(Chatto & Windus, 2022); pbk, £12.99
Pilgrim Bell is the anticipated second collection of poems from Forward Prize nominated Kaveh Akbar, a widely published contemporary voice in poetry. Akbar’s craft is measured and precise, but his confidence shows most in the intellectual space left around the form of aphorisms: ‘Whatever you aren’t, which is what makes you’. Much is being mused in this work which speaks to lived experiences of the poet’s immigrant identity, born in Iran, raised as a Muslim in an intolerant America, and his personal pursuit of sobriety. Each aspect alone could provide sufficient depth to delve into, but are instead wrapped together in a quest for religious reverie.
There are thirty-five poems in total, sectioned in groupings of ten, ten and fourteen, each starting and ending penultimately with poems sharing the title of ‘Pilgrim Bell’. A final poem is the lengthy and climactic ‘The Palace’, stretching sparsely over eight pages. In this voluminous collection, words are styled on the page as if they are yet to settle, ever resonant like the bell. Refusing to converge around a single form, some in these groups are short and orderly, some scattered on the page, and others more akin to prose in density. ‘Palace Mosque, Frozen’ takes its own patterning, with words arranged in a square, drawing the reader into a smaller, tighter concentric shape, a typographical innovation Akbar links to Farsi and Arabic. ‘In The Language Of A Mammon’ gives a challenging read, printed in a mirror form and disorienting the eyes from the convention of reading print from left to right.
The frequent references to God and matters spiritual provide some of the most reflective, soulful touches. From ‘An Oversight’:
They say it’s not
faith if you can hold it in your hands
but I suspect the opposite may be true,
that real faith passes first through the body
like an arrow. […]
Yet this contrasts with lines that add a realism both brutal and ugly, as in this from ‘Forfeiting My Mystique’:
[…] all piety leads to a single
point: the same paradise
where dead lab rats go.
Nor does Akbar beautify the experience of establishing a writerly identity within an occidental structure of recognition. ‘Ghazal for a National Emergency’ takes a sardonic view: ‘Embrace your rage and this will be easier, winks Washington’. Pilgrim Bell as a collection is so recent that it includes pandemic reflections — ‘Because we need groceries, people die.’ (‘Reading Farrokhzad in a Pandemic’) — but Akbar again moves the poem past mere observation, turning back towards the disconnect between knowing and not knowing, but pushing beyond agnosticism alone: ‘So much of diamond is light.’
The six ‘Pilgrim Bell’ poems punctuate each line end with full stops, regardless of the flow of the words, thus interrupting the sequence of the thoughts. The effect lands like the strikes of a bell, a sonic call to prayer:
The way its air vibrates
Through you. The way air.
Vibrates. The violence.
In your middle ear.
This is an introspective meditation on language beyond words, into its very reverberation within the body. There are notes at the back that list cultural reference points, citing many lines that are ‘paraphrased’ into the poems in Pilgrim Bell, doing more than merely evoking references, instead weaving them into the soundscape, making the source part of the scene.
Spirituality, then, is found in language — and language gives voice to suffering. The distance from the sacred is measured in the space Akbar leaves for further reflection. This collection is rich in thought, inviting a sustained interaction between revelation and meaning, to make a holy song of your own.