Calling a Wolf a Wolf, by Kaveh Akbar
Review by John Venegas
It is a well worn cliche to ask where the time has gone. Our perception of time is a malleable reckoning of a malleable thing. Time means different things to different people, at different speed and at different densities. It is fascinating and quaint to watch as we try harder and harder to parse time using the oscillations of atoms or the hands of clocks. But for a great many people, maybe even all people, at least at a subconscious level, there are moments of trepidation, or even outright terror, when they come to realize that time cannot really stop. Not for us. The same dimension of existence that allows us to grow and perceive and explore is also the one that renders us, and everything else, finite. So when you ask where the time has gone, you are, on some level, aware that the conveyor belt has an end. As I finished reading Kaveh Akbar’s Calling a Wolf a Wolf, I could not help but be aware of its significance as a coming to terms and dealing with addiction, specifically in the form of alcoholism. But something struck me as I went back to individual poems and began to parse them out for analysis. With each word, each line, each stanza, I felt more and more drawn to the question of time. Not in the cosmic sense, but through the prism of the deeply intimate and personal. This collection deals with time in a disturbingly profound fashion, paying witness to all of its refracted distortions.
how much history is enough history before we can agree
to flee our daycares to wash everything away and start over
What is time to an addict? Calling a Wolf a Wolf is a collection that includes poems entitled “Potrait of the Alcoholic with Relapse Fantasy” and “Personal Inventory: Fearless (Temporis Fila)”. We watch as the speaker of these poems is caught alternately in the riptides and eddies of his own life, at times remembering and reliving moments of ecstasy and anguish, and at times completely at a loss for anything approaching a tangible memory. Chunks of a life feel missing, and there is a sense that the speaker seeks to hold back the flow of other memories from filling those voids, as if those forsaken pieces might one day be stumbled upon and refitted into the puzzle. In some poems the speaker worries that he may be caught in some interminable, frozen hell, while in others there is a desperate need for purchase, for a handhold to slow the advance and take stock of what remains. There are even moments of pride and empowerment, not necessarily from the “defeat” of addiction but instead from within the addiction, paying honest acknowledgement to the notion that there is a reason substances, ideas, and sensations are enthralling in the first place. And all of this conveys a sense that combines dislocation, contradiction, and worrisome familiarity that is no stranger to those who deal with addiction.
I can’t even remember my name, I who remember
so much – football scores, magic tricks, deep love
so close to God it was practically religious
Of particular note for me in this regard are the first and last poems of the collection. The book begins with a kind of prologue poem, one set aside from its kin and outside the work’s own system of organization. This poem, titled “Soot”, begins with the line “Sometimes God comes to earth disguised as rust,”. This is the first line of poetry of the whole book, the opening note of the symphony, and it conflates the concept of a singular, fundamental divinity with a tangible symbol of entropy that can consume things as durable as metal. The final poem of the collection, “Portrait of the Alcoholic Stranded Alone on a Desert Island”, ends with the lines “The boat I am building / will never be done.” These bookends are the perfect encapsulation for the collection’s perspective. We begin with a speaker sifting through the ashes of a life, not a life that has been burnt to the root but one that has been burned black in several places, as he tries and fails to mulligan. We end with a disturbing, contradictory victory, one that finds paradise and freedom from the incessantly well-meaning and the callously inconsiderate, but only through isolation and fear of advancement. Moments stretch into stagnant eons, and eons disintegrate into moments that slip through fingers.
how many times are you allowed to lose the same beloveds
before you stop believing they’re gone
To be completely fair, time is merely the facet of this collection that connected most strongly with me. There is a wealth of other concepts here that resonate with a similar power. Akbar has presented us with religion, culture, power dynamics, language, nature, relationships, fear, death, and joy as points of origin from which we can build understanding, and that all assumes one needs to look any deeper than the already profound confrontation of alcoholism. And the strength of the language on display here means that, despite bursting at the seams with emotional and philosophical gravitas, the poetry remains graceful and precise. Akbar switches structure and style on what might first seem like a whim but slowly reveals itself to be deliberate determination. At times conversational, at times oratorical, Akbar seems to understand that he is moving through the intimate and the cosmic with the same lingering eye for detail. His speaker is as likely to converse with God as he is to describe losing his virginity, and in both cases with equal parts awe and disgust. There is no shying away from conflict or contradiction, and there is no balm for unresolved questions. Just as we have not figured out how to travel back in time save through the corrupted facsimile of memory, there is knowledge that remains beyond our reach.
it’s been January for months in both directions
There is one more poem that, for me at the moment, deserves a special note. It is titled “God”, and it sits toward the end of the collection. It is one of the most powerful pieces in the whole book, and not only because it chooses to do exactly what the title suggests and address the concept of the Almighty. Throughout Calling a Wolf a Wolf, Akbar draws parallels between the speaker and God, often through reality seeming to warp before the speaker’s eyes and the malleability of time being on full display. In “God”, the speaker demands and begs that God return and face the cruelties, the pockmarks on His creation. The poem is painful and visceral and determined, even on that surface level. But when one imagines the speaker turning that voice inward, or that God may never return and that the speaker is the only one left to assume responsibility. Did God discard us for our sinfulness? Did God abandon us out of fear? Is the speaker witnessing the repercussions of his own wake, or a vision of what may yet come to pass? Calling a Wolf a Wolf is awash in this kind of provocative, intense challenge, something that all students of poetry need to experience.
Calling a Wolf a Wolf is available now through Alice James Books.