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Kaveh Akbar

Kaveh Akbar

God haunted

by Keith Taylor

From the November, 2017 issue

There is a wonderful group of young poets these days. One of the best is Iranian American poet Kaveh Akbar, who is coming through town with his first book, Calling a Wolf a Wolf.

Issues of nationality and language inform much of the best work of the young poets, and these issues shape some of Akbar's poems. In one he writes, "I've spent my whole adult life / in a country where only my parents can pronounce my name." But in Akbar nothing is simple; later he writes that he can no longer speak the language of his birth: "I don't understand the words / I babble in home movies from Tehran but I assume they were lovely."

Akbar also fights more than his share of personal demons. Several of these poems have titles that begin with "Portrait of the Alcoholic" and end with everything from "with Withdrawal" to "Stranded alone on a Desert Island." Between are poems of recovery or craving. As one might imagine, these are not straightforward stories of the struggle. Rather the poems often take leaps from summary to image or from one image to another. Here are some lines from "Portrait of the Alcoholic with Moths and River:"

what you lack and the punishment for your   
lacking are the same  paling tulips gray-   
ing fingernails a body nearly stops   
then doesn't I have seen it a man slips   
beneath a blanket emerges clutching   
himself saying this is mine I found it   

Another element in these poems grows naturally from both the sense of Akbar's past and from the necessary preoccupation with his recovery: a longing for something greater. For lack of a richer vocabulary, I'll say that these poems feel haunted by the idea, if not the presence, of God. One of the "Portrait of the Alcoholic" poems is preceded by a very simple narrative, "Learning to Pray." Describing his father at prayer "kneeling on a janamaz // then pressing his forehead to a circle / of Karbala clay," the poet remembers his younger self and tells us "I ached to be so beautiful."

 I knew only that I wanted
to be like him,
 that twilit stripe of father
              mesmerizing as the bluewhite Iznik tile
            hanging in our kitchen, worshipped
             as the long faultless tongue of God.

Kaveh Akbar reads from Calling a Wolf a Wolf at the Neutral Zone November 20.    (end of article)

[Originally published in November, 2017.]


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