Kaveh Akbar’s Pilgrim Bell (Graywolf Press) is a ringing re-examination of everything we call holy. Akbar comes out swinging when the epigraph reads “Any text that is not a holy text is an apostasy”. The next page is blank, and then almost towards the bottom of the next page, an unitalicized: “Then it is a holy text”.
The first poem, “Pilgrim Bell,” feels like a spell. It gave me the feeling of an ominous bell ringing. Akbar uses sharp punctuation throughout this collection in order to consistently raise the stakes, making you feel as if you’re running out of time; maybe it’s because of “the vast cavities you have spent your life trying to fill…. You too full to eat. You too / locked to door”. I’ve never read the resistance of humanity in such a beautiful way before. “How do they heaven, upset like that?”
Movement is essential in life, no matter what you believe. “Like a sundial gone bad. Like your own name. Dead set like that”. The way Akbar uses punctuation and certainty makes the reader have to keep stopping, almost in a frustrating way. It made me crave movement. I wanted to run. It’s incredibly exciting when a poem has a physical impact like that, and not an experience that happens with every collection. “The value/ of joy is in its / asking, what now shall I repair?” Akbar uses diction to ask us what shall we repair? Where do you need movement in your life?
Akbar is particularly good at transforming the reality of the poem. You start the poem in whatever mindset you came to it in, and line after line, the poem takes you somewhere else. In an episode of VS. The Podcast, Kimiko Hahn talks about how poems are portals – how they take us somewhere when we walk through them. Pilgrim Bell takes you to a different you, past, present, and future. Each poem twisted my reality in such a way that it didn’t fully twist back. A new flexibility. Soon this will be a coveted favorite. It will be by my bed or in a spot on my crowded bookshelf that can be easily reached. This collection is truly special, and “Whatever it is, I’ll take the whole / bouquet”.