A Review of Kaveh Akbar’s Portrait of the Alcoholic — January 8, 2017

by Christopher Nelson


I’ve said before that the more one likes a book, the more difficult it is to avoid the pitfall of merely praising, instead of writing a nuanced and somewhat dispassionate review. The heart gets involved, and we all know what happens when the heart gets involved. I confess upfront that it is from this place of bewitchment and in the blush of adoration that I write about Kaveh Akbar’s debut Portrait of the Alcoholic, just published by Sibling Rivalry Press. A chapbook of twenty-one poems, it demonstrates not only the promise we watch for in debuts but the command of style and surprise of vision we expect in the works of poets we’ve enjoyed over many years and in several books. Needless to say, I am already excited about his full-length collection, Calling a Wolf a Wolf, that will be published in the fall of 2017 by Alice James Books.
      A cynical reader might wonder why one would want to spend time on a collection of poems about alcoholism. Isn’t the motif tired—the artist who can’t integrate, who finds the harshness and pains of the world too much and ends up addicted to poisons that tantalize with the promise of escape or muted suffering? Within the first few pages a cynic’s concern would be assuaged. I am impressed by the tonal tightrope Akbar walks when treating his subjects of self and addiction. At once ruthless and compassionate in his self-scrutiny, he renders three-dimensional the engulfing reality of the relationship between drinker and drink. And it is a relationship, as nuanced as those we might have with living beings, a relationship with history and memory and expectations. Here alcohol is gracefully and painfully personified; it grows in our minds as we read through these poems, as a character does in a novel. In “Portrait of the Alcoholic with Craving,” the speaker asks the personified, as if it were a lover or an old friend, if it can “Remember the cold night we spent / spinning on my lawn?”—and the nostalgia is sincere. Later in the poem, the speaker reveals that he was building a church, and “You were the preacher and I the congregation, / and I the stage and I the cross and I the choir.”
      That richness of figurative language is common in the book. “I try not to think of God as a debt to luck,” Akbar writes, “but for years I consumed nothing / that did not harm me / and still I lived, witless // as a bird flying over state lines.” And it is a book that depends on figures, more even than most books of poetry. What’s remarkable is how consistently fresh and moving the metaphors are. In “Unburnable the Cold is Flooding Our Lives,” we read, “the prophets are alive but unrecognizable to us / as calligraphy to a mouse.”
      You can see from the few lines I’ve quoted that the divine is also a subject of Portrait of the Alcoholic. In his commentary on the jacket, poet Nick Flynn recalls that Carl Jung “speculated that alcoholism might be an attempt at a material solution for a spiritual problem.” These poems are excitingly of both the material and the spiritual: “As a boy, I spit a peach pit onto my father’s prayer rug and immediately // it turned into a locust. Its charge: devour the vast fields of my ignorance.” One senses that the speaker’s body and temporality is but one stage—a very important stage—in a larger cosmic development. We witness what it is like when “a mind is ready to leave // the world before its body.” The floating, taken-for-granted ease of being a teenager becomes the bewilderment of adulthood; yet the speaker says, “I am glad I still exist” despite longing “to once again / be God’s own tuning fork.” So I add to my list of commendable qualities of Akbar’s debut the range of subjects he is able to intelligently address in thirty-something pages of poetry. You can easily read the book in one sitting, but emotionally and intellectually you will feel as if you must have read for much longer.
       I also want to acknowledge the timeliness—the kairos—of Kaveh Akbar’s work. One poem is titled “Do You Speak Persian?” Next to the other titles of the book, it might seem out of place, but the poem introduces the feelings and consequences of being separated from a culture that he and his father once belonged to more wholly. Born in Iran, Akbar also writes about forgetting a language and the far-reaching effects of that. In a poem titled “Every Drunk Wants to Die Sober It’s How We Beat the Game,” against our expectations we end up reading, “I don’t understand the words / I babble in home movies from Tehran but I assume / they were lovely.” In “Learning to Pray,” the speaker watches his father “kneeling on a janamaz // then pressing his forehead to a circle / of Karbala clay,” and when trying to imitate him, the child is clumsy and wants “to be like him,” but the father, “his whole form / marbled in light,” looks like “a photograph of a famous ghost.” While the image is beautiful and the child’s wish hopeful, it’s difficult not to be saddened by its suggestion of a deep loss that extends beyond the familial and into the cultural. We read, “After thirty years in America my father now dreams in English,” and shortly after there is a figurative turn: “Some migrant birds build their nests over rivers / to push them into the water when they leave.”
      Kaveh Akbar’s poems are necessary poems because they not only give us an intimate and insightful view of an interiority, but they insist that we regard the totality of a person—the flaws, the fears, the wishes, the humilities, the fleeting glories, and the sameness and difference from ourselves—thereby making seem more possible the humanity in us all.