Sarabande’s Another Last Call: poems on addiction and deliverance reviewed by Celeste Lipkes

Sarabande’s Another Last Call: poems on addiction and deliverance reviewed by Celeste Lipkes
February 25, 2024 Lipkes Celeste

One of the most useful things I did during my psychiatry training was attend an open AA meeting. I sat in the back row of a church basement and listened as people used phrases we were taught emphatically never to employ with patients: addict, junkie, drunk, dirty urine. In the hospital I thought we were learning the vocabulary of addiction, but we had been studying some other dictionary entirely. Without personal experience with substance use, I will never speak this language fluently. But after working with people in recovery and active use for six years, I have developed a comfortable humility with the dialect. And so it was with great professional and personal interest that I read Sarabande’s new anthology Another Last Call: poems on addiction and deliverance, edited by Kaveh Akbar and Paige Lewis.


Another Last Call is a sequel to Last Call, a poetry collection on “Alcoholism, Addiction, & Deliverance” published by Sarabande in 1997. In a world grown flush with poetry anthologies, we should ask if any new collection is necessary – particularly one addressing the same topic as a preceding anthology by the same press. In one of several odd choices in Akbar and Lewis’ introduction, they do not reference the original collection or their perceived need for a version 2.0. This is disappointing because without comparing the anthologies directly readers cannot fully appreciate two of the greatest strengths of Another Last Call: its disavowal of the stigma of substance use and commitment to a diverse representation of addiction.


In Another Last Call the stakes for the editors and their chosen writers are immediately clear: Akbar is an addict in recovery, his partner Lewis’s life “has been inflected by [his] addiction,” and all the poets in this anthology have loved ones reckoning with addiction or a personal history—ongoing or historical—of substance use. In contrast, the 1997 Last Call anthology begins with its editors, Sarah Gorman and Jeffrey Skinner, hedging about their relationship to the topic (“[We] have personal stakes in issues of sobriety and addiction. To say more than this, we feel, would be an imprudence that might lead to some harm.”) as well as their chosen poets (“…inclusion of any author in this collection says nothing about his or her status vis-à-vis addiction or alcoholism.”). And as opposed to the original collection (containing 17 poets, a vast majority white), the diversity of the 40 poets in Another Last Call speaks directly to the ways that racism, sexism, colonialism, and policing affect lived experiences of addiction. Alongside these dire -isms, it seems important to the editors that we bear witness to gentle human connection. In one poem, “This Shit Is Not Interesting” by Bernardo Wade, a stranger covers the speaker—arrested for possession and withdrawing violently on the floor of a jailhouse—with his coat. When it comes to recovery, Akbar writes in the introduction, “the only I hope I’ve found is in other people.”


But which people, exactly? Given the crowded center of the Poets and Addicts Venn diagram, how did Akbar and Lewis select the poems for this collection? Here again we are left to fill in some blanks. The editors note that they “make no claims at objectivity” and that they chose poems written in English “that they love” by living writers with personal or familial experiences of addiction. Their anthology is “by no means an exhaustive volume or even a representative one. What it feels like to us is a poetry mixtape.” I cannot speak to the pressures of editing this anthology as a major figure in the writing recovery community, but I doubt such gesticulating would be required if Akbar was editing a poetry anthology about cats. Just as the editors begin their introduction with a metaphor of Michelangelo sculpting his famous statue by chipping away everything that wasn’t David, what is not included in this anthology was presumably a deliberate and important choice. Rather than framing this book as “Last Call: Kaveh and Paige’s Version,” I wish that the editors had more firmly stepped into their authority and explained why they feel these selections are successful—not just as honest narratives of illness but as poems. Sometimes, yes: show, don’t tell. However, here the importance of this project feels undermined by the book’s current framing (“these are some poems we like – please don’t be mad!”). Instead, I longed for a clearer vision of this collection’s claims about addiction, illness narratives, and poetry at large. Because, as it turns out, these poems have a lot to say.


The poems in Another Last Call beautifully illustrate the wide net addiction casts across a community. The editors note this concept in the introduction as a way to explain both the choice to have Lewis co-edit the anthology and to include poems by writers whose loved ones have experienced addiction. These editorial decisions are vital to the success of this anthology, which ultimately speaks to addiction as a disease not just of the self, but the family and entire culture. The poems in Another Last Call populate a world with easy intimacy; in the first 20 pages alone there are twelve references to family members or loved ones (father, mother, boyfriend, etc.) and half as many named characters (Nick, Slim, Guy, Emily, Homer, Sam). Even when people are unnamed, their presence—or absence—press against the edges of the poems, as in sam sax’s “On Alcohol”:


i was sober a year before [            ] died




every time i drink    i lose someone


And it’s not just sax–many of the speakers in Another Last Call must reckon with the ways that personal and/or familial substance use has rendered the addict absent, a missing person. Nowhere is this clearer than when a family sits down to dinner; in numerous poems we are invited to a kitchen table where a chair is empty—the loved one is dead, high, or incarcerated, and the family is thrown into orbit around this absence. In a redemptive take on this scene, Layli Long Soldier in an excerpt from WHEREAS describes her father, an alcoholic in recovery, apologizing at the breakfast table for the many years he was intoxicated and unavailable. “What is it to wish for the absence of nothing?” she wonders, ultimately receiving her father’s tearful apology as a “curative voicing / an opened bundle / or medicine.” I yearn for my patients and their families to experience similar moments of reconciliation and am grateful that these depictions were included in this collection.


Among the many referenced friends and family in Another Last Call is another name that pops up so frequently you could argue he is the main character: God. In this anthology God plays many roles: he is a Grim Reaper, as in “Requiem for Guy” by Bernardo Wade:


…how many sticky afternoons
we tried to forget our names, handing
them back to God so we could
rest. When I got the call, I knew
He had refused to give yours back.


Several pages later, in Megan Denton Ray’s “Trouble House,” God is a savior, showing up in his sedan to ferry the speaker from her chaotic home to safety. God is absent in Jos Charles’ untitled poem: “The nativity in the yard has no baby in it” and a practical AA sponsor in Mary Karr’s “VI. Wisdom: The Voice of God”: “[His voice] says the most obvious shit, / i.e., Put down that gun, you need a sandwich.” God is a vague prayer receptacle in “Fluctuations in the Field” by Jeffrey Skinner: “praying under my breath Oh something something, give us alcohol so I can be taken away.” And he is an incompetent drug dealer and frankly a tease in “Call Your Mother (Fentanyl)” by Katie Jean Shinkle:


God is a dope boy     with a gun      who doesn’t
know        how to shoot it.

So hard
to pin down.
Keeping me     waiting.
Offering                  a high
I have
to keep chasing.


“I have no idea what I mean when I say God, and I say it a lot,” writes Akbar in his introduction to another anthology project, The Penguin Book of Spiritual Verse. This whirlwind recasting of God seems essential to Akbar’s understanding of the language of addiction, which swirls with countless iterations of spirituality. Even the word “spirit,” initially referring to an angel or a demon, took only two centuries to accrue a new meaning: a strong alcoholic liquor. And many of my patients who do not identify with religion and find the framing of AA unhelpful or even offensive, will still often describe their addiction and recovery with words like “soul,” “cursed,” and “grace.”


Framed spiritually or otherwise, an appreciation of forces larger than the individual can sometimes help people acknowledge their addiction as a form of self-obliteration. People in active addiction can act as if they are approaching death asymptotically; they know they are inching closer with every drink, but their ability to imagine their life fully ending and putting this fear into action is clouded by terrors far more immediate (cravings, withdrawal, sitting with the unmedicated self). Those who fully acknowledge the nearness of their own death can sometimes make other decisions: “Flatly I am refusing / To become my own gravedigger” writes Chase Berggrun in “The Forty-Third Day.” In contrast, some people realize they are nearing death and push even closer; their substance use becomes a kind of prolonged suicide. For those who–for whatever complicated and devastating reasons–were unable to put down their shovels like Berggrun, Another Last Call serves as an elegy. We are reminded of the very real stakes of addiction in some of the most affecting poems in the collection, which are written by family members left behind. In “Reunion” by Jeffrey Skinner, we are back at the kitchen table – this time at Thanksgiving dinner, where a dead loved one sits


at the head of the table like a signal
carried by a frayed wire—there, gone, there—raising a glass
to toast, the rim never touching your lips.


If the above obsessions form the statue of Another Last Call, then, what did the editors chip away? As I read and reread this collection, I found myself looking for poems that were more formally varied. There are several prose poems and sectioned pieces in this collection, but only two of the 60 poems utilize rhyme or traditional formal structures (“Dominion” by Afaa M. Weaver and “Cold Turkey” by Joshua Mehigan) – four if you count two very loose, gorgeous sonnets by Diane Seuss. Addiction is nothing if not a complete and total obsession with repetition. I would have loved to see more poems whose forms enacted their content through overt repetition of sounds and/or lines. This formal variety might have been easier to include if the editors selected a wider range of voices, rather than publishing two poems each by 20 of the 40 selected writers. Indeed, the effect of this doubling was a feeling of immediate comparison between the two poems by the same writer, and rarely did I find the second poem essential to my experience of the initial poem or the anthology as a whole.


Important books should be held to high standards and collecting contemporary poems on addiction seems to me an essential project. Another Last Call frustrates with its unwillingness to elucidate its selections or highlight poems that more ambitiously marry content and form. But this anthology does achieve what seems to be its primary goal: calling us into much-needed community. In “After the War I Dreamt of Nothing But the War,” Sophie Klahr wanders a city, traveling from hospital to hospital, attempting to locate her loved one: “Slang of nurses, blood numbers, legalities; / my disease has made me fluent in Emergency.” For those of us immersed unwillingly in the language of addiction, the only gift it offers is connecting with other native speakers. The ending of Klahr’s poem, like the best of Another Last Call, serves as an invitation:


The crows have come back
to the city for the spring. They swerve


over each river, crying to one another


Come here come here come here come here
Come here. Come here come here

Celeste Lipkes is a writer and psychiatrist residing in Asheville, North Carolina. Her first book of poems, Radium Girl, was published in 2023 by the Wisconsin Poetry Series. For more visit