In Search of a Black Odysseus: My Father’s Journey Home

Maya Phillips on Wandering Through a Fallen Kingdom

“Tell me about a complicated man,” begins Emily Wilson in her translation of The Odyssey. Though I grew up with the stately translations of Richmond Lattimore, Robert Fitzgerald, and Robert Fagles, with their grandiose, circuitous invocations—“Tell me, Muse, of the man of many ways, who was driven / far journeys,” Lattimore begins—I also love Wilson’s direct, understated take, if for no other reason than how it resembles the language I’d use to start the story of my father. He was—and our relationship was—“complicated.”

Wilson’s language in that first line is general, mundane even: a straightforward imperative with simple diction and the indefinite article “a,” to refer to just any man, as though the great Odysseus, he of the famed Trojan Horse and the great journey back home, is any “complicated man” you may encounter in your day-to-day. In the introduction to her translation, Wilson writes about this story being, in some ways, “small and ordinary.” After all, at the end of the day (or ten years, as it were), even after all of the travels and the monsters and beasts, it’s still just a story of a man’s journey home. “For this hero, mere survival is the most amazing feat of all,” Wilson writes.

But more so than its epic peers—certainly The Iliad but also The Aeneid and others—The Odyssey shows as much of an interest in the telling of the tale as in the tale itself. Even after my repeat readings of the epic, I somehow always forget how long it takes Odysseus to arrive in the poem. It’s not until five books in; until then, he is only a rumor, mentioned among the gods, the suitors, Penelope, and Telemachus. There are stories within stories; a large chunk of the epic consists of Odysseus’s account of his journey up until that point, and he is wily and cautious in his telling. He tells true histories and fabricates others, knowing well the power of the storyteller.

Though we can imagine knowing Odysseus during the course of this long journey, which we have travelled with him, to the land of the dead and back, perhaps that knowing, too, is a kind of fiction, a prism of distorted images built from what is spoken of Odysseus and what truths and falsehoods he speaks himself.

In The Poet’s Voice, Simon Goldhill, the director of studies in classics at King’s College, writes, “The multiplicity of Odysseus’ self-representations—from naming to the tales he weaves of himself and his guises—demonstrate the fictive power of the word: how language may conceal, reveal, manipulate, but is always telling.”

Who is Odysseus? How do we feel about him? “It’s complicated” is perhaps the easiest answer.

*

Here is the story of my father: He was born in Brooklyn and raised in Queens. He liked mythology, comic books, Biggie Smalls, Smarties, and Charleston Chews. He was an atrocious singer and relentless teaser who suffered from diabetes and sleep apnea. An introvert with an affinity for peacocking in front of family and friends, he could just as easily be found joking at a family barbecue or sitting sullen, isolated in the corner of the room. He loved and hated the city, spoke about retiring to Florida, but also joked about how he might not live long enough to reach retirement. He was frugal, messy, irresponsible, constantly late. Petty, moody, with a pout that made his whole face pucker and sour. He was corny, in the way dads are, with a tittering, hiccuping laugh.

He was spiteful, with a low-flaming temper that was at odds with mine and my mother’s; when all three of us clashed, we navigated an arctic, biting silence in the house that could last for days or weeks, perhaps longer. He stepped out on our family. His health declined. After he and my mother divorced, after I had moved into my first Brooklyn apartment and my mother had moved into her condo on her own, he was found dead in our house, the only home I had ever known as my own, the house I grew up in, which had become its own mythology over the years, broken down and decayed like a body. We left it—and him—behind.

When I say that I made a fiction out of my father, I mean to say that his living and his dying were so much less than anything my imagination could offer, so I spun them out into something more. Even the ceremony of his death, a wake and funeral in Queens, was nothing ornate. There were tissues but no wails. Trays of food but no offerings. No torn hair. No beaten chests. After it was over, we returned to our homes and slept and woke up the next day, and went on with our lives.

When I say that I made a fiction out of my father, I mean to say that his living and his dying were so much less than anything my imagination could offer.

The following year, when I began writing the poems that would make up my first book, it never occurred to me that I could be practicing my own ceremonial practice of grief. That seemed too indulgent a thought. But whatever part of me believed in the strength of my artistic intention—grief and my father as the project at hand—also believed in the moments when I was hit with the force of my loss. It felt like a pedestrian sadness, unremarkable, but, nevertheless, the narrative that I took from it felt urgent and so much larger than what my grief had offered on its own.

Though my father’s death, at age 51, was a surprise, it was only a surprise in the way that the exact moment when rain starts is always a surprise: you checked the forecast, saw the clouds, and yet the first cool touch of water to your face somehow startles you, makes you look up and stretch your palm out to the sky. My book is full of bad weather. In it, my father is a storm always happening. He always took poor care of himself, but, in the last few years, he seemed to give up completely.

In Book Sixteen of The Odyssey, when Odysseus has returned to Ithaca and reveals himself to Telemachus, his son responds with shock and disbelief. “No, you are not Odysseus, my father,” he declares, citing Odysseus’s mystical transformation from old beggar to young king—one of many physical metamorphoses that Athena grants him throughout the epic. My father, too, transformed in the last years of his life, though it wasn’t romantic or divine. His body bloated and shrunk. He crumpled like a brown paper bag. His skin, which I describe in one poem as “patchwork,” was just that, darkened and scarred in spots, the complexions mismatched and dulled. His kidney and heart were failing.

It sounds cruel to say that I was prepared for my father’s death, expected it, yet still maintained my distance. By that point, we hadn’t spoken in years, and it occurred to me that my father, who taught me to love comics and Star Wars and Greek myths, may never meet me in the portrait of father-daughter love and affection that I imagined. I exercised a kind of criminally premeditated grief, blandly imagined the day and hour when I would get the news.

I dreamt it once, perhaps a year before it happened, a nightmare in which I stumbled upon his body hanging from the kitchen ceiling. Unlike any dream I’ve ever had, this one had a frightening aesthetic; everything was awash in a violent shade of red like the light of an ambulance siren, as though my whole world was under alarm. I recall that it was raining, and somehow my embarrassment about the cliché stung worse than the rest. I made a mental note: leave that detail out of the version you tell, if you ever write it in a poem.

*

I empathize with Telemachus, the son who yearned for Odysseus’s return but then rejected it when it happened because he couldn’t recognize his own father. His father’s a liar, a deceiver, and was supposed to have been long dead, but, even if none of that were true, in the first book, when asked of his parentage, Telemachus declares, “My mother says indeed I am his. I for my part / Do not know. Nobody really knows his own father.” Paternity tests weren’t around in ancient Greece, of course, but here Telemachus seems to refer to fathers as unknowable in a more general sense.

In my poem “Telemachus,” which comes late in the book, I write, “Fathered by rumor, raised / by ghost, you’ve learned // to love the slimness of the shadow from which you grew.” Telemachus’s moment of incredulity feels real to me. No one wants to hold onto absence when it’s taking the place of someone you love, but that ironic phrasing is important—absence does, in fact, have a place. Or, rather, one can always make a place of absence. It’s malleable, adaptable, and in that is comfort. You can build something new out of absence, build a whole home out of it, learn to love it, because you crafted it into the shape you needed most.

I loved the Greek stories, the epics, though I resented the protagonists: selfish, proud men who left their families behind to have new adventures. Some made it out well: Odysseus slaughtered the suitors and reclaimed his position as king, husband, and father; and Aeneas went on to become the first hero of Rome. Some didn’t do as well: after their adventures, Jason and Heracles both suffered sad, pitiful deaths. My father felt oblique to me, impenetrable, no less so after his death, so I molded his absence into the shape of the heroes I knew, from the stories that he taught me to love.

When I imagined how he was discovered—sitting in a chair in the living room, the one that was positioned at the head of the room, on its own, with the detritus of a last fast-food meal around him—and the thought of his death there, alone, hit me like a punch to the chest, I imagined him instead as a king on his throne, Jason dying in the remains of the Argo. When I imagined the house in those last years—falling apart, flooded—I instead imagined the cursed “houses,” or lineages, of Greek myth, as I say in one poem, “flooding, rotting, falling, / the house of Atreus, of Cadmus, again.” I wrote my father into a hero and his story as an epic not to soften the edges of the tragedy but to make it all worthwhile.

My father felt oblique to me, impenetrable, no less so after his death, so I molded his absence into the shape of the heroes I knew.

I only needed the hero’s name. Just like much is made of storytelling in The Odyssey, so too is much made of naming. Odysseus famously tricks the cyclops by telling him his name is Ou tis, which can be translated as “No one,” or “No body,” but this same wordplay and deception is present in Odysseus’s first encounter with his son. His first word to Telemachus is ou tis, and, as literary critic Harold Bloom writes in his guide to The Odyssey, “Here ou tis means ‘not as,’ but the echo of his previously adopted name is unmistakable: at the very moment of self-revelation to his son, he echoes his self-concealment to the Cyclops.” Even in his much awaited moment of communion with Telemachus, he costumes himself as a stranger.

There’s something dastardly in Odysseus’s constant deceptions, even to those he loves, throughout the epic. But Odysseus’s multiplicity, his complicatedness, was made clear from the onset. He’s clever and brave but also violent, vain, and deceitful. In his introduction to Modern Critical Interpretations, Bloom writes that Odysseus “is a very dangerous figure, whom we admire and respect but do not love,” and we’re attentive to his story of persistence and survival.

Wilson, too, notes a bit of wordplay in Odysseus’s name that seems to point toward his character, noting how odussomai, a verb that means “‘to be angry at,’ ‘to dislike,’ or ‘to hate,’” bears a strong resemblance to “Odysseus.” I bore this in mind while renaming my father, whose name my mother and I never seemed to speak. He was reduced to a pronoun in our conversations, simply “he,” and so seemed a kind of everyman, any “he” who had ever done someone wrong, as universal and specific as Wilson’s “complicated man.”

But I wanted to give my father a name greater than that pronoun, greater than even his own. If I were going to write him as a hero, I’d give him a name that meant just that. I looked at variations of the word in different languages—heros, hêrôs, héros, and eroe. I liked the rounded sound of the vowels, the strong “e” in the beginning that still sounded soft, comforting. I wanted erou, a word that appears in Romanian, but I wanted a different pronunciation, not “eh-row” but a softer “eh-rew.” I liked the “ou” sound at the end, the way you have to make an “o” of your mouth to say it—“o” like the start of an invocation to the gods, or “o” like the sound of grief, that broad, low sound. I liked how the sound was long, lingered in the air after it passed from your mouth. If I could craft immortality from a sound, I would start right there, with that “o,” forever round, cyclical, and full of life. My father: Erou.

Odysseus was away from his home for ten years, but my father, though he did have his periods of disappearance, was never physically absent for long. He didn’t have any long journey; he was home all the while. But I took liberty with the idea of absence, translating it to an emotional absence, a mental distance. We lived in the same house for years, but the house was broken, silent—and even that is a translation, “the house” I refer to being both the physical and metaphorical structure. Of course, here I’m also being precious.

The specifics—the broken windows and appliances, the mice, the wild, overgrown lawn—I recall to paint you a picture of a kingdom fallen, but there was no kingdom. There was just an ordinary house in the suburbs, one with red bricks and vines and a hydrant out front. My privilege is the flexibility of language and the freedom of translation, of a long tradition of myths. How lovely it can be, as an artist, to set up shop in the narrative space people will grant you for grief.

What I’ve done is in service to myself, a way to regift myself a father, a fiction whole and complex and created with more graciousness, empathy, and love than I had the courage to provide when he was alive. So perhaps it’s an apology, though that also seems inappropriately glib. Perhaps it’s simply the best and worst thing I could give him after his death, a story of nostos, or homecoming, the word at root of “nostalgia.”

I can create a version of our story that’s almost as real but more lovely. I can rebuild our home. I can make my father a hero. His own hero, in every sense of the word. With all of the good and the bad. Because the story of the hero, even the hero who dies or is defeated, is the story of survival, and that’s the story I’ve told and want to keep telling of my father—how, even now, five years after his death, my father, that complicated man, survives.

__________________________________

Maya Phillips’ book of poetry, Erou, is out from Four Way Books. Featured image, Winslow Homer’s The Gulf Stream.

Maya Phillips
Maya Phillips
Maya Phillips was born and raised in New York. Maya received her MFA in poetry from Warren Wilson’s MFA Program for Writers and her BFA from Emerson College. Her poetry has appeared in At Length, BOAAT, The Gettysburg Review, Ghost Proposal, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Vinyl, and more, and her arts & entertainment journalism has appeared in The New York Times, Vulture, Slate, Mashable, American Theatre, and more. Maya currently works at The New Yorker and as a freelance writer. She lives in Brooklyn.





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