On Kaveh Akbar’s ‘Calling a Wolf a Wolf’

Akbar’s poetry proves simplicity can be startling, and bares its scars and vocal cords in pure, endless courage.

Kaveh Akbar
100 pages
5.9” x 8.9”
Review Format: Paperback
ISBN 9781938584671
First Edition
Alice James Books
Farmington, Maine, USA
Available HERE

We are living in a time of witnesses, beginning with ourselves. With Kaveh Akbar’s Calling a Wolf a Wolf, we are not only witnessing the rise of a prominent contemporary poet, but we are also challenged to relook at the way we respond to the emotional obstacles faced by ourselves and others. Challenges are the central force of the collection, but they are not necessarily presented as such. Rather than focusing on the difficulties in the common understanding of the term, Akbar facilitates an atmosphere of observation with a child-like fascination that comes with wanting to figure something out. He carefully leads the reader through an array of verbal tableaux in which the line between happiness and suffering is constantly being pushed and redrawn. These complex composites are pulsing with life as they reflect on it, noting the way

a month ago they dragged up a drowned
tourist his bloatwhite belly filled with radishes and lamb shank his
entire digestive system was a tiny museum of pleasure compared to him I
am healthy and unremarkable here I am reading a pharmaceutical brochure
here I am dying at an average pace
(“Calling a Wolf a Wolf (Inpatient),” p 14).

Reading Calling a Wolf a Wolf was ritualistic — each time I sat down with the book I could never bring myself to read more than half a dozen pages, afraid that even one more would result in a lesser amount of appreciation than each individual poem deserves. Akbar’s voice has the power of a prophet returning to childhood, to a state of sharp awareness that is concerned with capturing the unadulterated fleeting moment and prolonging it into a miniature eternity, a sentiment shared by the collection’s speaker when proclaiming:

I am not a slow learner I am a quick forgetter
such erasing makes one voracious if you teach me something
beautiful I will name it quickly before it floats away
(“Desunt Nonnulla,” p 23).

It is a voice one will want to listen to both out of personal volition and out of the simple inability to stop doing so. Empathy, one of the greatest gifts a poet can give his reader, is found in abundance within the collection’s pages. Akbar doesn’t simply make the reader connect and slip into the situation of the speaker. He elicits a willingness to be present, always requesting and offering in an ongoing dialogue between speaker and reader. There is no feeling of obligation as much as there is a quiet request to remain and listen to how

mecca is a moth
chewing holes in a shirt I left
at a lover’s house
(“A Boy Steps into the Water,” p 30).

If the greater, overarching tone of the collection is not convincing enough to make one pick up these poems, then there is an equally convincing case to be made by picking through their minute bones. One will not find anything far-reaching or purposefully convoluted — there are no lines laden with esoteric references, no traces of artifice or exaggeration. Take, for instance, the following passage from the first poem in the first section:

I stacked the pears on the mantel
until I ran out of room and began filling them into
the bathtub one evening I slid in as if into a mound
of jewels now ghost finches leave footprints
on our snowy windowsills
(“Wild Pear Tree,” p 5).

Akbar not only proves that simplicity can be startling, but that it can also be made to feel, and truly be, new. It is once again an echo of the authenticity Calling a Wolf a Wolf brings to the genre, which it carries over into the poems dealing with spiritual contemplation, poems like the astounding opener “Soot.” These are poems that are, poems that are present and always aware. It isn’t necessary for them to stand on a street corner and loudly scream their intentions as the screaming happens naturally for anyone reading them, filled with a sense of urgency and calm realization.

Many more things can be said about these poems, which offer both colorful and emotional lines that link together to form a tapestry of the battleground between creator and destroyer in the context of the self and the spiritual; I will leave this for future readers to discover for themselves. Instead, it is worth adding how much Akbar has also added to the poetry community as a poet to look up to. I will forever remain amazed by “Orchids Are Sprouting from the Floorboards,” simple, cyclical, and moving in its progressive build-up, which has already begun shaping my own writing. Calling a Wolf a Wolf is a humble offering to readers and poets alike, baring its scars and vocal cords as libations to the hungry reader not in defeat, but as a sign of pure, endless courage.