Working With Eggshells: A Review of Kaveh Akbar’s Calling a Wolf a Wolf
Alice James Books, 2017
Kaveh Akbar’s poems are packed in salt, his language a wild arrangement of brine dredged from the pool of consciousness ensconced in a personal anguish, poured through the filter of this world, our bitter and sweet one where Akbar’s work is like “wandering into the woods to pull apart eggshells emptying/ them in the dirt then sewing them back together to dry in the sun.” (See: “What Seems Like Joy”.) But Akbar does not leave alone his subjects to dry forever on end, instead he pries and tries to fashion a poem that angles on the old vase of innocence and beauty, seeking even one drink of the rosewater at the bottom, wishing to attain a clutch of the “easy prayer”: a form of language that’s worth something.
Calling a Wolf a Wolf is restless in its pursuit of the name given, the name received, as reflected in “Portrait of the Alcoholic Stranded Alone on a Desert Island”: “I live in the gulf/ between what I’ve been given/ and what I’ve received.” This sentiment is echoed over and again throughout Calling a Wolf a Wolf (let’s face it, the title itself calls this forward). In “Do You Speak Persian?” Akbar writes, “I have been so careless with the words I already have.” Here he searches for “home” and the word “light,” then feels compelled to articulate “lonely” in his native tongue, but only remembers delam barat tang shodeh (“I miss you”). Such a sequence in the poem resonates the sensation of a self moving in multiplicity, a human speaking in two languages, lost in the “gulf” among them.
No wonder Akbar becomes our poet who announces, “If you teach me something/ beautiful I will name it quickly before it floats away.” (See: “Desunt Nonnulla.) This impulse to name is the desire, the task, of grounding oneself in a place of uncertainty, to stabilize the self in its migration.
We humans name things to unlock a truth about that thing, to bring us closer, or distance us (as in the case of derogatory generalizations and labels) to the thing at hand. Names provide an intimate sense of that thing, a wisp of understanding. Still, what can we really know about a thing? It’s like the skin of a fig, what memory does it keep and how are we to know?
For Akbar, memory holds flavor, a branch from the tree excited with sugars, the double helix woven within it and stacked with sensory details that the poet’s endless duty be to unpack such scriptures. Akbar possesses an attachment to the things of his world so fierce he manages, somehow, to bind the pages of his despair to an existential joy rooted in the mythmaking of his own song. He says himself: “I am more than the worry I make.” (See: “Prayer”.) Akbar sees the thing as otherwise, his metaphors charged with breath—a hard wind—a flurry of feeling, a heap of doubt, but his anxious investigation into the pulse of being brings to light a new sort of hope, the kind that is created out of great sensitivity and a searing level of attention, the hope that is hope because “by the light of [his] wounds” a form of gratitude emerges, a humility dependent on vulnerability, in which the unsettled identity of the speaker touches down and takes stock in the Earth’s bounty, aware that “So much of living is about understanding/ scale” and that “with sensitive enough instruments even uprooting a shrub/ becomes a seismic event.” (See: “Against Hell”.)
In this volume we come to know Akbar as a poet of theory and impulse, a poet who writes by the lamp of the strange, rough moment. “I will do anything to avoid/ getting carried away,” and “nothing here is owned.” These two lines taken together represent a great deal and inform us further of the poet’s disposition. (See: “A Boy Steps Into Water” and “Rimrock”.)
Doubtless Akbar can justify each poem, every line in them, though his metaphors are not sustained at length. What these poems lack in cohesion they redeem in the possibility of healing. The quality of this volume is not one thought explored to its beginnings, or ends, but the exploration of a place in the self where, as Frank Bidart states, “surface and depth constantly turn into each other.” The trembling grace in this book, the knowledge gained (or resigned to) reaches throughout: “As long as the earth continues/ its stony breathing, I will breathe” (“Rimrock”), unto the final notes ringing out in the last lines of the book, from “Portrait of the Alcoholic Stranded Alone on a Desert Island”: “I hold my breath.// The boat I am building/ will never be done.”
We can only hope, in this new way, that the boat Akbar’s building is one that carries on, and the poems he’s working on now deliver us with a few coins flashing wildly behind the eyes, able, once and for all, to see the small bird behind the fractured shell of the world.
– Z.G. Tomaszewski
Z.G. Tomaszewski, born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, has two books of poems, All Things Dusk (International Poetry Prize winner selected by Li-Young Lee and published by Hong Kong University Press, 2015) and the chapbook Mineral Whisper (Fini shing Line Press, 2017). Tomaszewski co-founded Great Lakes Commonwealth of Letters and has received fellowships from Beargrass Writing Retreat, Poets House of Montana, and The Moveen Prize (twice). Tomaszewski currently works maintenance at a 100 year old Masonic Temple and is co-director of the Lamp Light Music Festival. New poems appear in Blackbird, RHINO, The Cortland Review, Barrow Street, Portland Review, diode, and Terrain.org, among others.