Maya Phillips’ stunning debut collection Erou borrows the framework of the traditional Greek epic to interrogate the inner workings of a present-day nuclear family and the role of a patriarch whose life, marriage, and death are imagined as a sort of hero’s journey. Her poems move seamlessly between the worlds of the living and the dead, between myth and reality in a journey that raises its own Homeric question: What is home and how do we locate our place within that home? These are poems of passion and compassion in their reconciliation with what cannot be changed—but can be understood—by those who have been left behind.
Ode to My Father’s Failed Heart
It’s okay. I, too, have failed
at the expected, have sputtered
and choked like a rusty valve
in water, have jumped into the pool
only to sink. Little engine, your flawed
machinery is nothing like love. You limp
at last call to the dance floor,
but feel no shame
in your offbeat two-step,
your eleventh-hour shuffle
in a dead man’s shoes.
There’s nothing left
but the encore, so go ahead:
like a loosened knot. Overripe
fruit in his chest, you blush
with uncertainty, bruise yourself
tender; little heart, tiny treasure,
sweeten to the point of spoil.
“Here’s a line that’s stuck in my head since reading this remarkable debut: ‘Fathered by rumor, raised / by ghost.’ It echoes the sound, subject, and sensibility of Erou. These engrossing poems bind family and myth, intimacy and allegory, ‘Gap-toothed Erou’ and ‘Erou of the forked tongue.’ The poetry of Maya Phillips is full of unforgettable imagery, word play and candor. She writes with a clarity that can cut as quickly as it calms.” —Terrance Hayes
“The hero’s journey has never been more engaging in contemporary poetry than in Erou by Maya Phillips. Traveling between the mythical and the hyper-real, these poems make sense of a world that’s stranger than fiction and give us permission to question why our days feel like a fable. Phillips navigates between the struggles of family and the complications of love, and the quotidian challenges we must navigate in the world. With the keen eye of Robert Hayden and the lyric range of June Jordan, Maya Phillips has stepped forward with a collection of poems that’s an Odyssey for the 21st century.” —A. Van Jordan
“Maya Phillips’s debut opens with an erasure of a passage from Homer’s Odyssey, and in doing so the classic epic of war and a long return home is reclaimed as our hero—the so-named Erou—her father, MTA worker and ‘of the school of Can’t Tell Me Nothing’’, is ferried across the River Styx at the young age of 51. These spare poems quiver with grief, but they are no mere elegies. No, they are exorcisms for the father’s infidelities and outbursts, and conjurings of his ghost as it wanders the subways and bears witness to his own autopsy. Here, you have the strange finesse of Anne Carson hammered by the hard knocks of the city and our modern times. ‘In another age,’ Phillips writes, ‘we’d have been gods, but here // we are in our mortgaged homes, rented apartments, / in our leased cars, in our morning commutes.’ What issues forth is a most courageous tenderness, the kind that acknowledges the sins of the father but with compassion as the dead remember ‘all of it, and it hurts.’ In creating this book, Phillips answers her own query- ‘After His Death Will My Father Be Beautiful’-with a resounding yes.” —Nickole Brown
“A literary star makes a debut….With grace and grandeur, a life is transformed, off-beat, irreverent, loving. Grief remembers everything but never before so originally unfolded. This is life beyond life…” Read the full review.
“…The difficult, perhaps selfish, repeatedly mourned dead father in ‘Erou’ competes with and sometimes merges into Phillips’s scenes from Greek mythology (‘Hades, Hosting’; ‘Persephone, Rising’), whose stark tableaus can echo those of Louise Glück….” Read the full review.
“To the brimming coffers of testimonials about the heart, Maya Phillips adds her fierce poem — a Father’s Day card with a twist. The heart that powered this father to his mortal conclusion has been the source of his charm as well as the driving force behind his all-too-human paternal shortcomings. An examination of the defective organ yields no easy platitudes about love. The verdict? Forgiveness and, finally, understanding — perhaps the most caring gifts a daughter has to offer. In the end, aren’t we all listening hard so we can find the beat on a crowded dance floor?”
“The poems of Erou will speak especially to anyone who has grieved the loss of themselves in the loss of a loved one…In the way that an erasure poem embodies its own process, Erou is its own healing.” Read the full review