Deconstructing Man as Animal in Kaveh Akbar’s Calling a Wolf a Wolf

There is something gritty that catches in your teeth when you read Akbar’s work, sharp-edged words that when linked together suddenly slip off your tongue. His poems are ordered streams of chaos; they try to contain innumerable ideas but are reined in by uniform lines and in-line rhyme. “Exciting the Canvas,” for instance, touches on life’s greater questions (“Is that / why I’m here? Everyone / needs kudos, from newborns / to saviors”), the essence of suffering (“performed pain is still pain”), the end of the world (“outside—sweeping plains / of green flora and service stations. / Odd, for an apocalypse / to present itself with such bounty.”), and the necessity of naming (“Because I am here / each of these things has a name”), but does not answer any of them, instead pushing readers to contemplate their own struggles with larger truths. The magic is in how he ties these impossibly large ideas into a coherent, navigable whole.

In Calling a Wolf a Wolf our speaker is a sinning prophet, a mortal whose tether to God has been twisted and torn but who stumbles toward revelation nonetheless. The sections of the book, I. TERMINAL, II. HUNGER, and III. IRONS create a chronological journey from damnation to salvation, from a deconstructed body to a whole, determined to live and eventually to be reborn. “One day,” he tells us in the fourth to last poem, “I will wake up in someone else’s bones.” But that restored faith is a far cry from the first portrait of our speaker, “Portrait of the Alcoholic with Home Invader and Housefly,” where he has “opened [himself] to death, the way a fallen tree opens itself to the wild.” Each section title clusters poems dutifully under its heading and acts as binding, an explanation that links the truths of individual poems in a way that welcomes the speaker into their narrative. In II. HUNGER, for example, each poem bespeaks a sort of yearning—for faith, for food, for water, for drink—but all inescapably human and rooted in the flesh. If the soul is considered in I. TERMINAL and the body in II. HUNGER, the search for complete enlightenment through stillness is III. IRONS. How, he is asking, does one take all of this cirrhosis, all of this scarring, and make something beautiful?

The three-part structure of the book is scattered with portraits. The placement of these poems mirrors a comment that the speaker makes twice, both in “Personal Inventory: Fearless (Temporis Fila)” and in “Portrait of the Alcoholic Three Weeks Sober,” that nature’s inherent chronology will always obscure the nonlinear path of an addict’s recovery. The constraint of ordered sections thereby necessitates that we meet the speaker as alcoholic in pieces. Most of the personal, raw, honest commentary does come from the portraits, of which there are ten, but the portraits also contextualize the surrounding poems, the speaker’s voice consistent and original. “Drinkaware Self-Report,” for example, is a questionnaire regarding the speaker’s drinking habits. It sits between “Recovery” and “Calling a Wolf a Wolf (Inpatient),” and artfully transitions the narrative from healing to self-harm.

Every time I read Calling a Wolf a Wolf it pulls me in deeper, demonstrating to me that humanity is by nature subject to vice, sin, recovery, relapse, etc. A book that seems so specific in scope broadens itself to the close reader, who might see in a self-portrait their own reflection. In “Long Pig,” Akbar paints all of humanity as chiral, as reflections of one another that cannot be superimposed, but that “are all each other’s mascots, / equal and opposite.” For the speaker it may be alcohol, but in interacting with others “when you show them / the burnt place on your arm, // they show you the bands of flesh cut / from their thighs.” Everyone battles something, and it is the simple fact of being embodied that ensures suffering. “I am not to be trusted with a body / always leaving mine bloodless as ice,” he tells us in section two; “envy is the only deadly sin that’s no fun / for the sinner,” in section one. The speaker neither denies that sinning is a natural temptation nor defers blame for his own choices, but it is undeniably the self he tortures. Most perceptively, perhaps, he warns that “our enemies are replaceable,” one vice replaceable with the next.

Such gems are to be snatched from poems that naturally move quickly. Akbar’s lack of punctuation lends gravity to the caesura, his awareness of the whitespace almost clinical in the way it controls the reader’s breath. Whether he is using couplets, or paragraphs, stanzaic or stichic, he creates movement: “I drink what I drink I lie where I lie I / deserve all things I desire     cocktail / chatter cymbals crashing green pills / which long ago stopped working.” The lines start to take on a Ginsbergian quality, but instead of fitting each line in one breath caesuras are inserted to make sure none go blue in the face. Repetition and alliteration ramp up the speed such that the caesura becomes a solid wall, necessary in making the reader pause to internalize the thought before careening forward into new ideas. Fans of the beat generation and the spoken word scene will appreciate Akbar’s rhythm, while all can additionally enjoy his lineation, intentional enjambment at its best in “Portrait of the Alcoholic Floating in Space with Severed Umbilicus” and “Thirstiness is not Equal Division.”

Akbar’s poetry doesn’t fit neatly into a circumscribed category, but he does borrow elements of the confessional movement. Diane Middlebrook writes that confessional poetry is most concerned with “divorce, sexual infidelity, childhood neglect, and the mental disorders that follow from deep emotional wounds received in early life,” and always contains a first-person speaker. Akbar’s speaker’s battle with alcoholism fits the thematic trend of emotional trauma and engages the reader in the pain of a real person, both literal and mythologized: “I’ve been so young for so many years / it’s all started to jumble together   joy jeweling copper / it’s plink   a throat   sometimes I feel beautiful and near dying.” The constancy of a single speaker throughout the book is also typical of confessional poetry. That said, Akbar is not Lowell or Plath, does not try to sell that his speaker is a facsimile of himself, and focuses more on the details of the struggle and overarching narrative than on the I.

If the confessional styles of modern poets Jericho Brown and Rachel Mennies are anathema to you, this book is unlikely to please you, but if you enjoy seeing yourself in the trials and tribulations of another, Akbar is likely to delight. He defamiliarizes: “do you know how hard it is to dig a new river? / To be the single tongue in a stack full of teeth?” He proselytizes: “Whatever it was we were practicing / cannot happen without you” – “God.” While his tone is largely consistent, it is never flat. It was, in fact, difficult not to make this review simply a subsection of his poems with the inscription: look! See!? How could you not want to read more? But admittedly that seemed a little juvenile.

There are so many other dichotomies and queries that Akbar deconstructs: what is the role of God in recovery and where has He been in my life? What is stillness and what does it do to an addict? Is it a choice, inevitably, between body and soul, or is it only me that seems to struggle to hold them together? Perhaps this paraphrasing yields bastardizations, but the point remains: from quoting Kierkegaard to cursing God, the speaker discovers himself as we discover him, and the ride is relentlessly entertaining, thought-provoking, and brutal. Akbar’s poems are alternately clear and opaque, filled with narrative, imagistic, and lyrical language, dwelling on religion and sin. To read the book all at once is to hold a sustained and purposefully painful conversation that is ultimately enlightening at its close.



Joey Lew is a MFA candidate at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Her interviews and reviews have been published in Diode, Michigan Quarterly Review Online, and Tupelo Quarterly.