Reviewed by Andrew Richmond
What I want to do is associate words so they produce a certain fact. If you mix two chemical products you produce a reaction. In the same way if you put together certain words you’ll obtain a reaction which will have a value for people on this planet. --Sun Ra, cosmic philosopher and jazz composer
The Singing Fish demonstrates Peter Markus’ ability to cut away a familiar landscape and shape into its place a perfect language. Using words that are character of their sound such as “moon,” “mud,” “river,” and “fish,” Markus forsakes the limits of designation and uses reiteration and persistence as catalysts for a rhythmic language that feels like impeccable mantra. Calamari Press has put together this comprehensive and vibrant vessel for these hypnotic stories, at last providing Markus some real estate for a fixation that has spanned seven years and resulted in hundreds of comparable stories scattered across a litany of literary journals.
To be fluent in the language of The Singing Fish is to be confident in its folklore. In the collection’s bellwether piece, “What The River Told Us To Do,” we are provided exactly what we need in order to take on the anima mundi:
Us brothers said some words back to our father, words such as ‘moon’ and ‘mud’ and ‘river’ and ‘fish,’ but even these words, words that were the world to us brothers, these were sounds that our father did not hear.
This isn’t to say that without such an introduction we would be unable to appreciate each story in The Singing Fish. The stories are carefully supportive of each other and allow the collection to read more like a novel whose components you can rearrange and still feel grounded.
The characters in these stories carry on in their own obsessions. The narrators, two brothers who exist mostly indistinguishable from each other, tell their fables in a single voice:
Us brothers sometimes have this thing between us. Sometimes we say what it is the other brother is or has been thinking.”
Aside from an ongoing argument over which each brother is “Fish Head One” and “Fish Head Two,” the voice is consistent and unswerving. The brothers are captivating in their interpretation of boyhood, and at once can seem innocent in their bond or apparent as colorable, wall-eyed, and gaping mouthed creatures.
Other characters are just as extraordinary. The brothers share a mother and father who offer little dialogue but maintain their cohesiveness, be it through displays of affection or stern authority. We are also introduced to a tongueless “Boy,” afforded characteristics of a dog before ultimately becoming a “keeper.”
On more than one occasion we engage in a relationship between the brothers and a girl they construct from mud and fittingly refer to as just “Girl.” In one story, Girl’s eyes become moons and then shatter into stars, and in a different story the brothers crawl into Girl like a cave and discover their stick-figure representations on the wall. Their sequence of encounters isn’t key. What is principal is that the events happen and it is telltale of Markus’ ability to craft astounding fiction.
The omnipresent themes in The Singing Fish hinge on creation, mortality, and revival, and feel both haunting and jubilant. Anything goes in the world Markus has created for his brothers. Characters are created from mud and spring from the natural world just as easily as they are dismissed, only to reappear again. We learn of the brother’s obsession with mud, to the point of ingestion, and their obsession with fish, perhaps most notably involving a telephone pole studded with fish heads--measurement of the brothers’ merit and devotion.
Markus has a gift of warranting the circumstances for which his language is contained. And in doing so he is able to manipulate word play that feels foreign at first, but continues and remains sweet and eloquent, such as, “Out back to the back of our back yard,” or when Markus renders ownership to less obvious proprietors, “Our front yard’s ground” and “Our bedroom’s window.”
Markus’ language is not just clever text built around bizarre characters and circumstances, but illustrative sound that frees us from the concrete provisions and provides an environment for the text. When those sounds come together and tell such a story as The Singing Fish, the obtained reaction throws a wrench into our own realizations and holds intrinsic value for people on this planet.