(Sibling Rivalry Press, 2017)
The spider weaves the curtains
in the palace of the Caesars…
—Saadi Shirazi (1210-1291)
From the start, Kaveh Akbar makes it abundantly clear who the audience is for Portrait of the Alcoholic. His debut chapbook is dedicated simply “for drunks.” Writers as alcoholics is a trope older than feudalism, and is codified all over this past century, from the exploits (and death) of Dylan Thomas to the better (and worse) tomes of Bukowski. Akbar’s collection is rare bird in that it seeks to navigate both the unapologetic excess of alcoholism, the regretful questioning of when it first took hold, and the desire for release from its dependence.
If art is not a little dire and shocking in 2017, it probably does not deserve life. Akbar’s manuscript is presented by Little Rock’s Sibling Rivalry Press, an imprint whose mission statement derives from an Adrienne Rich quote stating that good art can both disturb and enrapture. Good poetry also does not hand the story to the reader, but rather suggests it to them, leading them this way and that with a dossier of symptoms, conditions, and maladies, so that the general diagnosis may be deduced, but only the author/patient can foster the cure.
The alcoholic of Akbar’s poems has a mother ill with cancer, a father whose Islam he emulates as a child, and a host of lovers he cannot quite have. In “Portrait of the Alcoholic Floating In Space With Severed Umbilicus,” published this last fall in Poetry, the speaker leaps into a pond “with a lonely blonde boy,” and is smitten by the youthful abandon. “I could not be held responsible/for desire he could not be held at all.” Such scenes as these do the romantic drunks posit as the early stages of their illness.
Akbar also cites culture as a grand donor of genetic disease, quoting the great Persian poet Rumi, another wine-splashed wordsmith, but then dismisses the quote as “surely a mistranslation.” In the early months of 2017, it is nigh impossible to divorce the current political climate from the subtext of these poems, however personal and apolitical most of them might be. Akbar, and our titular alcoholic by extension, is the scion of Iran, one of many countries under the near-constant lens of scrutiny in the pre and post 45th administration Unites States. The great American pastimes of bigotry and fear are peripheral to most of the poems, but are best honed in “Desunt Nonnulla,” which likens the crippling of intemperance with the wonder of learning English secondhand… and the otherness it generates in the view of one’s peers. The poems of Danez Smith, another great Poet of Color in this dark age (Ocean Vuong may well make it a trinity) are laden with black bodies made ash and loam. Akbar’s identity as both an Iranian-American and an addict seem built of spider webs, a fragile détente between selves. He writes, “if you teach me something/beautiful I will name it quickly before it floats away.”
In the collection’s final poem, the Alcoholic seems on his way to some recovery, but such is never directly stated, same as all of life is never certain of its safety and comfort. The final poem finds the alcoholic on a desert island, a citizen apart in all cultural identities, building a boat
that “will never be done.” Just as peace has never touched the Middle East, has never fully united the Abrahamic faiths, has never balmed all addicts and fiends into waking tranquility, the alcoholism of Akbar’s poetry is open-ended. The history of struggle, singular or mass, is marked by its great battles, which exists thereafter in time as fixed points of collision, the moments in which no common understanding could properly blossom, where no solution was evident. To begin what already promises to be one of the most poignant careers in modern poetry in such a fatalistic rut means that what comes next must be better, must elevate itself. To see where they will go, the survivors of conflict—and there are so many conflicts in today’s world—must first look at the drunken nights behind them. The clarity is always just ahead.