by HANNAH ROBERTS
Kaveh Akbar, Pilgrim Bell (Graywolf Press, 2021), pp. 80.
“Regarding loss, I’m / afraid / to keep it in the story, / worried what I might bring back to life,” Akbar admits in “Soot,” the opening poem from his 2017 collection Calling a Wolf a Wolf. As Akbar delineates his struggles with addiction and loss, readers are challenged to consider if a person’s experiences are separable from their identity, and if it is possible to return to a preexisting self in the wake of hardship. These lines offer an analytical lens for Akbar’s previous collection, one that is reframed in his newest, Pilgrim Bell (2021).
While Calling a Wolf a Wolf primarily examines the ways that Akbar’s experiences have shaped his identity, Pilgrim Bell examines the ways that Akbar’s identity has shaped his experiences. Consequently, in poems both sardonic and cathartic, Pilgrim Bell confronts the loss and chagrin Akbar resists in “Soot,” positing both as essential to the healing and wholeness of his selfhood.
Early on, Akbar reframes healing as an ongoing, non-linear process of self-acceptance. Rather than attempting to erase or conceal his chagrin, Akbar elects to both accept and sort through it. Amidst this sorting, he interrogates dichotomic constructs such as salvation, submission, trust, and faith that are often presented as “quick fixes” for mundane hardships. As such, Akbar reframes submission as agency in the first “Pilgrim Bell,” trust as accountability in “Seven Years Sober,” and faith as an embodiment of lived experience in “An Oversight.” The collection thus intermingles matters of the mundane with matters of the cosmic, juxtaposing Akbar’s journey with allusions to The Five Pillars of Islam, among other Islamic practices.
More specifically, through the lens of Hajj―an annual pilgrimage to Kaaba (The House of God) that demonstrates one’s submission to God―the collection posits Akbar as a pilgrim, and his recovery as a pilgrimage. Indeed, the statements that open the collection read, “Any text that is not a holy text is an apostasy” and “Then it is a holy text.” These lines presage parallels between Akbar’s recovery and the Islamic prophet Muhammad’s religious experiences in The Quran and The Hadith. Thus, Akbar embodies Muhammad, situating himself as the prophet of his own holy text.
The collection consists of 35 poems that are arranged into four sections. Unlike in Calling a Wolf a Wolf, the sections are not titled. Rather, each section begins with statements or quotes that correspond to the themes that the proceeding poems explore. For example, a quote by Anne Carson at the beginning of the third section reads, “A pilgrim is a person who is up to something.” In the same way, the third section offers form to some of the ideas that the second section contemplates, demonstrating that Akbar is “up to something.”
Poems titled “Pilgrim Bell” serve a similar purpose in the collection. From a structural vantage, “Pilgrim Bell” poems function as both appetizers and palette cleansers―they create a neutral space for readers to reflect and prepare for the next stage of Akbar’s journey, while laying the foundation for upcoming themes. Accordingly, in three out of the collection’s four sections, one “Pilgrim Bell” begins the section, conversing with the quotes and statements that open each section, and the other is placed before the section’s last poem.
From a more conceptual vantage, “Pilgrim Bell” poems offer a spiritual critique of the worldly matters that other poems address. Moreover, the reoccurrence of these poems throughout the collection creates a sense of divine providence and spiritual guidance. While some “Pilgrim Bell” poems are comprised of musings that contemplate the arduousness of Akbar’s recovery, others allude to matters of Islamic orthodoxy. Consequently, readers will find that these poems function like prayers, sustaining a spiritual discourse between the cosmic and the quotidian.
In the first “Pilgrim Bell” from section two, lines such as “You can either be. / More holy or more full but. / Not both” contemplate the dichotomy associated with conventional iterations of morality. Similarly, in the first “Pilgrim Bell” from section one, Akbar alludes to Wudu―an Islamic practice that entails engaging in purification before prayer―to preface his reinterpretation of submission:
Holds his palms out.
To gather dew.
Through the night. Uses it.
To wash before.
From a syntactic vantage, the poem begins a pattern of interaction between reader and text that reoccurs in all “Pilgrim Bell” poems. Though each line of the poem is end-stopped, the lines function as if they are enjambed―the context of the phrase at the end of the line carries over to the context of the next line. Thus, the reader must make connections between individual phrases.
This process corresponds to the sorting in which Akbar must engage to reconstruct his sense of self, presenting the text as a pilgrimage. Correspondingly, in poems such as “Vines,” readers must separate phrases to differentiate where one phrase ends and the other begins. All the while, Akbar’s whit, humor, and honesty maintain community between reader and poet, offering a sense of access in the midst of abstraction.
Although some of the topics addressed in Pilgrim Bell correspond to those in Calling a Wolf a Wolf, readers who are familiar with Akbar’s work will find that the means by which these topics are intermingled in Pilgrim Bell sets the collection apart. As poems begin to trace through Akbar’s memories—and as matters of his Persian heritage, American upbringing, and Islamic faith intertwine and conflict— Pilgrim Bell is linked to a global discourse on the sustenance and expansion of cultural identity.
Akbar addresses matters of cultural identity, topics such as idealism and assimilation, and the embodiment and inculcation of cultural biases. In doing so, he acknowledges a need for ideological healing. As such, many poems are posited as spaces for—and modes of—healing. For example, in “My Father’s Accent,” Akbar considers how facets of the idealism that informed his American upbringing have attempted to erase his Persian heritage. Detailing a childhood memory of being asked to translate his father’s English, and including an assessment of his own writing, Akbar contemplates how notions of American idealism have shaped his perception of value and language.
While Akbar identifies idealism in himself, and associates it with a sense of restriction in lines such as “I can’t write this / without trying to make it / beautiful,” he illustrates how people are embodiments of their cultures through the line “My poem grew up here, sitting in this American chair.” Simultaneously, as he traces memories of his father’s experiences of discrimination, he celebrates that which idealism attempts to correct through lines that tease out and nullify bias. Indeed, Akbar asserts that “an accent isn’t sound. / Only those to whom it seems alien / would flatten an accent to sound.” This resistance continues in poems such as “In the Language of Mammon” and “Famous Americans and Why They Were Wrong.”
Another notable discussion of cultural identity occurs in poems that address matters of Islamophobia and religious persecution. For example, Akbar foregrounds the historical and international breadth of Islamophobia in poems such as “Shadian Incident,” which alludes to the 1975 assault of Hui Muslims in China. Similarly, in “Reading Farrokhzad in a Pandemic,” lines such as “People die because they look like him. / My uncle jailed, his daughter killed” underscore and personalize the existing presence of Islamophobia in America, presenting it as a pandemic. As Akbar conveys the disquietude, exhaustion, fear, and anger that results from conflicting components of his identity, the poem itself is posited as a place for Akbar to heal. Thus, at the end of the poem, Akbar writes,
I want both my countries
to be right
to fear me.
We have lost
we had to lose.
At a time that has forced many of us to reframe the way we live our lives — and challenged us to persist and rebuild in the face of various forms of loss — Pilgrim Bell arrives as a poignant, candid, and empathetic examination of self, one which is deepened when it is paired with Akbar’s earlier Calling a Wolf a Wolf.