The two unattributed epigraphs that open Pilgrim Bell, Kaveh Akbar’s second full-length collection, serve as signposts, the first—“Any text that is not a holy text is an apostasy”—marking a starting point that may also be a backward glance at Calling a Wolf a Wolf, his first collection. You must turn the page to find, placed farther down on its own page, the second one: “Then it is a holy text.” If this were a scroll that unrolled vertically, the two epigraphs would be separated by an expanse of space.
Visualized this way, the two epigraphs seem oracular, with one a proposition and, if accepted, the other a tall order, a directive, the question of how to get from one to the other still to be determined. One by one the poems that follow are written into that empty space and record a journey toward making a holy text while also encoding the interior drama of the self; in this, Pilgrim Bell is, as Frost puts it in “Two Tramps in Mud Time,” a book engaged in “play for mortal stakes.”
The seeds for Pilgrim Bell were already planted in Calling a Wolf a Wolf. “[T]he real world doesn’t care / about our spiritual conditions, // just asks that we be well / enough to smile at the clamor,” says the speaker in “No Is a Complete Sentence.” To read Akbar’s books in the order they were published, beginning with his chapbook Portrait of the Alcoholic, is to see Pilgrim Bell as a book by a grown man, sober and sobered by the realities that impinge upon his life as an American who was born in Tehran. This is not to suggest that the poems are to be read as strictly autobiographical; they are, rather, poems in which, to borrow from Stanley Kunitz, life is being converted into legend.
Asked by Claire Schwartz about the six poems that bear the title “Pilgrim Bell”—every line ends in a period—Akbar answers,
If you read the period at the end of a self-contained thought unit, the poems will be completely inaccessible. To enter those poems you have to disabuse yourself of the idea that that particular grammatical demarcation connotes a kind of certainty.
They thus enact the struggle at the heart of this book. Though every line ends in a period, each poem is comprised of sentences that complete a thought, suggesting that each step on this pilgrimage involves a resolve to go on. In the third of four sections, “A pilgrim is a person who is up to something,” reads one epigraph from Anne Carson’s Plainwater, and above it, from Rabi’a Al-Basri, a Sufi mystic, “You know of the how, but I know of the how-less.” (Say “how-less” quickly, and it sounds like “howl-ess.”) A dynamic tension is established between a shrewd intelligence and an animating force that is spiritual.
It’s common to speak of a mother tongue and a fatherland, but in Pilgrim Bell, Akbar inverts those ideas and presents a father tongue, all but lost, and a motherland. In “Cotton Candy,” the speaker tells us that
[my mother] spoke my father’s language with
such a thick accent his family laughed when she
talked but she still talked and she listened diligent
as a holy sword
The poem ends, “she was happy to buy me cotton candy and / sit on a bench / smiling / she’d watch me eat the whole bag.”
In “Reza’s Restaurant, Chicago, 1997,” the speaker’s father, who loves the Rolling Stones, tells the speaker that Persians are easily identified by their looks as a seemingly absurd test in discernment in a place where everyone “looked like us,” and the speaker also tells us that his father “built / the world the first sound I ever heard / was his voice whispering the azan.” In the incident recounted, the speaker is an eight year old with glasses and bad teeth. “[M]y father cherished / that we were ugly,” the poem ends, “and so being ugly / was blessed,” the child smiling “with all [his] teeth.”
In these poems, Akbar uses juxtaposition, connotation, line breaks, and run-on sentences to destabilize a single reading of tone and meaning so that the poems read us, too. Meanings deepen and shift in relation to other poems in the book as when, in “My Father’s Accent,” the speaker tells us that his father sometimes “bites his bottom lip to suppress / what must be / rage. It must be rage / because it makes no sound.” Words can be both “a holy sword” and/or a call to prayer, and smiling a joyful indulgence in what seems good or a weapon and shield slipped under the words. Here the father has armed the son with a wooden sword for training that can temper the blade of his mother’s “holy sword.”
“The most critical image for me in the book is the salad spinner in ‘The Palace.’ . . . I can’t think of anything more useless, a more damning indictment of our relative comfort. But we use it, and it’s good,” Akbar also says in the interview mentioned earlier. In the light of his desire to render a true account, it is a necessary acknowledgment of our complacency in a suffering world. And I wish to place alongside it what I think is an essential image in “How Prayer Works”: “the coiled-brass doorstop” accidentally struck like a bell—“brooong.” Brothers in a cramped bedroom, laughter, irreverent and irrepressible, bursting forth from them, they are soon “draped across each other, laughing tears into [their] prayer rugs.” The word “bell,” after all, has its origins in words that mean “to bellow” and “to roar” as well as “he talks.”
If one locates Pilgrim Bell in the prophetic tradition, as I do, perhaps it is most at home with Jonah, the reluctant one, the one minor prophet of the Old Testament who is mentioned by name in the Qur’an. In the concrete poem “Palace Mosque, Frozen” and in the empty squares marking section breaks in poems like “My Father’s Accent” and “The Palace,” Kaveh Akbar signals a shift from two- to three- or maybe four-dimensional space, understanding all the while that though bounded spaces make it possible to see what we say, mortal beings that we are, we cannot live there. Pilgrim Bell is not about arrival; it is an invitation to walk for a spell, a gift hard won.
Debra Kang Dean is the author of five collections of poetry, the most recent of which are Totem: America (Tiger Bark, 2018) and the prize-winning chapbook Fugitive Blues (Moon City Press, 2014). BOA Editions published her first two full-length collections of poetry: News of Home (1998), co-winner of the Sheila Margaret Motton Award, and Precipitates (2003), which was nominated for the William Carlos Williams Award. Back to Back (1997) won the Harperprints Poetry Chapbook Competition, judged by the late Ruth Stone, and in collaboration with Russ Kesler, she wrote Mourning’s Spell (FLP, 2013), a chapbook of renku that includes linocuts by Laurel Leonetti. For decades, whether practicing poetry or taiji, she has been captivated by the beauty of lines and form, and among her influences are her maternal grandmother’s patchwork quilts and Basho’s haikai no renga. Born in Hawai‘i a few years before it became the 50th state, she is of Korean and Okinawan ancestry. She lives in Bloomington, Indiana, and is on the faculty of Spalding University’s School of Creative and Professional Writing.
Monthly reviews of books written by Indiana authors are made possible by the Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana Authors Awards and Indiana Humanities. Opinions expressed in this review are solely those of the reviewer, not any affiliated entity.