Book Review: “The Family Book of Martyrs” by Benjamin Myers

The Family Book of Martyrs by Benjamin Myers
Review by Justin Lacour
Lamar University Press, 2022


In an interview, the poet Benjamin Myers observed, “While I admire poets like Frank O’Hara who can live totally in the moment, my poems are often an attempt to inhabit the past and the present simultaneously.” The poems in Myers’ latest collection, The Family Book of Martyrs, do exactly that, with family history floating to the surface of the present time.

However, the poet is not content simply to revisit the past. Rather, the book finds poignancy in “the sacrifice of every mom, / dad, brother, sister . . . what we gave and what we took.” The poems recognize the sacredness of these everyday sacrifices and point to the peculiar holiness found in family life. Included in Myers’ poems are some extraordinarily moving portraits of fathers and reflections on what it means to be a father.

“Benediction, 1982” goes back to the speaker’s childhood when he encountered a man riding a motorcycle in front of his house. The biker is “bearded, dusty, and denimed” and his bike is “all chrome and jet black / and has a dragon painted on its shiny tank, / a scaly tail entwined around a girl / who wears a fur bikini.” The speaker believes this to be “perhaps the greatest piece / of art I’ve seen in my life thus far.” (Myers has a knack for humor).

The speaker’s father and the biker strike up a conversation. Ultimately, the father takes a turn on the bike, riding it up and down the street, scaring crows and riling up an “aging collie.” Afterwards, the biker asks the father to join him on a ride to the West Coast, but the father shakes his head and walks back inside the house. The poem frames the father’s choice in starkly biblical terms:
                           When Dad comes back into the house, I know
                           his coming back is covenant and type
                           of all the other times he will come home.
                           I know then too that love is near to sacrifice. 

The speaker acknowledges the excitement and attractiveness of the biker’s life compared to the mundane life of his father, who just “drives a truck / like every dad I know.” At the same time, the speaker understands the father’s refusal to take off on an adventure is an act of pure love for his family. For the poet, love is sacramental. Love is not simply a feeling. It is a commitment, a decision, and love requires sacrifice. The father rests his hand on his child’s head like a “benediction,” while shutting the door on the biker’s offer with a “heavy sigh.”

Myers also invokes the Bible in “What Peter Looked Like Stepping on Water,” where the speaker wonders if Peter wobbled like a drunken buddy or toddled like his small son, in effect pointing to the sacredness in the ordinary, and emphasizing the awkwardness of Peter’s walk on the waves toward Christ. But the poet does not stop there. The poem then compares Peter to the speaker’s father who is:
                           lifted light 
                           as a bag of popcorn
                           in my arms,
                           slippered feet brushing 
                           the floor between the hospice bed
                           and wheelchair

This image is complex. Myers may be suggesting there was an element of suffering in Peter’s uncertain walk, where he ultimately needed Christ to lift him to safety. But the poem seems more concerned with finding something holy in the slow martyrdom of an ailing parent and the trials faced by the children caring for them. There is the suffering of the father, but there is also the sacrifice of the son.

In the book’s final poem, “Field,” Myers dreams of heaven, but it is a heaven made up of people and things of the past. The speaker is driving his grandfather’s pickup truck, which still smells of “oilfield and aftershave” across a field where the sky is “so blue I know / it will burst if it doesn’t turn / twenty different reds / at evening.” He remembers driving the truck as a child, while sitting on his father’s lap. His father-in-law is present too, but kinder in heaven than in life. At the end of the dream, the speaker wakes in his house with his family, reflecting that heaven “has a field full / of fathers. I have been / there. I am one of them.”       

Myers has a great gift for narrative, and these poems ring with honesty and tenderness, finding a real poignancy in moments from the past. The Family Book of Martyrs reminds the reader of the sacredness available in the give-and-take of family life, a holiness of routine decisions and daily sacrifices.


Justin Lacour lives in New Orleans and edits Trampoline: A Journal of Poetry.

Image description: Cover of The Family Book of Martyrs by Benjamin Myers.