In poet Kaveh Akbar’s latest collection, six of the 35 poems share the book’s title, “Pilgrim Bell.” It’s not accidental. “So much of the book works through repetition and recursion,” said Akbar, who added that he is “really moved by the idea that the bell is a kind of devotional technology powered by the heft of a human body. In a lot of ways that lines up with the way I think about poetry as well.”
Akbar, who was born in Tehran and came to the U.S. as a toddler, experiments with form and language throughout these poems, some of which contain phrases in Farsi, his first language, now mostly lost. “I’m somewhere in the purgatorial space between incomprehension and fluency,” he said. “Everything that we know about linguistics teaches us that languages that we learn shape the way that we think about the world. It’s interesting to walk in the awareness of that gulf.”
Spiritual seeking is at the center of Akbar’s work here. “When you say you’re Muslim, people think you rolled out of the womb with a full beard holding a Quran. Like anything else there’s a spectrum,” said Akbar, who is editing the Penguin Book of Spiritual Verse, out next spring. “I spend a lot of time with the Bhagavad Gita, and Gilgamesh, and the Psalms. I’m eager to learn from anyone who has something to teach me.”
As for his own readers, Akbar said he hopes they find his work useful. “I hope that the poems find their way into the lives of people who I would never otherwise be able to meet,” he said, “and might illuminate something for them about living.”
Kaveh Akbar will read and be in conversation with Angel Nafis at 7 p.m. Tuesday in a virtual event hosted by Harvard Book Store.
Kate Tuttle, a freelance writer and critic, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.