Pilgrim Bell by Kaveh Akbar is a collection of poems that questions, asserts, and plays with the speaker’s place in religion, family, and America. Akbar works to create a narrative that, in a sense, is fearful of God, but soon traces his fear, not to God, but to the Americans he is surrounded by. Akbar writes about how he immigrated to America from Iran, being Muslim, and is continuously questioned and berated by people who despise him for no reason. The starkest of this is in the repeated lines, “At his elementary school in an American suburb,/a boy’s shirt says: “We Did It to Hiroshima, We Can Do It to Tehran!””. I loved the way Akbar is able to draw upon what we believe children, and the innocence that is associated with childhood, to be and defile that thinking with complete hatred given to the boy by his parents. It speaks to a much greater and sadder reality of the positive feedback loop of xenophobia in America.
Though, I found the poem that struck a deep chord in me was in ‘How Prayers Work’ where Akbar and his brother attempt to pray but his brother trips over a doorstop and they laugh uncontrollably. The final stanza was what blew me away. “It’s not that we forgot God or the martyrs or the Prophet’s holy word—quite the opposite, in fact, we were boys built to love what was right in front of our faces: my brother and I draped across each other, laughing tears into our prayer rugs.” This, I felt was the turning point in his understanding of Islam, and thus worked to show him that religion was much more than what he was taught. I found the repeated used of the different ‘Pilgrim Bell’ poems worked to keep a rhythm, both inside the stanzas with shorter, choppier phrases, and also in the collection as a whole being interspersed periodically. I also loved the poems ‘Reza’s Restaurant, Chicago, 1997’, ‘In the Language of Mammon’, ‘There is No Such Thing as an Accident of the Spirit’, and ‘Seven Years Sober’. This collection was powerful, heartfelt, and worked to create a sense of longing for family, religion, and peace within the self.
Final Rating: 5/5
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Maxwell Suzuki is a writer, poet, and photographer based in Los Angeles.