We—a PhD candidate in English and an undergraduate student studying economics, both at the University of Notre Dame, both poets and lovers of poetry—began corresponding via email about poetry in the fall of 2020, when the pandemic prevented many connections and enabled many others. What follows is an extension of that correspondence, written over the long, hot summer months of 2021, exchanges between Indiana, Italy, and Indiana again.
Thinking about Kaveh Akbar in conversation felt right to us, as Akbar is a great facilitator of conversations through his teaching, his interview work on Divedapper, his “Poetry Rx” advice column in The Paris Review, and his much-missed presence in the poetry corner of Twitter. For the past few years (pre-pandemic) Akbar also organized an event that brought together graduate students from each of the MFA programs in Indiana, to foster connections, support, and exchange among writers in our shared Midwest home.
As a review, these letters are fundamentally a recommendation: we loved this book.
As a conversation, these letters are an experiment in thinking through and with Pilgrim Bell, particularly the collection’s preoccupation with spirituality, suffering, and language, and with what we know and might not wish to know.
I’m writing to you from Trastevere, in Rome, where bells ring every hour but I still have no sense of time. I think the difference is six hours from South Bend, but I wake up in the morning after it is already light and no one needs me, so the day goes by fast and slow, and I have no need to know the time.
I’m thinking this morning—afternoon—about Kaveh Akbar’s Pilgrim Bell, which you and I are reviewing collaboratively. Pilgrim Bell is filled with bells and language and disorientation; it is preoccupied with what we know and what that knowing costs us. As he writes in “My Empire,” thinking about what both a poem and a weapon know about precision: “because of this knowing: a pile of rubble.” The most profound, and most spiritual, question Akbar asks is whether not knowing might offer some relief from suffering.
Oh, does this book suffer, through self-loathing (“To say it plainly, // that I don’t trust myself? / And that I never will?”), through doubt (“ask me again / about my doubt”), through avoidance (“Doing. / One thing is a way. / Of not doing. / Everything else.”). More than anything, though, the collection suffers in language, suffers in the “Idiot poem” made with “idiot hands” that can only make “sloppy postures of praise.”
At dinner last night I talked to an Italian translator who specializes in American poetry. He told me that translation is like playing piano, the translator interprets and performs the score, which is the poem. The translator, like the pianist, increases our understanding of the art. But when he turned to our companion and spoke in Italian, I understood nothing. Gestures, friendship, laughter, no scrap of the language reached me. Akbar writes, in the middle of the collection, that language goes on “filling us with words / like seawater filling a lung.” But in a pleasant way, the language which is not mine allowed my mind to wander free, buoyed on top of the flow of conversation like a swimmer laying on their back, looking at the impossibly far sky while the water below which holds them up is deep, and dark blue.
But of course Italian is not my language, and English does not push down on my heart and history and self the way it does in Pilgrim Bell, and Kaveh Akbar does not recommend silence as a solution to the downward pull. He writes that “there is room in the language for being / without language.” Is this room (which in Italian is stanza, each break in the poem making a little room to move through) the room where I sit silent as a language I do not know washes over me? Or is this the room where I sit alone with these poems and hear them ringing in my heart and head?
I am very glad there is no seawater filling your lungs. For reasons both practical and spiritual, of course. As Akbar reminds us: “You can either be. / More holy or more full but. // Not both.” (This is an adage I hope does not apply to Italian food!)
I’m writing to you from somewhere more waterlogged than sea-side. July in the midwest is “Submission, resistance, surrender,” a wrestling match between swamp-like humidity and scorching heat. We are practically breathing in the clouds.
In any case, your reflections prompt thoughts on why foreign language immersion can be so revolutionary for one’s understanding of self. Our experience of sound gives us insight into both the vibration, and the shape of the thing that contains it. I’m smitten with these lines from the second of the six poems titled “Pilgrim Bell”:
The difference between.
A real voice and the other kind.
The way its air vibrates
Through you. The way air.
Vibrates. The violence.
In your middle ear.
The way new sounds vibrate through you when you hear a language you don’t quite understand reminds me of walking through a domed mosque, or a cathedral. Your own whispers grow to a gargantuan size when you walk in. That your sound is louder here tells you what kind of a space it is. That it has high ceilings, that the dome is hollow. When you talk in a hollow space, the space listens, allows itself to be transformed and revealed more clearly.
All this attention in Pilgrim Bell to language and sound, to knowing and not knowing, to translation… I can’t help but relate to my own experience as a native English speaker listening to Islamic Scripture. Formally, the Quran is only recited in Arabic. Like your translator in Italy, like Akbar writing, I have always had some urge to interpret (but undoubtedly create) meaning in my own language, to translate words, to move sound from box to box: “This poem wants me to translate it too.”
But the urge is not so strong that I open up the dictionary. Somehow, the Quran reaches me best in Arabic. It is meant to be read with tajweed: beautifying diction and expressive oscillations of sound’s pitch and placement.
Tajweed emphasizes vibrations—it pulls every nook and cranny of the language into the body, everywhere there is an arch, any space holding air: in the tip of my nose, the inner curve of my ribs, my cheeks, the fuzzy space between my brain and skull. In the mosque, in the piano’s cavernous interior, in the bell that tolls with divine vibration. In you, buoyed up by the sea, looking up at the endlessly open sky.
Vibrations look for spaces to live, where they can transform. They tap away at calcified ways of speaking and being, until “blue light pulls in through. The long crack in my wall.” The sound makes space for the words. As Akbar writes near the end of Pilgrim Bell, in a poem titled “Against Memory”:
all of language began
with a single
Like sound itself, the poems in Pilgrim Bell are inseparable from their impact on physical space and bodies. They highlight tactile sensations, alerting us to absences and existences. Places that hold air waiting to be transformed.
“How do you fill a room with God?” Akbar asks at the opening of the collection. I wonder how I—“just one long desperation / to be filled”—could ever be so completely hollow.
Your letter reminded me that the bell in Pilgrim Bell rings over and over, six times in total, twice for each section of the collection. The call to salat is typically five, so if we take the bell to be the call to prayer, I’m curious what you make of the extra ring.
But Pilgrim Bell includes many religious references, not only to Islam. From across Akbar’s capacious knowledge of spiritual poetry, we meet St. Augustine (praying cheekily “Give me chastity and self-control, but not yet!”), the angel Gabriel (“would you call him Jibril, or Gabriel” Akbar asks himself, and us), the poet and minister John Donne, the decidedly un-saintly poet John Berryman, the enigmatic Canadian Anne Carson, the prophet Mohamad, the poet Hafez. This is a learned book, showing off its knowledge, its precision, vibrating (as you put it) with the language of many others.
In Italy I kept encountering depictions of St. Sebastian, the young man shot through with arrows. As you write so beautifully in your letter, Pilgrim Bell is concerned with the body, with impacts and woundings. When Akbar writes “real faith passes first through the body / like an arrow” I have to imagine he’s thinking of St. Sebastian.
The irony here is that St. Sebastian longed for a saintly death, but the arrows did not kill him. He survived to die another way, carrying the piercing of faith in his body forward into the world. Akbar, too, expresses longing to have his knowledge or faith removed, but the poems never quite allow for that compression. Like St. Sebastian, we have to find a way to survive.
Pilgrim Bell ends by offering us this advice on how to manage moving forward, staying open to the vibrations of language and knowledge even when it pains us:
How to live? reading poems,
I would only add: thinking with and through poetry in conversation, which feels to me like full, deep breath.
You ask me what I make of the sixth ring.
Perhaps the extra ring is a mistake. The sixth ring renders the Islamic canon of five inexact, no longer precisely to the score.
But suppose the sixth ring is grace giving another chance. Five missed prayers, or five “sloppy postures of praise,” yet always one more opportunity to be called again, to stand and begin another set?
The shells of electrons around an atom are often called rings too. An atom with six electrons in its outer rings, like oxygen, is very unstable, volatile, itching to grab another two electrons from anywhere to fill its outer ring and become stable. Other atoms can’t wait to get rid of their extra electrons, to empty their incomplete shells. I’ve always thought about atomic bonding as a struggle for relief from incompleteness, from the turmoil of having extra-yet-not-enough. This is probably why I am a poet and not a chemist.
When I first read Pilgrim Bell, what stuck out most was its emphasis on how knowledge fills us, stretches us, and alerts us to where we fall short of the divine—where we are incomplete. I like the story of Saint Sebastian…it shows us that it’s the pain of this duality, this dissonance, that reveals our humanity.
In a way, this last letter I’m writing felt like an extra ring. I’m not sure if it’s necessary to the review, but if anything, I hope it reveals our shared conversation is not yet complete—I will see you on campus in the fall, and we can pick up where we left off.
Sara Judy is a poet and PhD candidate in English at the University of Notre Dame, where she studies contemporary poetry, poetics, and religion & literature. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Entropy Mag, Ghost Proposal, EcoTheo Review and others. You can find her at sarajudy.com, or on Twitter @sarajudym.
Renee Yaseen is a poet and entrepreneur from Indiana. Her work has appeared in Bluing the Blade (2020), Open: Journal of Arts & Letters (2020), and Re:Visions (2021). When not writing, she designs AR games, makes music, and tweets @ReneeYaseen.