Book Review: Kaveh Akbar’s ‘Portrait of the Alcoholic’

Akbar’s latest book of poems is the voice of an old friend reaching out from the darkness

Rooted in the body, the past and in nature, the poems in Kaveh Akbar’s latest chapbook ‘Portrait of the Alcoholic’ are sincere and raw.

His themes, particularly alcoholism and its relationship with religion, aren’t always easy to directly tap into but the poems are accessible to all who wish to try. It seems as though there are many ways to read each line and it’s up to the reader to find the one that moves them the most – but that’s the catch. You will be moved.

One day I stopped in a lobby for cocktails and hors d’oeuvres and ever since, the life of this world has seemed still

– Being In This World Makes Me Feel Like a Time Traveler

 

Even a fleeting glance at the book will capture you. The vivid cover art by Michael Reeder uses a sickly combination of faded green and bright yellow against a dark concoction of blues and reds. An almost-shapeless figure allows smoke to billow out from their mouth and both eye sockets whilst they hold a cigarette between spindly, Egon Schiele-esque fingers. The cover art is just the beginning of a thoroughly introspective confrontation of addiction, religion and death. Titles such as ‘Portrait of the Alcoholic Floating in Space with Severed Umbilicus’ and ‘Every Drunk Wants to Die Sober It’s How We Beat the Game’ fill the contents page with their indulgent honesty. Akbar’s calm voice delivers each line with a hugely comforting sense of familiarity and understanding, his words offering unconditional companionship through rough times.

 

The pages of the chapbook are assembled delicately. They are organised, spacious and quiet, with each page holding only what Akbar must have deemed important. Through this, each individual word feels intentional, placed in ink on the paper to be consumed and explored. There is something so unassuming about Akbar’s presentation, which conjures up a striking disparity between the peacefulness of the book and the violence, pain and trouble in his writing. Akbar doesn’t throw his thoughts at the reader, he simply leaves them in the book for anyone who may desire to pick it up and float into his world.

 

There is a pond I leapt into once with a lonely blonde boy / when we scampered out one of us was in love / I could not be held responsible for desire / he could not be held at all

– Portrait of the Alcoholic Floating in Space with Severed Umbilicus

 

Kaveh Akbar’s ‘Portrait of the Alcoholic’ is for anyone who has held a glass or bottle for just slightly too long, for the people struggling with religion, their pasts or their minds, and for those who have lost people and loved people. I think, quite possibly, ‘Portrait of the Alcoholic’ is a portrait for anyone, should you wish to step into Akbar’s pages.