Kaveh Akbar, Portrait of an Alcoholic. Little Rock, Arkansas: Sibling Rivalry Press, 2017.
Kaveh Akbar was born in Tehran to a Muslin family and grew up in the U.S. (He now lives in Florida.) He writes personal, confessional lyrics, a kind of poetry that I haven’t been encountering in chapbooks lately. Usually the poet is far more elusive and hidden these days, but part of Akbar’s strategy is to tell us who he is, perhaps (I might be crossing a line here) to expose himself and still hope that we’ll care about him.
The first of a series of poems with the title “Portrait of an Alcoholic” (“Portrait of an Alcoholic with Home Invader and House Fly”) is harrowing, possibly lurid, but also thoughtful, the violence hushed by introspection and calmed by the casual formality of its two-line stanzas, its straightforward diction and soft enjambment:
It felt larger than it was, the knife
That pushed through my cheek.
Immediately I began leaking:
Blood and saliva, soft as smoke. I had been asleep,
Safe from sad news, dreaming
Of my irradiated hairless mother
Pulling a thorn from the eye of a dog.
Another unusual aspect of Akbar’s poems (for these days) is their absorbing narrative. In “Calling a Wolf a Wolf (Inpatient)” the poet waits in a medical facility, alternately trying to control his thoughts (“everyone’s forgotten I’m here,” “I try to find small comforts”) and recounting a news story about a drowned tourist (“his bloatwhite belly was filled with radishes and lambshank”). The poem appears as a wide, vertical rectangle, each statement separated by a caesura that gives them breathing space and makes it, like all Akbar’s poems, easy to follow.
This ease is part of the seductive quality of these poems, an aspect that I’ve been struggling with how to characterize. It feels to me as if the poet wants to win us over, win our love and our pity, and that this, too, may be part of his alcoholism or may emerge from the same vulnerable place. I hear this in lines sprinkled throughout the poems—
When I wake, I ask God to slide into my head quickly before I do.
It’s exhausting / remaining humble
Lord, I meant to be helpless
I was born the king of nothing
You should just hang me / in a museum
I’m almost / ready to show you the mess I’ve made
Let me be / calm for one fucking second
I blame everyone but myself
I don’t know if someone else would read these lines the same way, but they strike me as both self-romanticizing and touchingly human.
Another thing that makes Akbar so appealing is the strong presence of the child in the man. He recalls his boyhood as a kind of touchstone of innocence, sometimes feeling still the child inside him: “As a child I was so tiny and sweet she [his mother] would tuck me in saying moosh bokhoradet a mouse should eat you”. Elsewhere he finds his young self bewilderingly inaccessible: “I don’t understand the words / I babble in home movies from Tehran”. These lines come from a particularly sympathy-inducing poem that mixes a story about Hazrat Ali, the brother-in-law of Mohammed, with his own desire to die sober. The poem ends this way: “I will keep making these noises as long as deemed necessary until there is nothing left of me to forgive”. The line almost gives the impression that, once forgiven, there will be nothing left of the poet at all.
The question of, the need for, forgiveness is a continual quest throughout and it draws us in, as if we the readers might be able to offer this hungered-for absolution. But forgiveness, perhaps, comes not from others but only from the self. As the poet writes late in the collection, “one way to live a life is to spend each moment asking / forgiveness for the last”. This seems like a longed-for ascetic practice, a way of being alive to the moment, and an escape clause for a feeling of continual trespass. May the poet find them all.