Why We Chose Kaveh Akbar’s Pilgrim Bell for The Rumpus Poetry Book Club


When I first sat down with Pilgrim Bell, forthcoming from Graywolf Press on August 3 but available to our Poetry Book Club members in just a few weeks, I looked for a definition or description of a pilgrim bell, just to fix in my mind what Kaveh Akbar might have had in mind when building this book. I ran into a problem, namely that page after page of the results were about this book—or were ads for handsome wristwatches made by Pilgrim, a Montreal jewelry firm. I’m not going to say that my search for meaning here turned into a pilgrimage of its own, but it did take me a bit longer than I expected, and the results were uncertain at best.

Here’s what I mean by uncertainty: when I did find images of things called pilgrim bells, they were either handheld bells of fairly ornate design, the kind of thing one might imagine penitents ringing as they make their way along the path to their sacred place, or they were large bells installed in a holy place, whose tolling might call out to those seeking meaning and purpose and perhaps even salvation.

Before I tell you more, a quick reminder that in order to receive your early copy of Pilgrim Bell, read along with the Poetry Book Club, and participate in our exclusive chat with Kaveh Akbar, you’ll need to subscribe by June 15!

Six of the poems in this collection are titled “Pilgrim Bell,” and they’re set apart by their shared form as well as their shared title. All of the “Pilgrim Bell” poems have shorter lines throughout, but more importantly, they’re strongly punctuated. Overly punctuated, in fact. As in every single line is end-stopped and many of them, even though the lines rarely exceed six words, are stopped within the line itself. Here’s an example of what I mean, from the third “Pilgrim Bell” on page 23:

This is the season where grace.
Is the likeliest. Where the uttermost.
Angels weight down our galaxy.
With their sound. A silver ring.
Lost in the bedsheets is still.

A silver ring. You can either be.
More holy or more full but.

Not both. See how the hot.
Element glows red. How.
Honey cools the tea. Suppose.
There was a reason for it.
Suppose there wasn’t.

Formally, this poem does the polar opposite of what you expect it to do. Most of these lines beg to be enjambed. It’s difficult not to read them that way. It’s hard to stop over and over again when your every impulse is to do what the language is telling you to do, which is move forward. It feels unnatural to just read “You can either be” and not continue it onto the next line, and the impulse is even greater when that line ends on “but.” But what? And yet, the stops also create individual moments that tingle my ear, like “Angels weight down our galaxy.” I’m glad that the poem forced me to linger on that notion for a moment before moving on. An entire collection of poems that did this would wear on me, I think, but here there are only six and they serve as signposts, as reminders of the journey the reader is on.

There are so many other poems in this book I could spend time writing on, but then what would we have to talk about in the book club, or with Kaveh Akbar in our exclusive author chat? If you subscribe to the Rumpus Poetry Book Club by June 15, you’ll receive your early copy of Pilgrim Bell, and will be invited to take part in our exclusive online chat with Kaveh Akbar in early August. I hope you’ll join us!

Brian Spears is Senior Poetry Editor of The Rumpus and the author of A Witness in Exile (Louisiana Literature Press, 2011). His poem “Upon Reading That Andromeda Will One Day Devour Triangulum and Come For Us Next” was featured in Season 9 of Motion Poems. More from this author →