Book Review

Kaveh Akbar is concerned with space: both the empty space where something used to be and the physical space on a page and the way his words occupy the area—or don’t.

Fittingly then, Pilgrim Bell, Akbar’s second full-length book of poetry, is a pondering of the space he occupies in America, a place where “People die because they look like him,” referencing his father. It’s a book about finding a way to fit his whole Muslim, Persian self into the country because “There are no doors in America. / Only king-sized holes.”

In addition to the “king-sized holes,” there’s the space inside ourselves. What occupies it? Is our idea of what we’re made of correct? Or are our ideas too hopeful and naive?

On first
inspecting Adam, the devil entered his lips.

Watch: the devil enters Adam’s lips,
crawls through his throat through his guts
to finally emerge out his anus.

He’s all hollow! the devil giggles.
He knows his job will be easy, a human is just one long desperation
to be filled.

But, perhaps, the devil misunderstands Adam’s hollowness. Akbar also writes how such space is useful:

Imagine the emptiness in you, the vast cavities you have spent your life trying to fill—with fathers, mothers, lovers, language, drugs, money, art, praise—and imagine them gone. What’s left? Whatever you aren’t, which is what makes you—a house useful not because its floorboards or ceilings or walls, but because the empty space between them. 

Akbar further examines empty spaces by playing with the literal space on a page. Consider “Palace Mosque, Frozen,” a collection of just eight lines arranged in two concentric squares without a single punctuation mark. It invites readers to play a role in the reading: they not only have to figure out where the poem starts, but literally turn the book on its side and upside down to follow the trail of Akbar’s words. In a book that sprinkles Farsi here and there, it’s easy to see why a concrete poem not only appeals to Akbar, but fits right in with the narrative: as the German concrete poet Max Bense said, “Concrete poetry does not separate languages; it unites them, it combines them.” Akbar’s resulting picture, in fact, becomes another language, another means of communication.

Though “Palace Mosque, Frozen” might be the book’s only obvious concrete poem, others come close, forming what Eugen Gomringer, a pioneer of the concrete poetry movement, called “constellations.” In “Against Memory,” Akbar writes, “I need / fewer moving parts // an hourglass / has thousands // a sundial has only // the earth // haven’t I always been happiest / when a little simple.” The poem spreads across two pages, and its words spiral and cyclone down, a constellation befitting an hourglass.

Akbar further asks his audience to get involved with his poetry beyond the role of mere reader in “In the Language of Mammon,” where, to make any sense of the poem, readers need to either hold the page in front of the mirror or spend time with every word, even prepositions and articles, to decipher Akbar’s language (translating the piece in this way is especially tricky when the readers gets to the italicized lines and those in Latin). In the notes of Pilgrim Bell, Akbar includes a debt of gratitude to “the elegance of written RTL (right-to-left) languages such as Farsi and Arabic.” Certainly an Arabic or Farsi speaker wouldn’t think so, but to someone illiterate in those languages, the backward English text does seem to mimic the Arabic script.

In memoir, be it prosaic or poetic, fact and truth can be two different things. Something that is factually inaccurate can hold more truth in its telling, its hope, its confession than something that actually happened. Of course they can be one and the same, but there is a difference. The truth in “My Father’s Accent,” however, left me dumbstruck—in the best way possible. I first read the poem in the April 2021 Poem-a-Day email from The Academy of the American Poets. While the piece makes no mention of the poet’s national background, the truth found between the lines of the third stanza whispers the facts of Akbar’s history: “an accent isn’t a sound. / Only those to whom it seems alien / would flatten an accent to a sound,” and concluding the poem, “My father speaks in perfect English.” As I absorbed the words, I heard my father’s voice. A native Iranian, his first language is Assyrian, but he speaks Farsi as well; the lilt and melody to the way he speaks is inimitable. I’ve tried—I cannot replicate it. I won’t be so bold as to intimate that I knew this poet was Persian based on those four lines, but it seemed to me more probability than possibility. Then, in the poem, Akbar moves into dismissal of “this lifeless American snow,” which called to mind my father’s insistence that no one in America knows what a rose is supposed to smell like. The scent of long-stemmed limbs that say “I love you” or “I’m sorry” are a mere caricature of the perfume of wild roses in Iran. Later, Akbar admits of dead grass and rabbit tracks in the snow, “But even that’s a lie //. . . I can’t write this // without trying to make it / beautiful.” Akbar tells the reader outright: his words may tell a story that never happened, but the fiction comprises more truth than a fact would.

He further contemplates the difference between fact and truth in “There are 7,000 Living Languages”: “The deviators // follow the poets. / See them wander // in the valley, / saying that which they do not?” and “There is something terrible / beneath all I am able to say.” Similar to the poem written in mirror-image letters, Akbar invites his audience to read between the lines and find his shadow story—the truth he doesn’t share outright, but that unveils itself with each page turn. Akbar may not feel like he belongs in this country. . .

At his elementary school in an American suburb,
a boy’s shirt says: “We Did It to Hiroshima, We Can Do It to Tehran!”

. . . These parents want their boy
to want to melt my family,
and I live among them. 

. . . and he wants his readers to know this, to feel this injustice and absurdity—and then to accept and welcome him.

About the Reviewer

Jaclyn Youhana Garver is a freelance writer and editor from Fort Wayne, Indiana. Her poetry has appeared in Prometheus Dreaming, Poets Reading the News, Narrow Road, the Superstition Review blog, and trampset, and is forthcoming in The Oakland Review. She has also written book reviews for Entropy, The Literary Review, Poetry International Online, and Green Mountains Review. She was a scholarship recipient and attendee at Tupelo Press’s Perfecting the Book workshop in January. She is working on her first poetry book and a novel.