A Bell Tolls

Randolph-Macon professor and poet Kaveh Akbar meditates on his current stage of life.

His first full collection, Calling a Wolf a Wolf, dealt with the struggles of addiction and isolation attached to such troubles. It is not surprising that Akbar has turned to religion (well, spirituality to say the least) after achieving steady sobriety. Yet, addiction is never cured; it is something you live with and deal with daily. Pilgrim Bell meditates on what it means to be in this world and how we navigate its sharp corners and sharper tongues. Iranian-born, Akbar considers his father and his birth religion (Islam) in several of his poems, slyly making them political (“We Did It To Hiroshima, We Can Do It To Tehran”) and pointing out the idea of how education is flawed and a matter for further discussion, further Foucaultian examination.

The title poems have periods like bulletholes—like a driveby that got flirty. These punctuate the text and make reading interesting connecting through disconnection. With each little phrase, there’s a choice as to whether to attach the previous one or the proceeding one. Here the author seems to allow the reader the option of deciding how to read the poem, not forcing a concrete idea, a concrete interpretation. Yet, I think the meaning of these “bell tolls,” these poems that are scattered across the entire collection have a clear message, or, at least, not an overly abstract one.

“I needed / fewer moving pats / an hourglass / has thousands” is from the penultimate poem, “Against Memory.” These little written treasures can be found all throughout Pilgrim Bell. He takes the minute and deconstructs and reconstructs and allows a new perspective to arise from that task. And like his line about a library sinking into the ground because the architect didn’t consider the number of books—their weight—Akbar also says this about the heart. That all the small things we put in it (“data”) can weigh it, and thus us, down.

This collection is not better than his last one, but it goes in a different direction, explores language and form and the spirit. Though at times the collection seems slightly hollow (in what way I cannot completely ascertain or assert), the amount of “self” exposed and given over to the reader is startling. Perhaps said hollowness is the lack of maternal involvement. Yes, Akbar mentions his mother, but never as fully as his father. In one poem she merely “fried eggplant.” Is this enough to show a woman in her traditionally domestic role? Is it a criticism about how his mother cares or doesn’t care about her social station? There needs to be a little more here, more meat, not some half-cooked vegetable.

But again, Akbar is very honest with the reader—or at least it seems like he is. Pilgrim Bell dives 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 are coming from but not enough to fully dissect and behold a body of flesh and veins and blood and bones. He allows us to see him as much as he wants to. This, I suppose, is a sort of therapy, a getting comfortable with speaking (well…writing) to an audience. In all, this collection does deliver a message on a personal and universal level. Kaveh Akbar considers his role and station in society and where he came from, mixing all these facets together with his unerring diction and sophistication of language to communicate with us, to reach out to us, and to try to tether many minds through a work of literature in order that we might understand one another better.


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Konstantin Rega
A graduate of East Anglia’s renowned Creative Writing MA, Konstantin’s been published by the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Poetry Salzburg Review, www.jonimitchell.com, the Republic of Consciousness Prize (etc.). He contributes to Publisher Weekly and Treblezine.
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