Professor and poet Randolph-Macon Kaveh Akbar reflects on the current stage of his life.
His first complete collection, Call a wolf a wolf, dealt with the struggles of addiction and isolation linked to such disorders. It’s no surprise that Akbar turned to religion (well, spirituality to say the least) after achieving constant sobriety. Yet addiction is never cured; it’s something you live with and deal with on a daily basis. Pilgrim’s bell meditate on what it means to be in this world and how we navigate its sharp angles and sharper tongues. Of Iranian descent, Akbar considers his father and his native religion (Islam) in several of his poems, making them slyly political (“We Did It To Hiroshima, We Can Do It To Tehran”) and emphasizing the idea of how education is flawed and open to debate, a closer Foucauldian examination.
The title poems have periods like bullet holes, like a driveby that turned flirty. These punctuate the text and make it interesting to read from connection to disconnection. With each little sentence, there is the choice of attaching the previous or the previous one. Here, the author seems to leave the reader with the possibility of deciding how to read the poem, without forcing a concrete idea, a concrete interpretation. Still, I think the meaning of these “bell rings”, these poems that are scattered throughout the collection have a clear message, or at least not too abstract.
“I needed / less strokes / an hourglass / I have thousands” is taken from the penultimate poem “Against memory”. These little written treasures are found everywhere Pilgrim’s bell. It takes the minute and deconstructs and reconstructs and allows a new perspective to emerge from this task. And like his phrase about a bookcase sinking into the ground because the architect didn’t take into account the number of books – their weight – Akbar also says this about the heart. That all the little things we put in it (“data”) can weigh it, and therefore us, weigh.
This collection is no better than the previous one, but it goes in a different direction, exploring language, form and spirit. Although at times the collection seems slightly hollow (in which way I can’t verify or fully assert it), the amount of “self” exposed and given to the reader is surprising. Maybe this hollow is the lack of maternal involvement. Yes, Akbar mentions his mother, but never as completely as his father. In a poem, she was satisfied with “fried eggplant”. Is this enough to show a woman in her traditionally domestic role? Is this a criticism of how her mother cares or doesn’t care about her social standing? There needs to be a little more here, more meat, no half-cooked vegetables.
But again, Akbar is very honest with the reader – or at least it looks like he is. Pilgrim’s bell plunges into spirituality and his past life, yet these episodes with his father, mother or brother are cleverly malnourished. He gives us enough to see where his opinions and ideas come from, but not enough to completely dissect and contemplate a body of flesh, veins, blood and bones. He lets us see him as much as he wants. This, I guess, is a kind of therapy, a comfortable way of speaking (well … writing) to an audience. In short, this collection delivers a message on a personal and universal level. Kaveh Akbar considers his role and position in society and where he comes from, mixing all these facets with his infallible diction and the sophistication of his language to communicate with us, reach out to us and try to attach many minds to through literature work so that we can better understand each other.
Buy a copy at the bookstore.