Facing darkness with poetry in Kaveh Akbar's humorously poignant tale
Sometimes when I read a novel that punches me in the chest, I can’t resist frantically writing down my commentary alongside the text. My question marks and exclamation points stab the margins. When the story spits me out, and I put down the finished book, every other page is dog-eared, my unhinged thoughts are scribbled around the text, and my pen has highlighted numerous soul-stirring sentences. For those books that hit me like I’m falling and flailing in love, they usually call to mind a poem or lyric. So when I get to the last page, beneath the story’s last words, I write in those verses: a coda to a coda. My offering to the blessing that the book gifted me.
I’m basically describing my journey in reading Kaveh Akbar’s debut novel, “Martyr!” The story revolves around a young man named Cyrus Shams, a recovering addict-alcoholic and self-destructive poet drifting through life. Oftentimes Cyrus’ thoughts are drenched in death. His family’s life was dramatically shaped by the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. Cyrus was a newborn when his mother, Roya, died. The plane she boarded was shot down over the Persian Gulf by the U.S. Navy in 1988. That tragedy leaves a wound in all the men in Cyrus’ family.
As an adult, Cyrus has a part-time job that involves playing dead. He’s an actor at a hospital, working with medical students as they rehearse informing patients they will die. Cyrus is the patient, receiving endlessly bad news. In these darkly comedic scenes, he’s way too comfortable pretending to die day after day.
“It just doesn’t seem healthy,” one of Cyrus’ friends tells him. “After all you’ve been through? It can’t be good for you.” Cyrus shrugs off the concerns. He’s resigned to an early death in Indiana soon. But he wants to leave something meaningful behind. Since his mother experienced a “meaningless death,” as Cyrus calls it, he wants his “having-been alive to matter.” He decides to work on a book about martyrs, to study “people who at least tried to make their deaths mean something.”
Sometimes it was chilling how Cyrus felt like a kindred spirit to me. Growing up on the reservation, I may have been to more funerals than birthday parties. In one of my high school yearbooks, my sweet friend Samantha wrote, “Take care and don’t forget me.” She died a year later from an overdose. My grandfather worked for the Kerr-McGee uranium mines and soon developed cancer. He died before I was born. When my aunts and uncles were children, they were exposed to radiation while visiting my grandfather at work. The health issues they struggle with today can be traced back to that period. After a while, in my young eyes, it felt easy to take life for granted. To drift destructively since much was decided before I was born.
For Cyrus, his book project on martyrs takes him to the Brooklyn Museum. There, an artist with cancer is turning her impending death into her final art installation called DEATH-SPEAK. Cyrus is in awe over this concept. He spends a week interviewing Orkideh, the dying artist, and a swirling story unfolds. We learn more about Cyrus’ family. There’s his uncle, Arash. On top of losing his sister, Roya, in the bombed plane, Arash is traumatized by his role in the war. He played the angel of death to dying soldiers on the battlefield. Dressed in a black robe, riding a horse, Arash would console the dying, reassuring them that their deaths were meaningful.
When Cyrus was an alcoholic, drinking was the key to falling asleep. In the sober present, on sleepless nights, he conjures up philosophical conversations between various pop culture icons. These dreamy scenes act as interludes, with Lisa Simpson and Kareem Abdul-Jabar reflecting on the unbearable suffering and overwhelming wonder of life.
While the story revolves around Cyrus seeking an ending, literally and figuratively, all the voices around Cyrus urge him to continue being. In a moment struggling to raise Cyrus alone, Ali admits, “To say no to a new day would be unthinkable. So each morning you said yes, then stepped into the consequence.” During one museum visit with Orkideh, she tells Cyrus, “I think you’ll find your real ending once you stop looking for it.”
The beauty of “Martyr!” is how it faces darkness with poetry. It runs fingers around the jagged edges of a broken heart still beating. “Martyr!” condemns war and empires while embracing those brief yet eternal moments of borderless love and joy that give miraculous meaning to life.
On the last page of the book, I thought of my doubts and angels. Then I wrote down part of a Catherine Hunter poem: “being born is the easy part, yes/ it is this staying here that’s difficult/ this walking for the heart without being certain/ exactly why, threading a path through the city/ as though i could gather these streets/ and bridges to me, hold them in this moment/ shining, unassailable”
– Kirbie Bennett