A wolf at the door

Dujie Tahat

March 21, 2018

"I am less horrible than I could be      I’ve never set a house on fire     never thrown a firstborn off a bridge still 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"
— Kaveh Akbar, “Calling a Wolf a Wolf (Inpatient)”

“The first step in solving a problem is to recognize that it does exist.”
— Zig Ziglar

I’ve struggled with depression for most of my waking adulthood, but I never knew to name it until last year. Until I acknowledged that depression existed as a persistent force in my life, I didn't understand the extent to which it kept me from seeing myself fully. I glossed over this simple fact — I have depression — for over a decade and saw a lesser, incomplete version of myself. It required a full year of grief, a good therapist, and even better friends to create a permanent space for it.

Inviting depression in has opened me up. I see myself — the complicated web of aspirations, bad habits, and motivations — more clearly, which means I can empathize with and forgive myself more easily. Which really wouldn’t matter to you at all, except that this improved relationship with the mechanics of being Myself means I have, pretty much accidentally, become better at seeing, empathizing, and forgiving other people, too.

I am still reckless, insecure, and bunch of other misguided things. But having done the thing with depression — an elemental, stigmatized, insular part of myself — I have peered into the well and irrevocably know how deep it runs. Now, whenever I take stock of any unpleasantness in myself, I'm comforted — as with the unremarkable antique globe that sits on my bookshelf — by the knowledge that there’s a place for it in my home.

Kaveh Akbar's first book of poetry, Calling a Wolf a Wolf, reminds us right from the title — in the face of what feels like the inescapable cynicism of our present environment — the power of naming the obvious thing, no matter how terrifying or cliché it may seem. In Akbar’s poetics, naming a thing is what makes it real. It’s a vital part of dealing with his addiction and recovery — the overarching themes in the book. Naming is itself an act, and when reflected upon one’s self, externalizes one’s own intent, desire, hunger.

In “Desunt Nonnulla,” Akbar describes coming into words as a child, “I walked learning / the names of things each new title a tiny seizure / of joy . . . ” But as the poem’s title suggests, alongside this pleasure lies emptiness. Before a thing is named, it's a cipher, an unknown, a series of empty spaces. But not knowing what to call something doesn’t diminish its ability to affect the poet or the reader. Akbar’s formal trick of leaving long spaces in the middle of lines — almost like a nesting doll of enjambments — serves as subtle, halting reminder that emptiness has its effects: “ . . . it’s so much easier to catalog hunger to atomize / absence . . . ”

Facing voids, Akbar’s poet desires to fill that space with precise words and expressive love. The intentionality of his language is only matched by a ravenous appetite: “I am insatiable     every grievance levied against me / amounts to ingratitude . . . ” At first, this desire for naming, this hunger, this compulsion toward language seems ahistorical. Around this youthful relationship with language, after all, matured a real virtual world, with a fractured twenty-first century communications infrastructure and a flood of 140-, then 280-character hot takes. The capriciousness of the moment doesn’t dilute the power of language and naming, however. Instead, the circumstances elevate the importance of words, giving language greater weight and strength — even to the point of paralysis. “ . . . today words fly / in all directions     I don’t know how anyone does / anything . . . ” But the need to name things persists.

Every poet toils at the wheel of mastery of language. For Akbar, however, it isn’t purely an exercise in vanity. It is a hunger fueled by the intimate knowledge of being and living in the dark, of not knowing how to say a thing precisely or fiercely enough.

. . . I am not a slow learner     I am a quick forgetter
such erasing makes one voracious     if you teach me something
beautiful     I will name it quickly before it floats away

We’re all familiar with being divided from ourselves. There are more ways than depression and addiction to end up looking in a mirror and seeing the other. Akbar’s Calling reflects on this division and offers self-directed empathy as a path toward healing. Reading Akbar’s debut book is not unlike issuing a buoyant yet — paradoxically — leaden apology to oneself: both a solemn forgiveness and a high-strung fear of confrontation.

Despite a persistently dark context, the earnestness throughout Calling is a necessary condition to the compassion Akbar offers himself — and by extension, the poems and the reader.

I fumble toward grace

like a vine searching for a wall. Any drunk can tell you willpower’s
useless, but that doesn’t stop us

from trusting it . . .

("No Is a Complete Sentence")

Drawing earnestness out of addiction and the work of recovery requires compassion. Even entirely sober, we live in an age of frenetic anxiety and distrust; when we can tweet about our reflexive distaste for anything, cynicism becomes the default posture for everything (it’s in this context that Akbar has been heralded “Poetry’s biggest cheerleader”). The standard for what is trite or cliché has been lowered significantly, and all too often and without thought, we aim to drive it completely out of our discourse. Contextualized and used judiciously, however, clichés help us more easily connect to a larger truth.

The wolf that makes a recurring appearance throughout Calling does just that. Its manifold resonance draws on the vast cultural and literary permutations of the wolf metaphor. From "Little Red Riding Hood" to "The Boy Who Cried Wolf" to M. F. K. Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf and countless other depictions, wolves have come to represent fear, hunger, wildness. By using an easily accessible metaphor at the jump, Akbar not only makes sociopathic cruelty seem natural (which it is), but maps it onto the whole teeming body of nations and histories: “I don’t remember how to say home / in my first language, or lonely, or light.” (“Do You Speak Persian?”).

And though Akbar’s book isn’t overtly political, he’s deeply invested in (to borrow a cliché) getting to the universal through the personal. One the one hand, everything in this moment is politically fraught. But the lessons we can take from Calling — specifically, how we relate to what we perceive as moral and cultural failings — are instructive for a country or community of divided factions, one resentful of its other parts. “America / is filled with wooden churches / in which I have never been baptized” — and yet the clarion call is for forgiveness and grace. In the same poem, he writes, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. / This may be me at my best” ("Personal Inventory: Fearless [Temporis Fila]").

Akbar’s reckoning of self is timely. We are — as a country and a culture — reckoning with what it means to have been built on so much structural inequity. We are ham-fistedly learning to name the guilty, no matter how powerful, but remain inadequate with our words in the aftermath. We lack the language to land gracefully. We are fumbling in the dark. It’s no wonder it feels a little like we’re hurling towards oblivion.

If there is hope for us in our national politics, it is that our current dialogue is framed by assertions of humanity and sovereign identity (embodied in the rallying cries of #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo). We are learning to name the structures that protect the individually powerful — white supremacy, rape culture, class and ethnic superiority — by centering the disaffected plurality. In doing so, we create room to treat ourselves more humanely, with grace, and as people: “Now I listen for the sighs / of people who love me, each agitation I create / a reminder that I am less constant / in my grace . . . ” ("So Often the Body Becomes a Distraction").

Reflection, confession, and forgiveness — all within oneself — are at the center of Akbar’s personal meditations. By exposing and sharing his own existential anxiety, Akbar asks readers to confront themselves and each other fully as individual humans, rife as we are with hypocrisy, idiosyncrasies, and an almost pathological compulsion to act against our own long-term self-interest — to fold the darkest and twistiest parts of ourselves into the larger experiment of humanity. Throughout the history of civilization and community, and in our best moments, the history of America, we’ve gathered around hopeful ideas and the propitious stories we tell ourselves we belong to. It is taken for granted that hope sublimates from the cold, naked self-harm we commit for the sake of immediate gratification. “I am not to be trusted with a body / always leaving mine bloodless as ice” (“Thirstiness is Not Equal Division”).

This is the moment in which Akbar’s Calling arrives. And whether the cultural moment is driving a political reading of these poems, or the work is emblematic of the zeitgeist, the book is a welcome testimony to how the deeply personal can seep into and even shape our national consciousness. This is the work of great poetry.

Akbar’s work doesn’t stop at naming. His poems insist that what we feel and desire for ourselves means little if those impulses don’t align with what we do, what we put out into the world: “ . . . it’s a myth / that love lives in the heart     it lives in the throat we push it out / when we speak     when we gasp we take a little for ourselves” ("Heritage").

In “Heritage,” Akbar draws out the divide between who we aspire to be and what we do in the world by exploring the politics and history of a woman he never knew and a country he inherited but can never fully inhabit. The poem is after an Iranian woman, Reyhaneh Jabari, who was executed by the state of Iran for killing a man who attempted to rape her. It gives almost equal measure to the men who executed her, reminding us of their failed attempts at tenderness towards the world and themselves, “the same men who years before threw their rings in the mud     who watered them five times daily.” And to those men and the culture that saw fit to fault Jabari, Akbar concludes, “despite all our endlessly rehearsed rituals of mercy     it was you we sent on.”

In our cynical world, ritual rings hollow. We discount performative acts. We view them as clamors for attention, for likes, for retweets, for gratitude acted out. We recoil at each other’s need for attention. We overlook what is fundamentally human about the desire to connect ourselves with one another and with our history. But for nearly all of human history, we’ve sought out ritual as a way to connect to the larger work of being human. Most rituals are communal, and the way they are passed from generation to generation signifies the way in which community stretches across time. So what of our rituals when our sense of community and time — to say nothing of belonging — have shifted so dramatically so quickly? What happens when what we know of ritual happens mostly online? Is it so crazy to consider that sending off an “RT to save a life” tweet is not all that different than Jabari’s executioners “kiss[ing] the soil at the sight of sprouts” — that at its core, in its own way, each action begs for acknowledgment, connection, and absolution?

Yes, it’s a ridiculous comparison. However, if “the body is a mosque borrowed from Heaven,” then perhaps we humans haven’t changed all that much. Rather, the world has become more absurd, and the times more complicated.

Akbar’s Calling is fighting the good fight, reminding us that there is still room in this world for earnest performance and ritual. If you’re reading poetry, you probably already believe that. If you pray regularly, you probably already believe that too. Akbar’s poetry is suffused with faith. The form of the poem “Supplication with Rabbit Skull and Bouquet” — spanning two pages, left and right adjusted, respectively, so that lines can be read horizontally and vertically — mirrors the form of a kind of prayer. In the Muslim faith, hands symbolize humans' ability to shape the world around them; hands are the apparatuses through with Allah’s will is done. So salah, or prayer, with open hands demonstrates a kind of openness in supplication — one meant to receive wisdom from God. "Supplication" itself acts out the ritual, while literally dividing the ways in which we approach Allah. On the one hand, we ask for and take guidance to make better choices, and on the other, we give ourselves over out of an inability to self-determine.

There’s something sublime in reading another person’s words and knowing that what they name is true for you. I imagine, at some point in history, prayer and what the imam preached must have done this for many people. More than any book of poetry I’ve read in a long while, Akbar’s Calling made me think to myself, I know exactly what this feels like. What’s more uncanny is that certain lines not only articulate a feeling I know to be true — they made truth out my experience.

I recently surveyed my friends asking if their anxiety settles in as they go to sleep or when they wake. I’m on team morning — of which Akbar writes, “When I awake, I ask God to slide into my head before I do.” ("Being in This World Makes Me Feel Like a Time Traveler"). This happened nearly every single day during last year’s depression. In that same time, I lost nearly 20 pounds — a feat I couldn’t accomplish when I was trying. It’s really unsettling to wake up one morning and find a new détente with my body. “I spent so long in a lover’s / quarrel with my flesh / the peace seems over- / cautious too-polite . . . ” ("Against Dying"). Akbar even gets under how that happens, the repulsiveness that fuels depression fasts: “The barbarism of eating anything seems almost unbearable” ("Portrait of the Alcoholic Three Weeks Sober").

Which is all to say, reading this book for the first time was a deeply personal experience, and it didn’t fail upon return. Like all of us, I am still working through how the personal is political, and this book, while not offering guidance, exactly, certainly provided a much-needed meditative space. I am grateful for that as well as the emotional labor writing it must have exacted. Calling a Wolf a Wolf is an ambitious debut by a true force. Wallahi, Akbar can’t be ignored in the modern landscape of American poetry. Read this book, and when you do, read it with grace and empathy — not just for the text, but for yourself.

Books in this review:
  • Calling a Wolf a Wolf
    by Kaveh Akbar
    Alice James Books
    September 12, 2017
    100 pages
    Purchased by SRoB
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Dujie Tahat is a Filipino-Jordanian immigrant living in Washington state. His poems have been published or are forthcoming in Sugar House Review, Nashville Review, The Southeast Review, Shenandoah, Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review, The American Journal of Poetry, and elsewhere. He has earned fellowships from the Richard Hugo House and Jack Straw Writing Program. He serves as a poetry editor for Moss and Homology Lit and co-hosts the forthcoming podcast The Poet Salon. He got his start as a Seattle Poetry Slam Finalist, a collegiate grand slam champion, and Seattle Youth Speaks Grand Slam Champion, representing Seattle at HBO’s Brave New Voices. To find out more, visit: dujietahat.com.

Follow Dujie Tahat on Twitter: @dujietahat

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