REVIEW: Josh Brewer reviews Pilgrim Bell by Kaveh Akbar

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Pilgrim Bell by Kaveh Akbar

Graywolf Press, 2021

80 pages, $16.00

Reviewed by Josh A. Brewer,

Akbar’s Art and Bewilderment, New Verse Versus Despair

Kaveh Akbar’s new collection, Pilgrim Bell, functions musically like its titular ringing: spiritually, tonally, and rhythmically.  As in Wind in a Box, Terrance Hayes’s collection, here the book title gets repeated periodically atop several different poems. However, Akbar’s poems are more scattered throughout the collection, tolling at regular intervals like the eponymous bell. That rhythm works to tie the tome together but also to resound throughout its verses, even the ones that do not mention a bell or music. As a collection, then, these euphonious poems unfurl in arcs and eddies, strong subsurface structures that are nonetheless fluid and mellifluous. As a group, the “Pilgrim Bell” poems employ an enthusiastic use of periods that cause logical amphiboly: 

     “I want to kiss. 

     Your gloves. I want you to kiss.

     My friends. Can you see the wet. 

     Azalea quivering. 

     On its vine. It’s ripening.


There are 3-5 plausible “standard” punctuations that the reader might provide here: while the periods are clearly ringing bells, they are also caesurae—slowing us down, forcing us to piece together the rent fabric of language. Elsewhere, Akbar’s enjambed lines rush headlong through sentences that link as seamlessly as a child’s toy train: 

                                “God bricked up my mouthhole

                                           his fists were white as gold there were

             roaches in my beard now I live like a widow”

In music, the breath mark and fermata align closely with the caesura. Akbar’s breathlessness-as-technique and his frequently inserted and insistent full stops serve as a poetical and musical notation, aiding the sight-reader who moves from solfège to performative interpretation. This propinquity of musical and poetical form emphasizes his deep commitment to structure and play. 

Among the formal and political plays staged in the volume we find the ancient Arabic form of the ghazal. Why is the ghazal taught in creative writing but almost never in literature classes? For one, to be fair, the rejection of New Criticism and its stifling formalism meant close reading for structural elements lapsed in a post-structural context. But let’s be honest: racism still plays its insidious role. Given this political context, Akbar employs the ghazal in an explicitly partisan register: “Ghazal for a National Emergency” could apply to the Covid crises or refer to the attack that Trump drummed up to overthrow the Biden election. 

     “Satan is a long bone shucked hard from the mouth that spawned him, 

     a great elephant tusk shooting up from the grave of Washington. 

     The dead want too much. To scare the living, they gasp their old names—

     the living panic, plug their ears, and send their dead to Washington.” 

There may be no better metaphor for the U.S. now than this specter of zombies present at our nation’s revolution—enacting its current rending and mending. Who among us was alive in 2020? How can we live now?

Akbar’s early poetry staged a dialectic of concealing and revealing. Portrait of the Alcoholic, his chapbook, was extremely surrealistic, but as he matured, he added more personal images (and even additional narrative) as punctuation. This built a persona (or really personae) which deploy a variety of voices—trickster, scholar, confidence man, rake.

But let us dwell for a moment on the scholar, because Akbar’s Pilgrim Bell is a tour de force of erudition and allusion. The range of his reading is breathtaking: traditional sources, running from Seneca, Augustine, Aristotle, Blake, Milton, and Donne to things I had to Google, such as Ash-Shu’ara; a book of sermons titled Nahjul Balagha; Rabi’a al-Basri (an eight-century Sufi mystic and a woman); and Alic Su’s “Harmony and Martyrdom among China’s Hui Muslims” (a “stirring primer” on the “Shadian Incident”). One could write a thesis on this impressive effort to educate American readers of poetry on underrepresented connections—ancient, Persian, Farsi, spiritual, and poetic. But Akbar is equally our contemporary. He’s rooted in (and also building) a certain kind of multicultural American genealogy: Kamau Braithwaite, Robert Hayden, Gertrude Stein, John Berryman, Anne Carson, Ilya Kaminsky, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Terrence Hayes.

Akbar occasionally plunges so deeply into a symboliste-style personal mythology that the average reader will lose all connection to authorial intent. Indeed, this may not be a weakness but a design feature—the cagey stage performance of Brechtian alienation without the talkback after the show. It is a principle of his artistic rendering. Indeed, bewilderment seems more than the reaction this particular reader has to some of these poems. Akbar sees the Dionysian as the glowing core of greatness in poetry, as something the poet must foster—as rubric, salve, and glossary to our political violence and madness:

“I really do sincerely feel that bewilderment is at the core of every great poem, and in order to be bewildered, you have to be able to wonder. You absolutely have to be permeable to wonder. Maintaining an orientation towards wonder in a time where the government is conspiring against it, in a time where black people are being murdered at the hands of the state, in a time when the Earth is very much trying to warn us about what we’re doing to it, maintaining an orientation towards wonder becomes really difficult. It’s the work that I have to do every day, the work of trying to find sources of wonder, even in our sadness and loneliness, or even in our anger.” 

But anger is not the impression that Akbar creates in his poetry, because he’s insistent and consistent in his dedication to wonderment. Given our retrograde political climate, we often seek despair rather than gratitude as a default mode of approaching our milieu. Akbar never despairs; he’s always grateful and generous. 

Like James Joyce, he’s forging in the smithy of his soul a new conscience. Yes, it’s about race, but also environmentalism, gender, and the impossibility of civilization itself. Indeed, Akbar adapts Benjamin’s famous quote as “Any document of civilization is also a document of barbarism.” Somehow, those barbaric documents can also be art, bells, music—poetic fortresses buttressing against despair. They can even inspire. Near the end, he quotes the Muslim Hadith: 

                                “How is the Divine Inspiration revealed to you?”

                                                      The Prophet replied,

                                 “Sometimes it is revealed like the ringing of a bell.”


Josh A. Brewer’s writing appears in RHINO, Poetry Quarterly, Natural Bridge, Booth, Southeast Rev., Yemassee, Poets Against War, and Sargasso. He published a book, Writers Resist, with Chatter House Press (2017).

He has taught writing at University of Miami, Purdue University, University of South Carolina, Tennessee State, and Aquinas College.