(REVIEW) Pilgrim Bell, by Kaveh Akbar
ALHS travels through the ringing, shuddering, precedented architecture of Kaveh Akbar’s Pilgrim Bell (Graywolf Press, 2021), a revelatory collection that insists ‘the poet is not empty, the poet is never empty.’
Kaveh Akbar’s Pilgrim Bell (2021) is revelatory in spirit and relentless in its experiment. How does a poem best design the acoustics for truth? One of the opening poems in the forthcoming collection considers this question. ‘The Miracle’ begins with Qur’anic emphasis on the act of reading. There is a faint recollection of the Prophet in the Cave of Hira, of revelation.
Gabriel seizing the illiterate man, alone and fasting in a cave, and commanding read, the man saying I can’t, Gabriel seizing him tighter, commanding read, the man gasping I don’t know how, Gabriel squeezing him so tight he couldn’t breathe, squeezing out the air of protest, the air of doubt, crushing it out of his crushable human body, saying read in the name of your lord who created you from a clot, and thus: literacy. Revelation.
Throughout the poem, the speaker reassures himself, or perhaps it is despair — how hard it is to tell them apart in this voice — that Gabriel isn’t coming for him: ‘You created from a clot: Gabriel isn’t coming for you. You too full to eat. You too locked to door.’ But, of course, Gabriel comes for him. The poem ends with a cry: ‘Mercy. Mercy.’ The first cry pleads for mercy. The second seems to accept that what he has been granted here is indeed mercy.
Kaveh Akbar transforms the self into a site of ringing. Of shuddering. The self in ‘There Is No Such Thing As An Accident Of The Spirit’ is a body that can be cut in half ‘like a candle to double its light’. The self in ‘Forfeiting My Mystique’ waits for Persian dreams by falling asleep to home movies in a kind of ‘séance’. To stand before might, demanding ‘[t]o be forgiven’, demanding ‘[a] sturdier soul’ is not beautiful work but it is monumental. It creates out of a frail self a shrine where truth can be sounded. The epigraph to the final section of the collection quotes the Hadith, and at that spatial moment, the collection blooms into its title. Upon being asked how divine inspiration is revealed in the verse, the Prophet is said to have replied, ‘Sometimes it is revealed like the ringing of a bell.’
What miracle, then, fills this revelatory collection? Pilgrim Bell, not unlike Gabriel, squeezes the emptiness out of the poet, or rather, out of the conception of the poet. In August 2020, I attended a virtual class on sacred poetics taught by Kaveh Akbar, offered by The Shipman Agency. The class was an unforgettable discussion on Enheduanna, Mahadeviyakka, Kobayashi Issa and other poets whose temporally distant preoccupations we share, and towards the close, Kaveh Akbar noted with emphasis, “I feel utterly precedented”. Kaveh Akbar engages with precedence with such joy that Pilgrim Bell insists that the poet is not empty, the poet is never empty. The poet is filled with preoccupations inherited from predecessors, with forms the poets has greeted in passing. This is a collection in which a play with form is often a play with precedence.
The letterpress of ‘In The Language of Mammon’ is set to bring forth ‘the elegance of written RTL languages’; Kaveh Akbar explains this in the notes section and acknowledges the borrowed typographical invention. The notes section in Pilgrim Bell is a clear confluence of echoes that have lingered, the echoes only just making it out of the throat. As I held the page awkwardly to the front-camera of my phone, I was struck by how present these poems are that they hitch their holiness to the present self even as it struggles and wanders. The notes for this poem mention a line borrowed from Augustine: ‘Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet’. This line is from Augustine’s Confessions. Augustine’s own meditations on time do not escape my mind; for Augustine, an instrument measuring intervals of time is insufficient because we are all time at once. But Pilgrim Bell rings time as an internal marvel, reads like Augustine reads the Psalms: each syllable, each component read in recollection of all other. Pilgrim Bell foretells revisiting. The first and the penultimate poems in the three sections are titled ‘Pilgrim Bell’. Here the speaker demands and demands. Here revelation is not forgiveness. Here we return.
The final section consists of the long poem ‘The Palace’. The eponymous palace is but a threshold. Here, the pilgrim remains, making the kindest threats:
America, I warn you, if you invite me into your home I will linger, kissing my beloveds frankly, pulling up radishes and capping all your pens.
The closing lines to ‘The Palace’ are surprising in a I-should-have-seen-that-coming way. Yet, it is at this gentle turn of phrase that I wonder what has become of the pilgrimage. A line about early drawings and locusts reads, ‘Art is where what we survive survives.’ So I return to the question of architecture and acoustics.
What survives on the walls by the pilgrim bell? Does the repeated cry for mercy at the end of ‘The Miracle’ allude, in fact, to the Surah Al-Fatihah, the opening prayer of the Qur’an, that is recited twice at dawn, or perhaps to verse 1.1: ‘In the name of Allah, the Entirely Merciful, the Especially Merciful’? Is the line about pulling radishes in ‘The Palace’ a reference to the Robert Hass translation of the poem by Kobayashi Issa that reads, in its entirety, ‘The man pulling radishes / pointed my way / with a radish’? Kaveh Akbar has built these quiet, meticulous monuments and here, Pilgrim Bell rings. You hold the book to a mirror, you turn it around this way and that, you carry Kaveh Akbar’s Pilgrim Bell as you go on, perhaps, a pilgrimage of your own.
Augustine, 2002. The Confessions of St. Augustine, translated by Albert C. Outler, (Mineola: Dover Publications). Available at < https://archive.org/details/isbn_9780486424668/page/n1/mode/2up> [accessed 18.07.2021].