Calling a Wolf a Wolf by Kaveh Akbar (Alice James Books, 2017)
Reviewed by Rebecca Valley
I saw Kaveh Akbar read last month under a white tent lit with string lights in Emily Dickinson’s garden. The garden, of course, was not as tranquil as it had been when Emily sat there. Akbar read over a hum of street traffic and chatting pedestrians. At moments, though, it was quiet. Akbar read elegy after elegy – for lost language and lost friends, for a version of himself that drank more and hurt more – and I thought of Emily. “One need not be a chamber to be haunted, / One need not be a house…”
In Akbar’s first full-length collection, Calling a Wolf a Wolf, he meditates on the complicated nature of what it means to become new – a different version, or a different way of being in the same body. In nearly each line there is a transformation – in my favorite of his poems, “Orchids Are Sprouting from the Floorboards,” everything in the world turns into an orchid,
“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.”
The only object remaining is an absent person, Lydia, about whom we know nothing except that she is gone now. This too, is a theme of Akbar’s; he writes in what is missing so that we feel both its presence and its absence, as in “Portrait of an Alcoholic with Withdrawal,” whose first lines determine the poem’s subject by showing the speaker walking away from it. He names what’s missing again, later, in “Portrait of the Alcoholic with Moths and River” when he writes:
“what you lack and the punishment for your
lacking are the same paling tulips gray-
ing fingernails a body nearly stops
then doesn’t I have seen it…”
In these poems, Akbar seems to begin to find himself by putting his body on display. In “Against Dying” he writes, “at twenty-four my liver was / already covered in fatty / rot my mother filled a tiny / coffin with picture frames…” These images, of a swollen belly, a liver rotting too early, come in sharp relief to the beautiful images that litter Akbar’s poems, of copper bells and flowers and foxes and heaven. He puts the grotesque beside the beautiful, the lost beside the found. This, perhaps, is the most moving part of this collection – that it is human, that it admits to kindness at the same time it admits to desperate cruelty. It is not a book asking for forgiveness, but rather a book about the slow and complicated process of forgiving and being forgiven. In this vein, Akbar writes:
“A year ago
I blew the drugs out of my nose and immediately,
I was overwhelmed by the smell of semen
and gingerbread. Now I listen for the sighs
of people who love me, each agitation I create
a reminder that I am less than constant
in my grace. Will I ever be a great man? Will I
ever be one of the guys? Tarre be tockmesh mire,
Kavehi be babash. The leek looks like its seed,
and little Kaveh looks like his father…”
In Emily Dickinson’s garden, Kaveh Akbar read his poems. Cars with bum mufflers rumbled past and Amherst frat boys shouted cuss words at each other. Between the sounds, there were crickets. It was a new garden, but the old garden was there too, waiting for us to hear it. Akbar writes:
“I remember someone
once sang here, once strung together
a garland of near-holy moments.
It’s serious business, this living.
As long as the earth continues
its stony breathing, I will breathe.”