A self-critical element is flourishing in contemporary poetry. Many poets speak as if they feel that you, reader, won’t trust them unless they make visible their own limitations, failings, and uglinesses. Partly it’s about managing expectations—this is not an age of heroes, and it’s good sometimes, as Robert Hass has written, for poetry to “disenchant.” “Disintoxicate,” as Auden has it. Partly, then, it’s a response to the deepening cynicism of life under republican capitalism. This is an age, after all, that’s produced a book called The Hatred of Poetry. In an ugly world, a performance that’s expressly aware of its performance offers one route to beauty, and one way to be aware is to call attention to the flaws in our facades. Not only the beauty of tearing away the mask, but the beauty of the dream of credibility. To hew this way is always political, but it’s also mystical only once in a while. And it’s at this crossroads, where the mystical and the political cross, that Kaveh Akbar writes.
Mysticism — you could gather under that roof Thomas Traherne, William Blake, Sa’di, Madonna — seems to draw on a longing for union with an unnamable that sometimes goes by the name God. “Forfeiting my Mystique” is a poem that appears in Akbar’s latest collection, his second. A title that, like the poems, fiercely claims and at the same time, ever self-skeptical, sheds the family of ideas “mystique” seems to gesture at: mystery, mysticism, spirituality, awe. Their opposites lurk like shadows: certainty, banality, cynicism, exhaustion. The book comes in four unnumbered and unnamed sections. Pilgrim Bell, the book is called, because the religious imagination is, for this poet, synonymous with the imagination itself: poetry as pilgrimage. The journey is emphasized by the style. In many of the poems there’s a period at the end of each line regardless of syntax. Akbar has decoupled punctuation and syntax. The effect is dramatic but hard to describe. Is it the representation of a dance between the will and hesitation, the dance of a seeker doubting willfully forward? The poems seem to know that the desire that frees us is the same desire that enthralls. Akbar repeats key phrases totemically but gently, here and there, giving the book some of its song. Repetition registers trauma as well as ecstasy. Reinscribes, remembers — but, sometimes, releases.
Releases what? Releases us back into our own emptiness? To flounder again in what Yeats called “the rag and bone shop of the heart?” Hafez, in Basil Bunting’s translation, cries out in anguish and resignation and awe: “O everlastingly self-deluded!” The loneliness and singularity of the inner war, as much as the war that fills the daily news, fuels Akbar’s poetry. But it’s always an inner war brought on by the conditions of the outer. Pilgrim Bell’s fourth section is a long poem called “The Palace,” a poem that really rips, that moves with great range and verve from the symbol of the quotidian — the “lettuce spinner” of daily life — to the mythic — “There are no good kings. / Only beautiful palaces.” Plain, declarative, woven with small refrains: clarity, said Darwish, is among the great mysteries. As in this bit, from the short lyric called “Seven Years Sober”:
Trust God but tie your camel. Trust
God. The bottle by the bed the first
few weeks. Just in case. Trust.
After the nights of too-relaxed-to-
breathe. After the nights — no repetition,
only insistence. Trust.
Buying raspberries to
watch them rot. Dipping bread in water.
Trust. You find a gold tooth washed up
on the beach. So long in coming …
JN: Part of the aesthetic you’re after, it seems to me, is a grappling with ethics, with how poems help us (or don’t) to live, and to live better, truer, with more humility and empathy. Sometimes the tolling of the bell beckons us on, sometimes it hounds us, sometimes it merely keeps time as time slides by. The word “goodness” occurs in several poems in the new book, and never as an epithet. One of the effects of the kind of line you use here is a halting sensation, as if the pilgrim’s very voice is weighted with existential chains. A kind of constantly interrupted desire. How do you understand the relationship between the work of the imagination and the work of the spirit?
KA: Poetry is a spiritual technology. Given the meagerness of my instruments for apprehending existence — my body compromised by its mortality, my language compromised by its relentlessly violent history — poetry as a technology has seemed to get me a bit closer than anything else. Barely. The way standing on a roof trying to grab the moon gets one a bit closer than standing on the floor.
Being good — that’s a matter of translating abstract spiritual and/or ethical principles into something as dull and practical as corporeal behavior. And then, as one accrues new experience, constantly and endlessly calibrating both the principles and the behavior. It’s as frustrating and damned as it sounds. Goodness is a horizon, one we march towards forever and at which we never arrive. But it’s that marching that keeps us good. Or moving toward goodness. I did an event once with the poet Ross Gay where we were talking around this idea, and he said, “good means trying.” Good means trying. I can’t improve upon that.
I’d never want to speak universally or prescriptively about this. In my case, the poems go out ahead of me. If I could say in rhetorical language — like how we’re speaking to each other now — what I actually mean when I say “God,” when I say “grace,” when I say “dead,” when I say “justice,” I wouldn’t need the poems. I could just write brochures. The poems illuminate what my intelligence, my ego, cannot. And that illumination indelibly guides my living.