, to breathe / like a human and speak with the same flat language, but often / my kindness is clumsy—I stop a stranger to tie his shoe and / end up kissing his knees.” This act of kissing a stranger’s knees evokes a sense of great humility and boundless service, but it contrasts starkly with the acts described in the poem “Calling a Wolf a Wolf (Inpatient).” In the latter poem, the speaker says, “I am less horrible than I could be / I’ve never set a house on fire / never thrown a firstborn off a bridge still my whole life I answered every cry for help with a pour / with a turning away.” Here, the speaker explains that he denies help to people in need, and he even implies that he is capable of committing horrible, violent acts. The many ways in which the speaker contends with the contradictory parts of himself are bold, brutal, and unflinching.

Contradictions are also grappled with in the many poems that deal with themes of alcoholism and the tension between hope and despair. The book has several poems with titles that begin with the phrase “Portrait of the Alcoholic,” and in some of these poems, the speaker expresses hope for recovery. For example, in “Portrait of the Alcoholic Three Weeks Sober,” the speaker says, “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,” the ocean and the honey symbolizing alcoholic drinks that can damage his health, which the speaker thinks he can resist even though they surround him. Yet, in other poems, the speaker’s temptations seem to overpower him, such as in “Portrait of the Alcoholic with Craving” in which the speaker talks to his cravings and submits to them by saying, “What I was building was a church. / You were the preacher and I the congregation, / and I the stage and I the cross and I the choir.”

Despite the conflicting forces throughout the book, the book conveys a sense of cohesion, not fracture. Part of this might be due to how the conflicting parts of the self seem to be brought together in stunning images. In “Exciting the Canvas,” the speaker says, “I hear crickets chirp and think / of my weaker heart, the tiny one / sewn behind the one / that beats. It lives there / made entirely of watery pink light, / flapping at dawn like a baby’s cheek.” Also, the sense of cohesion emerges from the powerful and consistent mastery of form and language throughout the book. There’s not a single weak poem in it. All of them moved me and made me reflect. All of them are packed with powerful imagery, precise diction, and stunning turns of phrase. Standout lines that I haven’t shared yet include: “one way to live a life is to spend each moment asking / forgiveness for the last” from the poem “Unburnable the Cold is Flooding Our Lives,”  and, “Like the headless grasshopper and his still- / twitching legs, I’m learning how much of myself / I don’t actually need,” from “So Often the Body Becomes a Distraction.”

This book is thematically brilliant and linguistically stunning. It’s such a deep, rich book, and my reflections here cannot do justice to how sharply intelligent and deeply moving it is. Kaveh Akbar’s book is an astounding achievement, and I highly recommend it.