A Review of Kaveh Akbar’s Pilgrim Bell by M.G. Moscato

Buried roughly in the middle of Pilgrim Bell is a quote by Anne Carson that reads, “A pilgrim is a person who is up to something” (49). Kaveh Akbar’s latest collection participates in a pilgrimage that navigates a variety of ideological problems, including the unease with the divine (or rather the gap between the almost always intangible divine and the all too tangible earthly) and the wariness of living in an empire where mainstream cultural sentiments overwhelm imperial resistance. Wrapped within these concerns, Akbar takes a microscope to language and its often-inherent flaws that reify stakes of selfhood and otherness. With every searing poem, Akbar rings a bell for readers, and even if all we hear is an echo, the bridge between ideological expectations and personal/societal desires drastically shortens. Put another way, Akbar’s project offers critical if not counter possibilities, which in turn yield productive ones. 

The divide between intangible divine and the tangible earthly is on full display in the first of that eponymous series of pieces for which the collection derives its name, showing not only that disconnect, but other tensions as well:

Only a god.

Can turn himself into.

A god.

The earth buckles.

Almond trees bow.

To their own roots. Fear.

Comes only. (12)

If anything does arrive, it’s usually “Fear”—or, if indeed it is more momentously supernatural then it’s less likely a benevolent deity and rather something far worse, i.e. that nefarious antithesis to, say, the Judeo-Christian concept of God (12). In “My Father’s Accent,” that’s exactly what we get when “the devil enters Adam’s lips, / crawls through his throat, through his guts / to finally emerge out his anus” (34). Is this devil likewise behind the speaker’s father, the parent’s quiet but burning “rage” when “he bites his bottom lip to suppress” (35)? Or it could be that this darkened rage stems from another place: a primary emotion as in the hurt of being cast as a second-class citizen because of an accent for which others bother the speaker “to translate my father’s English,” no matter how many years residing within the borders of U.S. empire (34). Just so, here we begin to also see some of the potential problems with our earthly systems of meaning, namely language. Language becomes a site of derision, a problematic vehicle for, at the least, racist passive aggression on one end of the spectrum, though it’s not difficult to see how that can easily lead to more overt, hateful rhetoric on the other and thus a cycle of toxic hate and bottled rage.

Of course, racist rhetoric, whether passive or overt, is only one of empire’s hateful tools of oppression when there are other, ultimate hateful acts—of violence, of war—that Western powers like the U.S. continue to levy against Muslims and other groups. Surely there are those stakeholders who would defend the U.S. for its own kind of projected and perceived benevolence despite the Department of Defense’s long legacy of acts of aggression, often termed as acts of defense in the name of one kind of terror or another. In that way scripture is written like history—by those who have the means and power to do so. Perhaps with age-old sovereign-disciplinary practices in mind, however, “The Palace” reminds and/or cautions whomever its Christian readers that “There are no good kings. / Only beautiful palaces” (73). Akbar understands this all too well as one who knows the kind of hate behind awful t-shirt slogans like “‘We Did It to Hiroshima, We Can Do It to Tehran!’” (77). For Akbar and many others, American-led warfare and Western-supported imperial violence like this are not found just on t-shirts or in soundbites. Rather, as in the often darkly ironic “The Miracle,” today’s Western violence is the ominously faceless “man [who] is steering a robotic plane into murder” during drone strikes upon the surreptitious directives of the DOD (15).

So poetry is supposed to help combat all of this? Indeed, that’s a big ask for any artistic enterprise, or even all of the arts combined. That said, Pilgrim Bell does suggest that our ideological orientation(s) towards making meaning of the world at large when left uninterrogated may be an underlying root cause of many of these problems. Thereby strategies, say in the realm of poetic language, are proposed as initial ways of subversion to expose those default orientations. And to these ends, Akbar’s means of poetic language work in very particular ways.

For example, in “Vines”—one of several pieces sprinkled with Arabic script, specifically Farsi—there’s a grotesque conclusion where the speaker is “present and useless like a nose torn / from a face and set in a bowl.” Here Akbar’s defamiliarizing and downright surreal poetic language underscores the alienating byproducts of an overly fearful concept of the God earlier “trembled” before, a concept not exclusive to but certainly widely circulated among the West’s colonizing Christian-imperial project (13).

Surely Akbar’s poetic language underscores then disrupts taken-for-granted orientations by other means. Many such instances occur again in the “Pilgrim Bell” series where most lines appear to enjamb. But, as the text questions and provokes, is that sense of enjambment mainly by reader inference? Because these same lines technically, typographically end with full stops, as in the following:

My savior has powers and he needs.

To be convinced to use them.

Up until now he has been.

A no-call no-show. . . . (26)

Here poetic language deploys innovative punctuation coupled with the line breaks to 1. defamiliarize the very reading process and 2. reveal existence’s potential subjectivity, whether in poetry, in all language, or, more broadly still, in whatever one’s cultural stock. Among the mechanical effects are the startling reversals that happen during these punctuation and line breaks. And reversals of this sort and others abound in Pilgrim Bell, beginning with the collection’s opening epigrammatic “Any text that is not a holy text is an apostasy,” which is followed on the next page by “Then it is a holy text” (10-11). In this way, poetry appears to offer every bit as much profound potential as the language of any religion, any empire.

M. G. Moscato teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University and has worked as a book editor as well as in arts management. Work has won awards from the Academy of American Poets and Poetry Society of Virginia. New work appears in or is forthcoming from Poets.orgBirmingham Poetry ReviewRaritan Quarterly, and Michigan Quarterly Review (Mixtape imprint). Third Coast is excerpting work from an in-progress collection of poetry, prose, and visuals; the working title is Country of Béisbol. More is at @PulpEphemera.