Farmington, ME: Alice James Books, 2017. 100 pages. $16.95.
Every alcoholic is also a poet, even if, as the childish rhyme goes, they don’t know it. In essence, they take metaphor too seriously: they drink their feelings. Sobriety, too, begins with substitution, at least as Alcoholics Anonymous has it: the first steps in their famous twelve-step program require acknowledging alcohol as a higher power and then trading it for another, whether that thing is called God or nature or something else.
A number of poets over the years have made alcoholism a major subject—Franz Wright, with his lacerating lines, comes to mind, as does John Berryman and his theatrical derangements. But few have written about this exchange I’m describing—spirituality for spirits, and vice versa—with as much beauty or generosity as Kaveh Akbar. His debut collection, Calling a Wolf a Wolf, out this past fall from Alice James, is about addiction and its particularities but also touches something larger and harder to point to, to talk about—existential emptiness and the ways substances often offer respite from our spiritual hunger.
Which is not to say that Akbar shies away from the sordid details of alcoholism or avoids identifying with the disease. Indeed, the backbone of the book is a series of poems whose titles explicitly foreground the subject. “Portrait of the Alcoholic with Craving,” for example, even addresses alcohol directly: “What I was building was a church. / You were the preacher and I the congregation.” But each offers a complex picture of addiction, full of acute and often unsparing observations about its psychology. Another, “Portrait of the Alcoholic Floating in Space with Severed Umbilicus,” opens in a more typical confessional mode, with the speaker admitting some nostalgia for his old adventures: “In Fort Wayne I drank the seniors,” Akbar writes, “now I regret / every drink I never took.” But it also ties addiction to gender, sexuality, and race, with its speaker recalling formative moments, such when he secretly tries a bra on and “the underwire grew / into me like a strangler fig.”
As the titles in this series suggest, Akbar is a sumptuous, remarkably painterly poet. But his style is often more expressionist or surrealist than realist or scenic. One poem describes keeping a housefly on a leash and being stabbed while asleep. Another figures the poet as a “trap-caught fox” who “knew enough to chew away its leg.” In “The New World,” Akbar speaks through another woodland creature: “The soul,” he writes, “is a thirsty / antelope nervously lapping up / water from a pool / in the hunter’s backyard.”
If such imagery is striking, it’s also distancing, serving as a metaphoric scrim between the poem and its subject. The book offers several reasons for Akbar’s obliquity. “Soot,” its opening poem, worries about the costs of venturing into such painful territory, about the ways in which recalling the past anchors us in it:
Regarding loss, I’m afraid
to keep it in the story,
worried what I might bring back to life,
like the marble angel who woke to find
his innards scattered around his feet.
“Loss” can’t be left out of stories about addiction, but trauma can be approached more indirectly, Akbar is suggesting, with a shield of figurative language.
Such an approach also introduces another challenge, one that the book is also concerned with: authenticity. How do you write about addiction without reducing your experience to tropes, to cliché, to spectacle? “Soot” also considers this, thinking about how pain can become commodified, routine, performed for others: “I keep dreaming I’m a creature pulling out my claws // one by one to sell in a market stall next to stacks / of pomegranates and garden tools.” Sometimes Calling a Wolf a Wolf is oblique because Akbar is struggling with the problem of performativity, working to invent a more personal language for his experience.
Even his boldest figurations, however, are not always enough. Certain things, Akbar suggests, might be too ineffable for language to access. “When they asked where it hurt,” he writes in “Portrait of the Alcoholic with Moths and River,” “you motioned in / a circle to the ground under your feet.” For a book that is, in many ways, about finding the right words for an experience, its title poem is surprisingly candid about the limitations of doing so. “I’ve given this coldness many names,” Akbar writes, “thinking if it had a name it would have a solution.” But, as the speaker realizes, “calling a wolf a wolf” does not, ultimately, “dull its fangs.” Naming or renaming can only do so much. A prayer, for instance, does not necessarily summon God, nor does calling oneself an alcoholic cure one of the disease or even make one sober.
Indeed, Akbar identifies this problem of language as one of the underlying sources of his grief. In “Do You Speak Persian?” he connects his particular form of alienation from language to addiction:
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.
How is school going, Kaveh-joon?
Delam barat tang shodeh.
Are you still drinking?
For so long every step I’ve taken
has been from one tongue to another.
To order the world:
I need, you need, he/she/it needs.
The rest, left to a hungry jackal
in the back of my brain.
Words are tools we rely on to “order the world.” Especially for those who move between languages, their imperfections leave us with a sense of loss, with holes we can’t fill. If one “tongue” (Persian) fails us, we often cope with others—English, say, or a lover’s tongue, or the pleasure of alcohol on our tongues.
But notice, too, the tone of this passage: there’s deep sadness and longing but also gentleness in the back-and-forth here, even a sense of play. Akbar’s replies make their own kind of sense. Even if words fail us, even if they can’t alone solve our problems, they can name their own inadequacy, gain new uses, and maybe, when artfully arranged, even offer what Akbar says we “all want,” that thing we might name poetry—“to walk in sincere wonder, / like the first man to hear a parrot speak.”
Language, especially verse, offers us a starting place, a point of both return and departure, where even the “wrong” words can belong. “Today I’m finding problems in areas where I didn’t have areas before,” Akbar writes in “Portrait of the Alcoholic Three Weeks Sober.” Some of the work of sobriety is noticing and identifying these “areas,” which is the same work, not coincidentally, as being a person. As the book’s final lines suggest, such labor is without end: “The boat I am building / will never be done.” Language may be inadequate, but it’s also infinite—indeed, as infinite as us. For someone whose hunger is deep, such infinity is a boon. If poetry is not a higher power, exactly, then it is what we can use to paint its picture, again and again.