I’m thinking of the way my stepdad got sober,
how he never told us, just stopped drinking
and sat for a long time in the low folding chair
on the Bermuda grass reading and sometimes
soaking up the sun like he was the story’s only
From “The Great Blue Heron of Dunbar Road,” by Ada Limón
Another Last Call, edited by Kaveh Akbar and Paige Lewis, is at once tender and visceral in its treatment of addiction, sobriety, and the seemingly indomitable will to survive. From the outset, Akbar and Lewis make clear that this anthology is written by and for people deeply affected by addiction. The introduction distinguishes “normal people” from those in recovery, not to create division but to clarify the chasm between what those outside recovery imagine and what those in recovery experience. This acts as the guiding premise for the entire collection, which gathers poems from both those in recovery and those whose lives are inextricably tied to the addiction of loved ones.
“Normal people think of recovery as a kind of abstinence,” the editors explain in the introduction. “This is because for normal people, drinking is an activity, like slicing an onion or watching TV.” They go on to push against this perception, noting that “For a drunk, there’s nothing but drink. For an addict, there’s nothing but the drug.” This hard and blunt acknowledgement of the ways in which addiction consumes an individual is balanced with hope, which Akbar says he finds only in other people. As the brief introduction nears its end, Akbar suggests that the process of creating Another Last Call with his spouse and partner was especially important because it bridged Akbar’s perspective as an addict in recovery with Lewis’ experiences as someone “whose life has been inflected by [Akbar’s] addiction and recovery.”
Readers will immediately recognize the importance of this collaboration, as the collection beautifully moves between poets writing from a space of recovery and poets writing of loved ones whose paths to recovery have impacted them. Award-winning poet Joy Harjo opens the collection with “Running,” an honest window into the addiction that permeates Indigenous culture. Harjo creates a lineage of violence and addiction, drawing a parallel between a boyfriend and a father, both of whom she has found at the bar. Notably, Harjo injects herself and others into the narrative through her continued use of the pronoun “we,” which insists upon shared trauma and a collective struggle to break free of their respective histories. Though the poem centers Indigenous experiences, the collectivity at its core also emphasizes the communal suffering that echoes throughout the anthology.
“A Recovery Guide for Adult Children of Alcoholics,” by Megan Denton Ray, directly addresses the reader in a poem that extends outward from a place of trauma, imploring readers to “remember that all fear feels the same” as they witness the collapse of fathers and mothers. Ray recognizes the difficulty of moving forward and maintaining hope, yet she insists that readers endure in the closing lines of the poem:
are you still there? — Those with pennies
who look for pennies? The god who hears me
when I cough? There is a reason for good juice
and toast. For putting flowers all over the house.
Must I ration my wellness?
Philip B. Williams offers similar sentiments in “Final Poem for My Father Misnamed in My Mouth.” The poem does not shy away from the difficulties of growing up with a father defined by addiction and absence, or the fear of repeating those behaviors: “I’ve been told I have/your ways, your laughter haunts my mother/from my mouth. Everything/is possible.” Like Ray, though, Williams closes with a tender insistence on peace and healing, admitting, “I fell in love with being/your son.”
Others, writing from inside recovery, offer remarkably vulnerable truths about their respective experiences. sam sax tells admits, “every time i drink i lose something,” a confession that eventually shifts into an even harsher truth” “every time i drink i lose someone.” Megan Fernandes confronts the cycle of addiction in “Why We Drink,” a narrative poem that frames recovery and relapse as a series of conversations between friends:
I tell Malik I’m going to stop. I tell him that I do it
because I am sad and because someone
was mean to me at a lecture after five men
spoke during the Q&A so I said something, finally
I tell Malik I drink because I am tired and because they hate us anyways
and I see myself, the mess of my complaints and temperatures, the way
I am not making any sense these days. He says yes and yes and yes.
The theme of punishing oneself manifests throughout the collection, most explicitly in “Track 1: Lush Life,” by Jericho Brown, where the speaker brazenly professes, “Speak to me in a lover’s tongue—/Call me your bitch, and I’ll sing the whole night long.”
Another Last Call is not an easy collection, especially for readers with personal connections to addiction and recovery. Still, this resonates as one of the most important anthologies in recent memory. Akbar and Lewis have expertly curated a collection of poets whose respective talents give language to one of the most pervasive and difficult circumstances in contemporary society. And in the end, as Akbar predicts in the opening pages, we find hope in the people that tell their stories, hope in the poems that insist not just on survival but on joy.