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Moorefield House Publishing



Review of Portrait of an Alcoholic

Posted on August 14, 2017 at 8:00 AM

Desire & Disquiet: Kaveh Akbar’s Portrait of the Alcoholic

Review by Santino DallaVecchia

Since Kaveh Akbar’s debut full-length collection is due out from Alice James Books this fall, it’s worth taking the time before it’s published to read his chapbook, Portrait of the Alcoholic, a brief but arresting portrait of a consciousness surveying life as a solitude within it. The title inclined me to think I’d be reading a every-person style portrait, a composite take on the loneliness of addiction. Instead, Akbar plunges us into vibrant confessional poems that simultaneously set the reader behind his eyes while placing us in his broad gaze. We’re never quite mirrored and never quite addressed in the many pieces that form the titular portrait. Instead, these capacious poems craft a world where a singular voice surveys and observes from the weary perspective of alcoholism. Akbar moves from addiction to sobriety and all the stages in between, but in each facet of experience, he explores the ways in which the world is always beautiful and always swollen with loneliness. He explores memories of his half-forgotten childhood language, his relationship with religious faith, his struggle with drinking, and his intense experience of the world, all to create a portrait that both holds to and encompasses the individual. In a piece that encapsulates the concerns of the entire collection,“An Apology,” he writes,

Lord, I meant to be helpless, sexless

as a comma, quiet as cotton

floating on a pond. Instead,

I charged with desire like a

tiger sprinting off the edge

of the world.

This is the personality that permeates the collection. His stated intent and persistent effort is towards a generous stillness, a helplessness in the world’s turmoils, a peaceful existence. But something compels him, something inordinate and undeniable, desire. What is the nature of desire? Portrait of the Alcoholic ruminates from the desiring perspective of a vision that’s consumed almost too much. Throughout, Akbar crafts scenes so minimal in their excess that desire, the tiger who sprints off the world’s edge, is perhaps the recognition that the world exterior to ourselves exists, and that we exist in it. How else could we become so overwhelmed by moments like these:

I knew a girl who knew every bird’s Latin name.

I kissed her near a polluted river

and would have been fine

dying right there,

but nature makes no such jumps.

One thing,

then the next.


The first thing I ever saw die—a lamb that took ten

long minutes. Instead of rolling into the grass, her blood

pooled on the porch. My uncle stepped away

from the puddle, called it a good omen for the tomatoes

then lit a tiny black cigar. Years later I am still picking romas

out of my salads. The barbarism of eating anything

seems almost unbearable.

The enormity of human experience– no matter how small or how seemingly commonplace– is so overwhelming that, in the prism of the poems, we become willing to die after a single kiss, or abstain from a food after a single death. Existence itself compels us towards wonder and it drives us to learn to cope. Desire is the catalyst for our humanity and our disquiet. Early on I suggested that this collection isn’t an every-person narrative, but instead a deeply personal document, a self-portrait in words. And while this is true, Akbar’s transmuted such deeply intimate moments into a substance of recognition, a catalogue of moments we haven’t experienced in the particular but have encountered in our own emotional solitudes. The simple but profound recognition of our solitude in the world, bridged in such tender moments as the kiss by the river, or such violences as a lamb’s death, insist we find a way to mediate our relationship with our lives. We aren’t all alcoholics, but we all seek some place of rest in the midst of the everything that’s always happening. Kaveh Akbar offers the testimonial of a man trying to survive his desire, and in doing so, crafts a collection of poems that help us begin to understand how we relate to the startling reality of our own lives.

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