Pilgrim Bell: Poems

Graywolf. Aug. 2021. 80p. ISBN 9781644450598. pap. $16. POETRY
The poems in Akbar’s highly anticipated second collection (after Calling a Wolf a Wolf) span and invert boundaries, addressing addiction, faith, language, history, self, family, and power. Instead of purporting to provide answers (“obviousness ruins things”), the poems exist in between—“Somewhere between wonder. / And shame”—like the messy experience of being. Embedded in each poem is the question of how to live and what responsibility comes with knowledge: how to live as an addict after addiction; how to believe while reserving “the right. / To refuse. Enchantment”; how to exist in a nation that questions your existence. Probing the tension between doubt and faith, Akbar questions stories meant to console or justify: “That the prophets arrived not to ease our suffering / but to experience it seems—can I say this?— / a waste?” A wry wariness adds levity to the collection, as in a speaker’s exasperated response to a directive epigraph from John Donne: “yes John I tried that the results were / underwhelming.” The collection’s final poem, “The Palace,” is a tour de force that weaves all its themes into a powerfully resonant close.
VERDICT Lyrical, profound, and honest, the kind of collection to which a reader will return.
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