Calling a Wolf a Wolf by Kaveh Akbar

A review of the poetry collection Calling a Wolf a Wolf by Kaveh Akbar.

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The recipient of numerous awards and accolades, Kaveh Akbar is a poet who has a lot of international hype surrounding him currently, as far as the poetry world goes. His book, Calling a Wolf a Wolf, notably published by Penguin—who don’t put out too much poetry, particularly by the unknown—shows us why. It’s a book that’s able to appeal to the everyday reader. This is not a backhanded compliment; there is a huge amount of substance to be found amongst what one may call commonly beautiful, such as recurring images of jewels and fruit. Conversely, I could name numerous contemporary poets who, whilst being equally good, write in a more obscure, deconstructed way.

For me, it was nice to read a poetry book by a fellow Iranian poet, and within the pages of Calling a Wolf a Wolf one can find numerous recurring Iranian symbols, smells and tastes. These are seen when Akbar writes of sumac, rose water and pomegranates repeatedly; ingredients commonly used within Iranian food.

There is a long historical tradition of Iranian poetry that comes with its own tropes, and this book made me wonder where Akbar fits in relation to this and whether he would even want to be considered as part of it. As a writer from an ethnic minority, occasionally the writing traditions of that minority can be overpowering or restrictive, or at least more often recalled, than if one wasn’t from said minority.

Within Iranian poetry there is a tradition of hyperbole. From Hafez to Omar Khayyam, the male-only founders of Iranian poetry (women were recognised far, far too late) who made it world-famous lamented, crooned, and were very flowery within their poetry, which was also accomplished and beautiful. Perhaps this was only a reflection of the time that they were writing in; if we look back on English poetry we find the Romantics, whose aesthetic was similar. Reading Akbar’s work, I couldn’t help but notice similarities with these old Iranian authors; although this is a very strong book, the material that is least strong is self-conscious and perhaps self-indulgent.

Within Calling a Wolf a Wolf I found that, at times, there were different voices with different identities speaking. There were Iranian voices, parts, and memories, and then there was their English-speaking counterparts. This is an effect that I’ve found in the works of poets from other ethnic minorities, such as Ocean Vuong, whose work also includes snatches from the language of his parents. I sometimes found the interjections of Iranian phrases—such as ‘Yeki Bood, Yeki Nabood,’ which is an old sing-song phrase—a bit of a flat, two-dimensional inclusion that probably appears to have more significance than it does to the non-Iranian reader. I don’t doubt Akbar’s authenticity in using such an effect though; when one is displaced from a culture one only partly knows, snatched phrases are one of the few things available to make the connections between the different aspects of one’s identity.

In this book, Akbar explores his relationship with his parents and many of the issues surrounding them being Iranian, along with the difficulty of them being from a different generation. This is part of what causes a sense of guilt and shame within this book and is something that Akbar explores effectively.

Whilst pondering my culture I have often come to consider the identity crisis of the Iranian male, who is entangled within a toxic masculinity that’s destroying him, and that he’s trying to navigate in the very different environment of the West. This crisis is one of the most important issues that this book addresses. Akbar also writes of feeling alien in this book, which is demonstrated succinctly when he says:

as a child I wasn’t so much foreign as I was very small

Perhaps this crisis is also what led Akbar to the addiction that he explores within the pages. Often, the feeling of intoxication seems to be reflected in the structure of Akbar’s poems. At other times, the reader gets the sense that poetry is Akbar’s new addiction as he writes with a consuming, feverish urgency. Often there is no punctuation within Akbar’s poetry, and this reflects a sense of impatience that he himself acknowledges. This lack of punctuation occasionally made me read this book very quickly, and so I would remind other readers to take it slowly as it’s well-worth relishing Akbar’s imagery and lingering on his use of language.

It is very hard to write poetry that is direct well. Akbar must be commended for effectively being able to use first-person pronouns within his poetry. There are many other poets who choose the sometimes easier path of writing more obscurely. The imagery within this book is gorgeous and it conjures vivid, surreal and magical images within the reader’s mind. It is good for poetry itself that Akbar’s book exists, and helps to bring diversity of writing to poetry.

Setareh Ebrahimi performs regularly, and is a poet working in Faversham, Kent. She is the author of In My Arms from Bad Betty Press.

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