Maya Phillips’s debut collection begins with an erasure poem, a poignant choice for a book mourning the loss of the speaker’s father. An erasure is a deliberate loss, but a generative one—a loss that creates two texts, like father and daughter. Out of the negative space of death, poetry emerges. Out of an excerpt of Richmond Lattimore’s translation of The Odyssey of Homer, the speaker’s personal narrative is born, and it never quite leaves the mythic sphere.
Erou, the title of Phillips’s collection, is also the name given to the speaker’s father. In an author’s note, Phillips explains that the name is “a fabrication based on a true story,” but whose etymological derivations all “translate to the word ‘hero.’” The name Erou and the hero’s death are linked from the very beginning of the collection. In “Augury,” the poem immediately following the erasure, Erou’s mother enters his house “after / two days, no word,” only to find his body:
already knows but still
tests the air with the question,
calls his name once just
to watch it fall.
From the beginning, the end is clear.
Even though Erou—both the character and the collection—occupies a mythic space, this world is recognizable. There are “mice / dying in the walls,” an affair and subsequent divorce, subway stations, the doctor’s office, cars idling in the driveway. Allusions to Persephone and Hades, Circe and Telemachus, all feel like rituals for grappling with the loss of an imperfect parent. When someone loses a parent, part of their own story is gone. All the questions they never thought to ask about their ancestry, about where they come from, resurface. For Phillips, the way forward from this ignorance is to write with the scope and reverence these characters’ lives demand.
The mythological narrative works as a framework here because of its inherent mystery—the kind of unknowability that emerges over centuries—as well as its looming cultural influence, interweaving through the ways in which we understand ourselves and each other, even today. Yes, the father philanders. Yes, he abandons. He has life-giving powers but cannot ultimately save himself from death—even a death preventable by eating differently or drinking less. That is not within the scope of his powers. Even so, the mythology feels appropriate for a father, his child’s first god.
Some of my favorite poems in Erou are those that imagine the father returned after death, as ghost or otherwise. There is something playful about these reimaginings—like in Lauren Haldeman’s Instead of Dying, where the speaker pictures her brother, who was murdered, living instead in various speculative scenarios. In “Haunt,” Erou returns as a ghost showing up to his job “with the MTA” only to find out that he’s been replaced, and “his leather chair / [is] now in his coworker’s office, his locker / in the back room newly purged / of its clutter.” There is also a poem titled “In Which My Mother and Father Meet for Brunch After His Death.” In another, “At the Therapist’s Office,” the third-person narration cracks under pressure:
when he tells her how he listens to the radio at night,
all night, the static between channels, bits of this
and that, and her smile opens like a brochure and
the room breaks open like a glass vase knocked off
a desk, and my father, the parts of him everywhere
but everywhere wrong. . . .
“He” becomes “my father” only for a moment before returning to “him.” The artifice of perspective breaks along with the room: the room of the poem. Between the two? Static. But the reader and the speaker, we are listening.
The two odes in Erou, one “to My Father’s Failed Heart,” and another “to My Father’s Failed Kidney,” are also some of my favorites of the collection. In the first, the speaker opens by comforting the heart: “It’s okay. I, too, have failed.” She feels sorry for the “little engine” whose “flawed / machinery is nothing like love,” even if that sorrow is made sharper by exhaustion. In the end, she gives her father’s heart permission to “relax, unravel”—a kind of forgiveness, or a narrative rewritten to grant herself control, or both. After all, writing the book grants Erou life just as it realizes his end. Within its pages, the speaker admits, “I’m forever calling your name.”
The poems of Erou will speak especially to anyone who has grieved the loss of themselves in the loss of a loved one, anyone whose relationship with their parents is shorn by any kind of abandonment (divorce, separation, or otherwise), anyone who has wondered how best to love someone bent on self-destruction, anyone who has sought to elegize an imperfect parent. Phillips uses the found text of her experience to both call back to ancient stories and write herself a new one. In the way that an erasure poem embodies its own process, Erou is its own healing.
About the Reviewer
Katherine Indermaur is the author of the chapbook Pulse (Ghost City Press, 2018). Tommy Pico selected her poem “Girl Descends Asunder” as the winner of the Black Warrior Review 2019 contest. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Alpinist, Bad Pony, Calamity, Coast|NoCoast, Entropy, Frontier Poetry, Ghost Proposal, Muse /A Journal, New Delta Review, Oxidant|Engine, Sugar House Review, Voicemail Poems, and elsewhere. She holds a BA from UNC-Chapel Hill and an MFA from Colorado State University, where she won the 2018 Academy of American Poets Prize. She lives in Salt Lake City. Find her online at katherineindermaur.com