In his essay, “Alcohol and Poetry: John Berryman and the Booze Talking,” Lewis Hyde notes: “as a person becomes alcoholic he turns more and more into the drug and its demands. He is like a fossil leaf that mimics the living but is really stone.” Kaveh Akbar’s debut chapbook, Portrait of the Alcoholic, initiates a reverse fossilization that catalogs the hungers, atomizes the absences, and amplifies the dailiness of 21st century American life. Akbar’s fierce unfettered intelligence roams from the sublunary to the interstellar. One moment, Akbar’s poems view the world from the perspective of sand watching silt dance in the Nile River. The next moment, Akbar’s poems look on, from the other side of the stars, past the astronaut dangling from the umbilicus of the space shuttle, to the earth itself “wilding around us” in “a severe sort of miraculousness.” Akbar knows the language of riptide and rogue comet; in these poems, “eternity looms / in the corner like a home invader saying don’t mind me I’m just here to watch you nap.” The self in Akbar’s poems is a shifting palimpsest of insatiable desires, mystic visions, exilic energies, and adhesive love. As Akbar puts it in “Every Drunk Wants to Die Sober It’s How We Beat the Game”: “I have always been a tangle of tongue and pretty / want.”
Akbar’s “tangle of tongue and pretty want” is Whitmanesque in its scope, evoking the visionary tradition of English language poetry from Christopher Smart and Thomas Traherne through Gerard Manley Hopkins and Allen Ginsberg to present, and reformulating that tradition within the framework of an Islamic cultural background with its own distinct visionary poetic tradition, ranging from Rabia Basri and Fariduddin Attar, through Jalaluddin Rumi, to Mian Muhammad Baksh. In “An Apology,” for example, Akbar writes:
As a boy I tore out
the one-hundred-and-nine pages
about Hell in my first Qur’an.
Bountiful bloomscattering Lord,
I could feel you behind my eyes
and under my tongue, shocking me
nightly like an old battery.
The transgressive act of tearing pages from the Qur’an recalls Fariduddin Attar’s poem “I Have Broken My Vows,” in which the speaker enjoins: “Throw me out of the mosque, / As I went there drunk last night.” In fact, Akbar’s poetry ingeniously inverts the trope of drunkenness found in Islamic mystical poetry. In Portrait of the Alcoholic, sobriety, not inebriation, becomes a metaphor for the intoxicating nature of communion with the divine. The divine, in these poems, can be found equally in the ordinary housefly and in the dilated pupils of a beloved. In “Eager,” Akbar affirms: “I like the life/ I have now free as an unhinged jaw but still I visit my corpse.” Here, as everywhere else in his poetry, Kaveh Akbar chooses astonishment instead of despair, joy instead of mere survival, gratitude for the alchemical body, and its ancient hungers, become a mound of jewels. Portrait of the Alcoholic must surely presage a bountiful, radiant, bloomscattering body of work to come.
Dante Di Stefano is the author of Love is a Stone Endlessly in Flight (Brighthorse Books, 2016). His poetry, essays, and reviews have appeared in Brilliant Corners, The Los Angeles Review, Shenandoah, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere.