Friday, December 16, 2022

Kaveh Akbar's "Pilgrim Bell" - Delayed Gratification and Cotton Candy

 I was a big fan of Kaveh Akbar, though I am not sure how that came about. It was as if he emerged as an established and essential contemporary writer. His debut chapbook, Portrait of the Alcoholic absolutely floored me when it came out in early 2017. Akbar had (deservedly so) real literary bona fides, he was getting buzz in all the "right" journals, and in what seemed like fifteen seconds, his first full-length (Calling a Wolf a Wolf) was out (later in 2017) on Alice James Books. I even got to see Akbar give a reading in Detroit the morning of Jay Z's 4:44 tour stop at Little Caesar's Arena, which I only mention to say the poet in a humble arthouse living room was the better of the two performances I saw that day (not a slight on Jay Z, mind you).

But, 2017 was also the year I fell out of love with poetry stopped writing poetry. Something happened that both was and wasn't grad school, which I started in August of that very same year. I want to say I was "too busy" for poetry, but I wasn't. I want to say I was "too focused" and writing from another perspective, but I wasn't. Allow me a digression:

In early 2014 I applied to PhD programs as a solution to a problem that a PhD program wouldn't solve. I needed something to do, and in February of that year, I was still six months away from announcing to the Pacific Ocean that "I didn't get an M.F.A. to teach" (still one of the all-time dumbest things I ever said) and thus began my long, miserable slog to listless service industry life in San Francisco, then Oakland, then extradited back to Ohio. Sometimes I try to indulge in self-pitying reminiscence, but when I finally got a job teaching freshman composition at University of Michigan Dearborn, it felt earned through the self-destructive oblivion I had wrought for myself.

Not to be melodramatic, but when Akbar writes about his alcoholism, though I am not an alcoholic myself, I can relate - in the most Catholic sense - to the guilt he writes from. In Pilgrim Bell's titular poem, he writes:

"I demand.

To be forgiven. 

I demand.

A sturdier soul."

I needed "a sturdier soul" to rediscover poetry, maybe I felt like I needed forgiveness for the stupid shit I had done to myself and to my loved ones. I thought of poetry, between 2017 and 2022, as a vector for teaching. I wrote a little, published a few poems, but was mostly focused on poetry as a means for exciting young writers into, well, writing. Any means necessary.

I distinctly remember being excited at the beginning of the pandemic (hold on this will make sense) for two reasons: first, I had finished coursework and with a lightened teaching load at my two campuses would have more time to focus on my own dissertation writing and, second, a bunch of good poetry was coming out and I would finally have time to get back in the habit of reading poems and writing poems of my own.

Turns out writing a dissertation is hugely difficult and all-consuming. Pilgrim Bell came out in August 2021, two weeks before my defense. One week after my defense I started a new job. Two weeks after that we bought a house and moved into it. Two weeks after that I began looking for a permanent job to replace my one-year visiting appointment at Detroit Mercy. Two months after that Ben was born. Turns out having an infant is hugely difficult and all-consuming.

In another of the sequence of titular poems in the book, Akbar writes: "The self I am today. / Involves me. / As a lake. / Involves. / Its cattails. / It bears me."

Early in my M.F.A., I had been so concerned with what poets were instead of what poets did (write poems, dumbass). I wish I'd approached my craft back then with the same no-bullshit I approach teaching, which was to lean into the many selves I could be while being Writing Teacher. That made it effortless, enjoyable, natural, rewarding. It's why I know my students like me, it's why I can leave every morning happy, it's why while I might come home depleted, my spirit is still full.

The self I have been since Ben was born involves me as a father, which itself involves many, many things. Recently, I have been reading him books to sleep, but since Ben hasn't acquired language yet I can kind of read him anything I want. Star Wars fiction, card game rule books, and lots of poetry. Turns out "the sturdier soul" I needed, to rediscover that love of poetry, wasn't my own. It was his.

And to him, while finally digging into this book that I had been so excited about by a poet who excites me so greatly, I found tremendous delayed gratification in the work. Pilgrim Bell crosses the impossible threshold that Portrait set, it floored me almost on every single page. The work is humble, and sweeping, and generous, and selfish. It is confessional, and honest; it is what my poems aspire to be. Its hilarious.

Take, for example, "Cotton Candy" which opens with a John Donne quote: "To go to heaven, we make heaven come to us" and begins with the line: "yes John I tried that the results were / underwhelming my liver practically / leapt out of my body." That's bleak, sure, but its also very funny. This poem, fixating on Akbar's mother as many of the poems in the book do, ends with such a tremendous image that I hope sits with you as long as it has sat with me:

        my mother hated rides

she was happy to buy me cotton candy and

        sit on a bench


                she'd watch me eat the whole bag

I think of fear, and guilt, obsession. I watch Ben doze. Reading him these poems while he is too small to understand them is a bag of cotton candy I will watch him eat every night. Smiling. Forgiving myself. Fortifying that sturdier soul - one which is lightened - as new loves (sons, fatherhood, poetry) flood back into me, familiar again. 

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