Getting Inside Kaveh Akbar’s Body; or, Calling a Wolf a Wolf

francine j. harris says his poems “are as reverent and irreverent in the face of addiction as they are in the search for self.” Frank Bidart (National Book Award nominee this year) calls the book a “bounty, an intensely inventive and original debut.” With Calling a Wolf a Wolf, Kaveh Akbar has delivered, with intimate, delicate violence, a landmark collection for the next generation of poets to come.

“It’s never too late to become/ a new thing, to rip the fur// from your face and dive/ dimplefirst into the strange.” —from “Portrait of the Alcoholic with Doubt and Kingfisher”

While Calling is his first full length collection, Akbar has slowly and surely become an indispensable part of our living poetry community: i.e. Divedapper // i.e. Poetry Carnivals // i.e. Quirk // i.e. BOOTH // i.e. All Up In Your Ears // i.e. Twitter Dominance

Akbar has received a Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, a Pushcart Prize, and the Lucille Medwick Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America. Before his first full collection, Akbar was already a force. That’s why Calling a Wolf a Wolf has been one of the most anticipated collections of the year.

A lot of the moves in the book are similar to associative leapers like Dean Young, or the intimate silence seekers like Kazim Ali, or violent body imaginaries like Ocean Vuong. The influences are there, but the book is more. Akbar has added to our speech the grand volume of his God, his desire, his body, and the watermark left after reading is plainly at new heights.

Across eighty-eight pages, the poems wedge themselves together with such abundant tension, images thickly compacted from line to line—the whole thing amazes you with its prosperity of figure and image; you can’t help but think Akbar may be a little mad for containing it all in his head. As a whole, Calling a Wolf a Wolf happens in three parts: Terminal, Hunger, and Irons; each part softly corresponds with addiction, withdrawal, and recovery. However, more deeply, they represent varied stages of ambivalence Akbar has toward his body: the search for it amidst the confusing world, the battle with its limits and beauty, and the final wary alliance and peace, ever vulnerable to shatter. Addiction, alcoholism, the medical process—these are details by which Akbar finds himself able to talk about God, about desire, and about the body.

landmark // land·mark // ˈlan(d)ˌmärk/
an object or feature of a landscape or town that is easily seen and recognized from a distance, especially one that enables someone to establish their location.

And it’s that final focus, the obsession with bodies, which elevates this collection to its most significant position: Akbar has created a landmark by which all other poets today may guide their own body talk, their own exploration of the ever-present ambivalence toward the thing wrapping their self in skin and inky wet blood. The body becomes more than mystical in this book, as the boundaries between flesh and world are not merely blurred, but shattered—bodies are thrown upon all the sharp crooked edges of life and Akbar diligently records every detail of the aftermath:

“compass needles/ lodged in the soft of an eye”—from “The New World”

“bruised/ and bluefleshed loathsome as glass pulled/ from a child’s mouth”—from “Portrait of the Alcoholic Frozen in Block of Ice”

“Hungry ghosts orbiting my body—even now,/ I can feel them plotting in their luminous diamonds// of fog, each eyeing a rib or a thighbone”—from “What Use Is Knowing Anything If No One Is Around”

“You owe/ me nothing anymore, you still-/twitching vein pulled from a neck,/ you wiseblood, you wise new blood.”—from “No Is a Complete Sentence”

Pieces of flesh, limbs, blood, hands, eyes are everywhere. Mouths eat everything, hide secrets, are bigger on the inside. Guts are for slashing. Throats for guzzling down “whole human bodies,/ the faces like goblets I’d drain then put back in the cupboard” (from “Portrait of the Alcoholic Three Weeks Sober”).

The landscape of today’s poetry is flooded with the anxiety we have toward our own bodies. We modern folk, millennials and all, are so technologically available to violent imagery from across the blue globe, so disillusioned with hope, but also disillusioned with disillusionment—we want what we don’t want and anxiously search for what we already have. It’s a complicated time to be a body. Akbar gives this to us beautifully in “What Seems Like Joy”:

“even a lobster climbs away from its shell a few
times a life ++++but every time I open my eyes I find
I am still inside myself ++++each epiphany dull and familiar”

The poem lays bare our doubled desires to both reinvent and to find a home. “What Seems Like Joy” is the first poem of the second part of the book, “Hunger”, and serves as introduction to the spiritual state of withdrawal.

++++++++++Sometimes I feel beautiful and near dying
like a feather on an arrow shot through a neck ++++other times
I feel tasked only with my own soreness ++++like a scab on the roof
of a mouth”

Our bodies break in the violence of looking, the arrows of our gaze finding and killing the beloved. In this poem, Akbar has managed to wrestle onto the page the tension, dark and luxurious, between the utter, holy beauty of a body on earth, and ugly animality of making it through any given day:

++++++++++while I’m still here lurching into my labor
hanging by my hair from the roof of a chapel ++++churchlight thickening
around me”

His language is intimately violent within that “churchlight,” a whispered slash and letting of blood. Our bodies lay around us, seemingly, somehow, like joy.

Kaveh Akbar has written a book that will stand as a defining moment for a new generation of poets. They will learn to guide themselves across the frontier of language by the landmark, tall and bristling with crooked limbs, of Calling a Wolf a Wolf. If you’re a poet today, writing from a body, this is your chance to crawl into Akbar’s mouth and catch some wisdom on his breath—just beware the locusts and the blades.

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