Portrait of the Alcoholic by Kaveh Akbar

                                                                 “It can be difficult

telling the size of something

when it’s right above you – the average

cumulus cloud weighing as much

as eighty elephants. The things I’ve thought I’ve loved

could sink an ocean liner, and likely would if given the chance.”

~ “Portrait of the Alcoholic with Home Invader and House Fly”


On January 19th of this year I celebrated 19 years of being methamphetamine clean. I would say that this is my sobriety anniversary, but one learns that sobriety is more than abstaining from the one vice. In the past my addiction has fed through other avenues that I’ll refrain from discussing so publicly, but for the past several years I have been completely sober from all of my vices. As a sober-anniversary gift to myself I purchased Kaveh Akbar’s Portrait of the Alcoholic.

Reviewing poetry is tricky for me. I love the concept of each reader reading a poem in their own way and illuminated by their own path in life. Post-reading discussions are helpful, but that first glimpse should be as unsullied as possible by the reviewer’s interpretation and experience. I’m attempting this review and fully expecting that I can in no way relate the intimacy, cadence, and power of these poems. To me, reading a poem is as intensely a personal experience as writing one, it feels prayerful, and reviewing poems can have the potential to disrupt that personal reading and sully the sublime with artificial conjecture.

Prayer is a predominant presence in Portrait of the Alcoholic. Akbar describes learning to pray by watching his father and admiring him as if he were “the long faultless tongue of God.” There is the earnest prayer of apology for mistakes made that is also resentful of the intrusion of God seeing all of one’s true and vulnerable self. Akbar recalls ripping out the pages of his Qur’an that concern Hell and his fear and resiliency is raw and real and holy.

In “Every Drunk Wants to Die Sober It’s How We Beat the Game” Akbar writes, “…in Islam there are prayers to return almost anything even / prayers to return faith I have been going through book after book pushing / the sounds through my teeth /       I will keep making these noises / as long as deemed necessary until there is nothing left of me to forgive”. The desire for forgiveness hums through each poem, but what is most present in this collection is the specter of hungry addiction. Always there, addictive hunger is a bruising presence that reverberates through each poem. That hunger is both familiar and comfortable and offers nothing but oblivion and loss. At the same time there is another hunger, a tangible hunger for hope, survival, love, and poetry. Addictive hunger and hopeful hunger are twin energies that pull and push and tangle through each poem.

The poems in Portrait of the Alcoholic examines what makes us lovable and worth saving and tempers that with the damage humans can inflict. When one battles addiction there comes a reckoning of all the mistakes, hurts, and embarrassments and there is a decision to be made: drown it all and give up or to see that “the ladder / you’re looking for starts not on the ground but several feet below it” and then you decide to pull yourself up.


Portrait of the Alcoholic is a chapbook from Sibling Rivalry Press and Akbar’s first full length collection, Calling a Wolf a Wolf, will be released in September from Alice James Books.

I’d also like to mention that Kaveh Akbar is an absolute cheerleader and champion for all things poetry. I really enjoy his interviews with fellow poets at Divedapper. You can listen to Akbar read one of his poems here.


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