Peter Markus, The Singing Fish, Calamari
mystical. Mud is creative. Mud is the primordial ooze, a primitive but
generative mixture that signals language, love and violence. At least,
this is what Peter Markus' The Singing Fish ultimately seems
to suggest; and in the end, mud is the perfect symbol for this deeply
odd yet compelling book of short fictions. "Us brothers, we love
mud," Markus' narrator tells us (5). And the reason soon becomes
When the rain stops drumming down, us brothers, we
drop down, onto our hands and knees, down in the mud, and we begin to
eat. We eat until our bellies are big with mud. We take what is left
of the mud and we make Girl. We start at the bottom and make our way
up. Girl's knees are especially muddy. They make us want to stay forever
Mud both creates and
sustains life in The Singing Fish. It may be eaten, or it may
be shaped into life, or rendered as language. Given the story's locale,
this obsession with the mixture of dirt and water makes perfect sense.
After all, Markus' curiously lyrical account of two brothers and one river
is ultimately a story about the margin between land and river, that mixed-up
liminal space where dirt becomes mud, boy becomes brother, girl becomes
cave and father becomes fish.
The Singing Fish is a series of short
fictions narrated by one of two "brothers" who live in a house
next to a river. The action is in a way governed by the river's affiliation
with life, family, violence and creation. In a sense, Markus' short vignettes
form an overarching narrative not unlike the river that is at the book's
center: always in motion, always in flux, and yet paradoxically static,
always returning to the curiously sweet acts of violence that galvanize
family relations, and compel the reader into a kind of voyeuristic complicity:
Brother, I said to Brother. You can go first. Brother,
I told him, give me your hand. Hold your hand up against this pole.
Brother did just what I told. We were brothers—we were each other's
voice inside our own heads. This might sting, I warned. And then I raised
back that hammer. I drove that rusty nail right through Brother's hand.
Brother didn't wince, or flinch with his body, or make with his boy
mouth the sound of a brother crying out. (4)
Markus calls on this motif numerous times, almost word
for word—and it need hardly be mentioned that "nail through
the hand" is a powerful image in the canon of Western culture—but
nevertheless, Markus finds ways to grant a new energy to this metaphor,
showing how the family relations created in this way can achieve and sustain
a deep emotional energy. The two brothers who narrate this story have
an emotional, almost telepathic connection that renders them indistinguishable
from one another. In "Fish Heads," the brothers tell us that
even they are unable to tell:
There was a time when our father, he used to call
us brothers Fish Head One and Fish Head Two. Us brothers, we never really
knew for sure which of us was which—who was Fish Head One and
who was Fish Head Two? (17)
And indeed, this is a question that Markus invites
us to consider, but it is ultimately resolved by the sinister yet curiously
tender figure of the brothers' father, who in one of many repetitions
of this theme, takes both brothers and nails their hands to the telephone
pole together, ultimately signaling that there is no hierarchy, no differentiating
among them. The pole, perhaps unsurprisingly, is dotted with the heads
of fish that the brothers have caught, offering to us the first clue that
the river is a margin more mixed-up than we have been led to believe.
Later, when the father himself becomes a fish, the boys heave him into
the river, where he swims into its depths as they casually cut the heads
off his dozens of "fish" young.
Mud is the symbol of the mixed-up taxonomy
of The Singing Fish, which resists the kinds of distinctions
that conventional narrative insists upon. Man can become fish, and vice
versa. People can walk on water and then drown, or drown and then walk
on water. Violence has no permanent effect, because time itself seems
paradoxically to be on a kind of loop. Each time we return to the moment
at which one character "lines up that rusty nail" in preparation
to drive it through the hand of another, we sense that The Singing
Fish has abandoned the strictly temporal for an oneiric and elliptical
repetition that denies that violence has consequences, or that love is
impermanent, or that distinctions between land and water, mud and life,
fish and man can hold any sway in this curious world. The syncretic potency
of the images recalls William Carlos Williams, while the improvisatory
and repetitive syntax, like that of Gertrude Stein, reveals that "repetition"
is at once inevitable and impossible, like the constantly changing but
nevertheless static river that draws the "Brothers" to its margin
again and again.
It is true that to read The Singing
Fish requires some intestinal fortitude. The graphic scenes of "gutting"
fish are rendered curiously more disturbing by the fact that the fish
seem to survive the process, able afterwards to escape and "swim
across grass and mud" (49). Markus' reminder to the reader ("You,
do not think that this is funny") is rendered unnecessary by the
disturbing force of images like "the hammer in our father's fist,"
which reminds us that the violence which constitutes family relations
in this book is ominous and disturbing as well as sweet. And the close,
telepathic relation between the brothers cannot quite take the edge off
of sequences like this one:
Boy, we told Boy. Go fish. Boy took to that muddy
river water like he was part dog, part fish. Boy swam back to the river's
muddied bank and flopped down dead right there on the shore. Yes, just
like a fish. This boy here, Brother said. He is a keeper, Brother said.
If you say so, I said to Brother. And then we chopped off this boy's
The end result is that Markus has given violence a
kind of lyrical energy that feeds on its ability to shock—and the
images in this book have marvelously potent staying power as a result.
At first glance, The Singing Fish looks intellectual, a kind of "artifice-as-art"
postmodernism that distances the reader while engaging with the high-minded
sensibilities of the aesthetic avant-garde. But Markus is up to something
far more valuable and far more complicated. The Singing Fish
is a throwback in the best sense of the word, a book in which symbolic
energy and creative force are valued over the empty form and practiced
ironic distance that has characterized so much avant-garde work over the
past decade. Markus' book is violent, disturbing and at times off-putting.
But it is also lovely and compelling, and reminds us that language, like
mud, can both create life and sustain it.