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Iranian American Poet Kaveh Akbar
Photo Credit: Poet’s Website

My Poetry Corner October 2021 features the poem “My Empire” from the poetry collection Pilgrim Bell: Poems (Graywolf Press, 2021) by Iranian American poet Kaveh Akbar. Born in Tehran to an American mother and Iranian father, Kaveh was two years old when his family migrated to the United States, first settling in Pennsylvania. When Kaveh was five years old, they moved to the Midwest, living in Wisconsin and later Indiana. Since his parents only spoke English at home, the poet speaks little Farsi, his first language.

Akbar earned his MFA at Butler University in Indiana and a PhD in creative writing from Florida State University. He currently teaches at Purdue University (Indiana) and in the low-residency MFA programs at Randolph College (Virginia) and Warren Wilson College (North Carolina). Since September 2020, he also serves as the poetry editor of the progressive magazine, The Nation.

Pilgrim Bell is Akbar’s second poetry following his recovery from alcohol addiction. In “Seven Years Sober,” he writes: Trust God but tie your camel. Trust / God. The bottle by the bed the first / few weeks. Just in case. Trust…. He acknowledges in “Cotton Candy” that his mother wept nightly for eight years / my living / curled its hands around her throat / not choking exactly but like the squeeze / of an outgrown collar…

A quest for the divine in life’s joys and struggles lies at the core of Akbar’s collection. Six of the 35 poems share the book’s title, “Pilgrim Bell.” In his interview with Kate Tuttle for the Boston Globe, Akbar said that he was “really moved by the idea that the bell is a kind of devotional technology powered by the heft of a human body.” What is striking about these six poems is the poet’s use of the period at the end of each line, leaving me the reader off balanced and confused with a sense of stammering. In the second “Pilgrim Bell” poem, in which the poet explores his need for a savior to make himself whole, he writes:

My savior has powers and he needs.
To be convinced to use them.
Up until now he has been.
A no-call no-show. Curious menace.

In his conversation with David Naimon for Tin House Magazine, Akbar explained the stuttering, stammering effect: “You’re never going to make a poem that equals God, you’re never going to make a poem that equals justice, land, grief, loneliness, or desire. To my mind, there has to be some acknowledgement of the gulf between what is said and what is meant. There has to be some fracture that indicates that the poem is gesturing towards something that it can’t actually reach.”

The fracture between the supplicant’s pleas for mercy and self-power for change is evident in “The Miracle” in which the poet speaks of the human desire for divine intervention when faced with a crisis. The miracle is to have [Archangel] Gabriel squeeze away…the emptiness in you, the vast cavities you have spent your life trying to fill—with fathers, mothers, lovers, language, drugs, money, art, praise—and imagine them gone. The poet concludes:

No. Gabriel won’t be coming for you. Too fear to move. You too pebble to stone. Too saddle to horse. Too crime to pay. Gabriel, no. Not anymore. You too gone to save. Too bloodless to martyr. Too diamond to charcoal. Too nation to earth. You brute, cruel pebble. Gabriel. God of man. No. Cheese on a cracker. Mercy. Mercy.

Echoing these admonitions of the conflicting state of the human soul, the featured poem, “My Empire,” speaks of the poet’s comfortable life while America’s enemies suffer from the empire’s wrath.

My empire made me
happy because it was an empire
and mine.

I was too stupid to rage at anything.

[…]

My empire made me happy
so I loved, easily, its citizens—such loving
a kind of birth, an introduction to pain.

Whatever I learn makes me angry to have learned it.

The new missiles can detect a fly’s heartbeat
atop a pile of rubble from 6,000 miles away.
That flies have hearts, 104 cells big, that beat.

And because of this knowing:
a pile of rubble.

[…]

My empire made me happy
because it was an empire, cruel,

and the suffering wasn’t my own.

The poet asks in “The Palace,” the final poem in the collection, Who here [in the palace] could claim to be merely guilty? / The mere. // My life / growing monstrous / with ease.  

To read the complete featured poem, “My Empire,” and learn more about the work of the Iranian American poet Kaveh Akbar, go to my Poetry Corner October 2021.