Pilgrim Bell (Graywolf Press, 2021) is Kaveh Akbar’s second book of poems and it is a continuation of what the poet does well: artful poems that navigate spirituality, addiction, and personal experience. In this collection, Akbar has grown poetically; many of the poems exemplify his desire to achieve more in terms of how his work can be read and understood. They contain an element of literary tension within them that produces an extra layer of depth and power. In his first book, Calling a Wolf a Wolf (Alice James Books, 2017), Akbar established himself as a strong poetic voice; in Pilgrim Bell, Akbar is well on his way to becoming a masterful literary poet.
This book includes a series of poems titled “Pilgrim Bell” which help to establish a solid thread throughout the collection. They are spiritual in nature, personal, and playful. The first “Pilgrim Bell” is the most poignant and it is also the first poem in the collection. Here it is in its entirety:
Dark on both sides.
Makes a window.
Into a mirror. A man.
Holds his palms out.
To gather dew.
Through the night. Uses it.
To wash before.
Only a god.
Can turn himself into.
The earth buckles.
Almond trees bow.
To their own roots. Fear.
At our invitation but.
It comes. It came.
This poem—compared to the other “Pilgrim Bell” poems—has a wider scope as it watches a man prepare for dawn prayer. What is interesting about this poem is the way it zooms in on the man: “Dark on both sides. / Makes a window. / Into a mirror. A man. / Holds his palms out. / To gather dew.” Then, it zooms out in a really fascinating way with the lines “Only a god. / Can turn himself into. / A god.” This poem is a wonderful poem about transformation through devotional worship. Additionally, the poem includes an image of an almond tree so that the reader gets three distinct images: man, god, and tree—showing how they are all interrelated and part of the enlightenment process. It is also worth noting that the lines are short and end-stopped with periods. All of the poems in the series do this to great effect; the poetic style of these poems serve as a nice contrast to the freer, more experimental poems in the collection.
“Mothers I Once Was” is another poem where Akbar challenges himself poetically. Aside from the title, there is no “I” in this poem, but rather, a series of mothers who do various things and inhabit various states of being. Here are the first two stanzas:
Mother fingers in the mud. Mother begging bowl.
Mother lace-weaver drumming her web, babies
eating her whole. Bleachable mother. Mother apron
smeared with flour. Mother flower. Mother Florida,
the wet bone. The marble throne. Mother sent back.
Mother bent back curling like script. Mother depended
on light. Mother? Depends on the night.
This poem is a good example of Akbar’s sense of playfulness taken to new heights. “Mother” is the central force of the poem, but reincarnated—which creates a lovely tension: “Mother lace-weaver,” “Bleachable mother,” “Mother flower,” “Mother bent back curling like a script.” However, there is a wonderful turn that occurs after the first two stanzas: “Mother for whom the whole sky.” It is a single line and it solidifies the mother as a vital force of nature. Here are the last two stanzas:
Mother hiding in the curtains, humming too loud.
Maggot mother at the shroud. Mother thought it possible.
Mother was wrong. Mothersong. Our Lady Mother of Wet Beds
and Aggressive Disgrace. Mother persimmon, name sounds
the way she tastes. Mother with all of creation fattening.
Mother who held on while it was happening.
These last two lines complicate the mother in brilliant ways. “Maggot mother,” “Mother was wrong,” “Mothersong,” and “Mother persimmon” work together as contrasts that give off a bittersweet feeling. The mother is many things in this poem: she is a maggot, she is wrong, but she is also a persimmon—which makes her imperfect and human and beautiful. The last line: “Mother who held on while it was happening” could refer to one of the most challenging experiences a woman can experience: childbirth. This last line brings the poem to fruition in incredibly satisfying ways.
Another way in which Akbar pushes himself poetically is through meditative poetry, which is something he did well in his first collection. In “There Is No Such Thing as an Accident of the Spirit” Akbar expands his ability to write meditative poems that go deeper into a subject he writes about brilliantly: spirituality. Here is the first part of the poem:
You can cut the body in half
like a candle to double its light
but you need to prepare yourself
for certain consequences.
All I know about science—
neurons, neutrinos, communicable
disease—could fit inside
a toothpick, with wood to spare.
Blow it away, like an eyelash or
lamplight. Show me one beast
that loves itself as relentlessly
as even the most miserable man.
Voice is the primary strength of the poem, but it meanders very purposefully here. It begins with a body being cut in half to intensify its light, shifts into what the speaker knows about science, then asks the person being addressed to summon a creature that is as love-obsessed as humankind. There are also images that contribute to the overall experience of the poem: “toothpick,” “eyelash,” and “beast.” Akbar has a special talent for connecting a variety of images in order to enhance poems that are primarily voice-driven. Here is the last part of the poem:
Verily, they sent down
language, filling us with words
like seawater filling a lung. You
can hear them listening now
for our listening. Ask me again
about my doubt—turquoise
today and almond-hard. It speaks
only of what it can’t see itself:
one chromosome bowing politely
to the next, or the way our lips still
sometimes move when we sleep.
The poem becomes spiritual in nature as the speaker introduces the unknown: “Verily, they sent down / language, / filling us with words / like seawater filling a lung.” Additionally: “You / can hear them listening now / for our listening.” This suggests that a higher power unknown to the speaker is responsible for creating language, but it is a language that drowns—which complicates the poem. Words, although given to humankind by a mysterious entity, do not always result in a better understanding of the human experience. The poem shifts into doubt which is a kind of faith for the speaker: “It speaks / only of what it can’t see itself….” Again, language is a weak substitute for higher knowledge. In addition to the poem grappling with what it means to be human, it also plays with science in interesting ways, as if it can effectively explain what can’t be explained through language. The poem ends with “one chromosome bowing politely / to the next” as the speaker returns to playfulness as a source of understanding and pairs it with “the way our lips still / sometimes move when we sleep” as a nod to the subconscious as source of spiritual wisdom.
Pilgrim Bell includes ghazals, a poem that can only be read when held up to a mirror, and a poem in the shape of a square spiral. Akbar is brilliant in how he combines playfulness with deeper poetic expression. This collection is still in the range of what makes him a familiar poet to readers, but with more literary grit added to it. It will be interesting to see how Akbar will push himself going forward, how deeper his poems can get, and how much more playful he can be.
December 20, 2021