Calling a Wolf a Wolf
Kaveh Akbar
Alice James Books, $16.95 (paper)

The disjuncture between the liberal masquerade of citizenship and its discrepant application remains as brutal a border as ever. Literary citizenship, by contrast, imagines the possibilities of literature to forge collectives not determined by oppressive power structures. Kaveh Akbar is a consummate literary citizen. For example, when Trump’s Muslim ban went into effect, Akbar tweeted work by poets from Iran, Libya, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia, Iraq, and Syria—the seven Muslim-majority countries whose citizens were temporarily banned from entering the United States. Akbar’s Twitter has long comprised an engaging stream of diverse poetry both timely in the face of political exigencies and not determined (only) by reaction to the steady progression of violences. Refusing a politics of scarcity while remaining attuned to the ways that racism and other imperial projects shape aesthetic preferences and circulation practices, Tehran-born, Indiana-based Akbar insists on the possibilities of poetry (“probably the last gift economy,” Claudia Rankine has called it) to reconfigure relation in spite of social markers of belonging.

Akbar is decisively non-territorial: “I want everything in my poemverse to orbit delight,” he recently tweeted. Nowhere is Akbar’s delight more evident than in Divedapper, a carnival-hosting interview project featuring contemporary poets such as Oliver Baez Bendorf, Fanny Howe, D. A. Powell, and Patricia Smith. These interviews chart, as much as anything, Akbar’s own literary obsessions. Akbar does not pitch a flag to stake a claim; he (literally) pitches a tent and invites us in. Akbar’s deep commitment to conversation with those who come before and alongside constitutes an opening, a home-making across place and time.

Akbar’s deep commitment to conversation with those who come before and alongside constitutes an opening, a home-making across place and time.

Polish poet Czesław Miłosz observed that “language is the only homeland.” In his stunning debut collection, Calling a Wolf a Wolf, Akbar reminds us that the very idea of homeland is doused in nostalgia, inflected by distance—why name something “homeland,” if there is no counterpoint “elsewhere”? If language can be homeland, it can also be displacement. A second language charts its distance from the first. Ongoing imperial histories ensure that colonial languages deny access to ancestral languages. And yet estrangement is not always or only devastating. In allowing one to enter with surprise, estrangement also comprises the raw material of delight.

The violences and delights of estrangement animate Calling a Wolf a Wolf. In “Do you Speak Persian?” Akbar writes:

I don’t remember how to say home
in my first language, or lonely, or light.

I remember only
delam barat tang shodeh, I miss you,

and shab bekheir, goodnight.

Here, the italics signal both what is remembered (delam barat tang shodeh, Shab bekheir) and what is sought but forgotten (home, lonely, light), what is accessible and what remains out of reach—a visual collapse that positions both what is held and what is lost in the body.

Explorations of this embodied nature of remembering and forgetting occur throughout the book. History lives in the body, and the body lives in history—even when the connective thread of conscious memory is fraying or severed. The relationships Akbar charts—body and memory, body and place, place and memory, speaker and reader—refuse any facile equation between distance and estrangement. On the contrary, he exposes how intimacy can magnify estrangement—strangest of all, our own bodies and histories, how they come with us everywhere, how we wield them in every encounter. As James Baldwin put it, “[T]he one face that one can never see is one’s own.”

If language can be homeland, it can also be displacement.

Greco-Roman thought links memory and the creative act—in Greek mythology, Memory is the mother of Muse, the source of inspiration; in Akbar’s poems, forgetting is similarly generative. Calling a Wolf a Wolf asks what it means to continually pass through forgetting so that absence becomes not only a central experience of self, but also a creative resource. “The work I’ve been doing / is a kind of erasing,” he writes in a poem titled “God,” in which the speaker, thrashing about in the space between what was promised on earth (“epiphany, earth- // honey, and a flood of milk”) and what they find (“a giant chessboard where the dark squares get all the rain”), begs for god’s return. Absence is the site of hunger, and hunger sends us searching.

How intimately and fiercely our hunger propels us. Akbar’s alchemy of remembering and forgetting maps a roving, rich, and sometimes violent search for self. “Yeki Bood Yeki Nabood” is a Persian phrase usually translated as once upon a time, but that literally—and, in this context, generatively—means one was there and one was not there or there was one and there wasn’t one. As the poem of that title relates:

every day someone finds what they need
in someone else

                           you tear into a body
and come out with a fistful of the exact
feathers you were looking for . . .

Later, in “River of Milk,” Akbar writes: “my ancestor / was a dervish saint . . . // his people believed / he could have spared them a drought     they ripped him to pieces.” Much recurs in Calling a Wolf a Wolf: belief, bellies, innards, guts, pockets, night, light, the father, prayer, drink, the lover, god—all the places that we stash ourselves and then go looking.

Recovery, too, is among Calling a Wolf a Wolf’s central preoccupations, most frontally expressed in the book’s treatment of alcoholism. As a form, the substance abuse recovery narrative fixes recovery as a permanent state: I was there, and now I’m here—forever past that past. But fixity is not the province (or pretense) of poetry, which makes its home in multiplicity, indeterminacy, and return. Calling a Wolf a Wolf honors this more tenuous temporal scheme. Akbar persistently marks time: “I used to slow / dance with my mother in our living / room”; “I used to be so afraid of nature”; “I used to / believe my father’s umbrella caused the / rain.” “Now my blood / is drying on the pillow”; “now it’s lonely all over”; “now my shoes are soaking through.”. Here the form is not linear. The construction I used to _______, but now I ________—mobilized in conventional narrative to chart a distance from the past self—is fractured and splayed across poems, the body evoked as a tumult of presents and pasts. For the alcoholic, each present is also an unlikely future: “According to science, // I should be dead.”

These poems seek the transformative possibilities of precise language while admitting the unwieldiness of desire.

Throughout the collection, poems titled “Portrait of the Alcoholic” (the title of Akbar’s 2017 chapbook) recur: “Portrait of the Alcoholic with Craving,” “Portrait of the Alcoholic with Doubt and Kingfisher,” “Portrait of the Alcoholic Three Weeks Sober.” The “portrait” poems mark the book’s preoccupation with locating the self in time and space. “Some people born before the Model T / lived to see man walk on the moon. / To be strapped like that / to the masthead of history / would make me frantic,” Akbar writes in “Exciting the Canvas.” A classical portrait seeks to tether a figure to the masthead of history; a frantic current runs through Calling a Wolf a Wolf. The voice is one of a bumbling prophet—a crystalline certainty passed through the agitations of embodiment—propelled by their own petulant desires. “Long ago I lived in Heaven / because I wanted to,” the speaker in “Soot” says. The recurrence of “portrait” poems signals anxiety, echoes relapse. Like all vectors, recovery contains its past, the histories, absences, memories, and ghosts a body can hold. After all, to remember is always to revise—to reconstitute, to see again.

The contranymic sense of recover—to move away from (to leave the past behind) and to regain (to bring the past forward)—underwrites Calling a Wolf a Wolf, and the poem’s forms amplify the charge of opposing meanings. Akbar’s images move quickly. In the span of only a few lines, the poems can proceed from the interior of the body to the interior of the earth to an unlocatable philosophical musing. In many poems, clusters of phrases sprawl across the page like rocks across a creek—encouraging leaps. For example, “Calling a Wolf a Wolf (Inpatient)” lurches from thought to thought: “this makes sadness seem more like tradition     loyalty to / a parent’s past     I try to find small comforts.” “[L]oyalty to a parent’s past” is suspended between the legacy of sadness and the sustenance of small comforts, its affiliations moving in both directions.

There are no sustained, multi-part poems here, but the recurrent images and phrases invite a reading across the text, from; for example, “The spirit lives in between // the parts of a name. It is vulnerable only to silence / and forgetting,” to “like the sky I’ve been too quiet        everyone’s forgotten I’m here,” to “I can’t even remember my name, I who remember / so much.” The book can be read linearly, but it curls up like a Möbius strip, not a movement from here to there, but an insistent return—like poetry, like addiction, like any obsession that, like all obsessions, can never be sated.

Akbar’s collection calls to mind Solmaz Sharif’s injunction that “It matters what you call a thing.” What you call a thing is a central preoccupation of Calling a Wolf a Wolf, whose title evokes simultaneously the idioms “calling a spade a spade” and “crying wolf,” which is to say: naming something what it is, and naming something what it is not in the pursuit of attention. These poems seek the transformative possibilities of precise language while admitting the unwieldiness of desire. “I confess I have been trying / to seduce you,” the speaker in “Tassiopeia” reveals in what feels like an ars poetica; what are poems if not an act of beckoning the reader?

What you call a thing is a central preoccupation of Calling a Wolf a Wolf.

Akbar’s poems encourage revision, seeing differently—but in the realm of the senses, they are perhaps most indebted to touch. As political theorist Iris Marion Young writes, “The act of touching is also necessarily an experience of being touched. . . . With touch as the model of experience of the world . . . dividing the world into objects with definite borders makes much less sense.” In these poems, borders—between life and death, past and present, the speaker’s body and the bodies of others—are porous, negotiable, fictive, often trespassed. The pretense of national citizenship, which seeks to designate singular affiliation, is cast aside in a roaming exploration of a multiplicity of contingent connections. As in the act of naming—a border-making practice that constitutes both containment (designation of a boundary) and extension (inauguration of the possibilities of being summoned by another)—Akbar’s poems traffic in the dynamic interplay between being and longing.

Language may not always be homeland, but it can offer meeting place. Naming, articulating, is one way of mapping relation. In the book’s title poem, Akbar writes

my whole life I answered every cry for help with a pour      with a turning away    
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

Of course, calling a wolf a wolf neither halts the violence nor absolves the speaker. Close attention to the world and its rendering in language does, however, offer a path toward another way to be. “Is there a vocabulary for this—one to make dailiness amplify / and not diminish wonder?” Akbar writes in “Do You Speak Persian?” In Calling a Wolf a Wolf, he hones this vocabulary.

Akbar shows that naming a thing is not a clinical endeavor where one affixes a classificatory tag with forceps and then closes the display case. Rather, naming is a sensory activity that engages the entire body. What you call a thing matters not for taxonomic precision, but for the ways it shapes the mouth, holds the body, and charts relation: “each new title a tiny seizure / of joy     paleontologist tarpaper marshmallow.” In his poems, Kaveh Akbar makes way and insists that the path be speckled with delight.