On Kaveh Akbar's ‘Calling a wolf a wolf’ (Penguin, 2018)

Review by Jade Cuttle

“So much of being alive is breaking”, writes Iranian-American poet, Kaveh Akbar, in his debut collection Calling a wolf a wolf. It’s a book that bundles together a series of self-reflections glimpsed through broken glass, emphasising fragility through fragmentation. This aesthetic points to his experience of alcohol addiction, withdrawal and recovery. As such, whether he is comparing himself to a creature pulling out his claws, or to a patient chewing out his stitches, or to a mouse gnawing through his tail, there is violence at every turn.

The title of the collection echoes the phrase ‘calling a spade a spade’, where each poem is hijacked by an honesty that refuses to be diluted. The acknowledgement of addiction is the first step to his recovery: “I’ve given this coldness many names / thinking if it had a name it would have a solution / thinking if I called a wolf a wolf I might dull its fangs”. But as Akbar struggles into the shoes of a new sober self, he increasingly seeks refuge in the punishment of perpetual self-torment, and, eventually, self-erasure. “See? There I go scab-picking again”, he carps, bringing self-awareness to the table, and eventually, justification: “I’m learning how much of myself I don’t actually need”. It’s a mission he delves into with metaphoric flair in ‘God’: “The work I’ve been doing is a kind of erasing. / I dump my ashtray into a bucket of paint and coat myself in the gray slick”.

Not only is Akbar a skilfully delicate surgeon toiling “by the light of [his] wounds”, but also a painter with a masterful stroke. The impressive rigour of his self-scrutiny is evidenced by the endless iterations of self-portraiture: “Portrait of the alcoholic with craving…with withdrawal...three weeks sober”, “Portrait of the alcoholic frozen in block of ice...stranded alone on a desert island...floating in space with severed umbilicus”. It almost seems as though Akbar, lifting up each damp rock of his mind, “where brackish water trickles in and memory trickles out”, has detected and dissected every worm underneath. Even so, overwhelmed by his “mothish obsession with light”, naturally, his grip begins to falter. Consequently, these self-portraits are haunted by their own impossibility. Not least because they are shrouded by a doubt that “hangs like a moon […] there is no such thing as certainty”, hesitating over his own judgement: “Am I being dramatic?”; “do you understand what I am saying?”.

Occasionally, Akbar sinks so deep into apologies (“does this confuse you […] I apologize”, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. This may be me at my best”) that you wonder how he will fish himself out from such self-wallowing. “Nobody ever pays me enough attention.” This is especially pronounced when he's teetering on the edge of renunciation: “I’m done trying to make sense of any of this / no one will believe anything that comes out of a mouth like mine”.

Like John Berryman, Akbar’s confessionalism tends to cultivate a nervous, fractured syntax, yet out of this confusion something quite profound emerges. Both writers venture beyond the caricature of the confessional poet’s idle cry for help. In fact, Akbar shows that the lucidity of sober reflection has no choice but to buckle and bend in order to relive that “moment of startle when a thing really sees itself for the first time”. It’s during this shocking rediscovery that he sizes up the self-confidence of a more authoritative tone: “Cut it away, the entire boring envelope, and marvel at what remains […] a pink lighthouse only barely heavier than its light”.  

The portrait of the self he seeks to become is very well done, playing to the poet’s imagistic strengths. The lines that offer the clearest glimpse of this skill, capturing its elusive essence like smoke in a glass, arise exactly half-way through the collection in “What seems like joy”. “I just want to be shaken new like a flag whipping away its dust”, he writes, lamenting that “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 image of captivity that is so central to his self-evaluation recalls T.S. Eliot's Prufrock (“I should have been a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas”) rewritten with a somatic precision that sears right to the bone.

While such shape-shifting aspirations elude Akbar's grasp, they are hinted at obliquely through the lack of punctuation: almost every poem revels in the fluidity of a free-floating form. It’s a tiny detail to remark on, but one that shows how the seismic force of Akbar's self-reflectiveness is sensed as much through the quiet sensitivity that shivers out from the page as through its earth-shattering metaphors.

Jade Cuttle is a poet and critic. She is a former Foyle Young Poet, and she won Best Reviewer (Editor’s Choice) in the Saboteur Awards 2018.