This 2017 Foreword INDIES Book of the Year and winner of many other awards recounts the poet's battle with alcoholism and sobriety, and the questioning of the self and its instincts within the context of this never-ending fight.
Kaveh Akbar’s debut poetry collection,Calling a Wolf a Wolf, is about the essential consequences of incarnation, is a sensory catalog of wounds and wonders, vices and pleasures. His poems—fragmented, plaintive, at points frantic—are occupied with what it means to be a spirit and a mind haunted by their physical baggage and delighted by their physical inheritance ... The central pivot of Calling a Wolf a Wolf is in the conflict between the piss and filth and loss that come from being a part of physical creation and the poet’s higher role of naming, which requires recognition and is a form of creation itself. The dread and delight that permeate this tension yield an irreducible complexity of language, a tangled knot of expression that leaves Akbar’s poems scattered and fragmented, but always precise in their expressed feeling ... Calling a Wolf a Wolf is a remarkable debut.
A number of poets over the years have made alcoholism a major subject ... But few have written...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 ... each [poem] offers a complex picture of addiction, full of acute and often unsparing observations about its psychology ... Akbar is a sumptuous, remarkably painterly poet. But his style is often more expressionist or surrealist than realist or scenic ... 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 ... 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.'
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 ... 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 ... 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 ... There are so many other dichotomies and queries that Akbar deconstructs ... To read the book all at once is to hold a sustained and purposefully painful conversation that is ultimately enlightening at its close.