And words, words! There are these words there too -- these words -- they have got to be words. . . . Isn't everything a word hidden and hiding as something else?
-- The Singing Fish
Peter Markus has written an epithalamium to mud, river, fish, moon, and childhood. The voice he has chosen to carry the lyric burden of his song is that of one of two young brothers living in a river-town whose principal features are the river, mud, a steel mill "shipwrecked in the mud," the boys' backyard, and a telephone pole transfigured, by the ritual nailing of fish heads to its creosoted surface, into a totem of boyhood's heroic and mystic passage. It is Markus' genius to have made of his fraternal romance a fabulous drama in which very little occurs, and the little that does recurs in a richly modulated variation on the author's several themes: murder and creation, death and resurrection. What Markus achieves, within his musical composition, is a dramatic enactment of the brutality and magic of which our nascent selves are constituted: the prerogatives of early childhood. The little that does happen in the eighty-seven diminutive pages of The Singing Fish is (we may come to believe by novel's end) enough -- may well be, in fact, all that needs to be written on the subject of childhood considered from the viewpoint of an ethnographer, a cultural anthropologist, or poet.
I say "novel," for the writing possesses the aspects of a novel despite its brevity. The work may be brief; but its interior structures are built of a simple language intensified by reiteration and periphrasis. The resulting rhythmic density and variety beggar the effects of any ordinary literary minimalism. A novel must have characters, and The Singing Fish has eight -- chief among them two inseparable brothers, who are almost always referred to as "us brothers" in recognition of their indistinguishable natures. "We were brothers -- we were each other's voice inside our own heads." They have names (Jimmy and John), but we are not certain which name applies to which brother; nor does it matter. Markus has seized, in the relation of his protagonist(s), the moment before the delineation of individuality, after which largely unconscious beings separate to become persons. Other than "us brothers," only two characters assume any significant role in the work: a tongueless boy (mutilations are omnipresent, symbolic, perhaps, of the mutation constantly at work in the novel's archetypal world) and a girl made of mud, who, becoming the moon, is transformed into stars. With the exception of us brothers' father and mother, adults are absent from the landscape; and the roles of the father and mother are reduced to a few repeated gestures of radically simplified authority figures. (The mother disappears from the story midway.) An older cousin and his girlfriend appear for the space of a single chapter and serve as a reiteration of the figures of boy and Girl. The novel's central consciousness belongs, equally and powerfully, to the pair of brothers (in spite of the narration having been given to a single one of them). This consciousness is as vast as the universe Markus creates out of mud and stars.
The sixteen chapters may be considered as theatrical stages on which the brothers play the unfolding dramatic action of the precognitive impulse towards transcendence. Here, the naive initiates can walk on water, eat mud and be nourished by it, dive into mud and harrow its bottomlessness for three days, fashion a girl from mud, hear the voice of the river speak, take instruction from talking fish, cut off a boy's head, crucify each other on a pole studded with the emblematic heads of singing fish, and have their own heads cut off -- without irreversible effect. The minimal action (action considered as change or movement in character) occurs not in a phenomenological or psychological dimension, but in a mythic one. The Singing Fish is a cosmology of the simultaneously circumscribed and infinite regions of the naïf mind, using the style and tone of creation myths to present its subject. In this style and tone lie the work's interest, at least for this reader.
To return to the aspects of a novel, which The Singing Fish can claim: There is a landscape, however it may be rendered in the most economical of gestures. There is movement, largely in the form of metamorphosis, where the work's iconic notions (river, mud, rust, fish, girl, moon, stars) can be transformed into one another, as in this passage:
Then Girl stepped with both of her girl feet into this bottomless mud. Us brothers, we watched Girl lift up the cottony hem of her girl dress. The mud reached up just barely to kiss Girl's knees. Girl's knees, they are the kind of knees that make us brothers want to stay forever kneeling. When Girl stepped into this mud, it was like dipping the oar of a rower's boat into a muddy puddle. It's true, Girl was that big. Girl was so big, us brothers, we climbed our way up the side of her mud-barked body as if she were a tree. This tree, we knew, we would never get up to the top. Something would stop us -- the moon, the stars. Some passing by bird or aeroplane would get in our climbing way. The moon rising up rose, but it stopped rising when it got all tangled up in Girl's hair. Girl thought the moon was just a knot of hair that the wind had twisted up. Girl walked around for a month with the moon sitting on top of her girl's head.
The passage is characteristic of Markus' astonishing fiction-making in The Singing Fish. It combines private (but not esoteric) cosmology, mythology, metaphor (in the wonderful "mud-barked body"), exquisite gesture ("lift up the cottony hem"), and the hyperbole of creation stories. The narrator goes on to describe how the moon comes unfixed, at last, from Girl's hair to splinter into stars. The action of a novel must also be set in a time. Markus sets his at night, which is suitable for magic and murder, for the birth of moon and stars, and for the fires that sometimes ignite the foundries of mythic creation.
Characters, landscape, movement and metamorphosis (change), time -- Markus' novel has these. And to them, he adds -- as I have noted -- a melodial quality that sings throughout the work as surely as do his marvelous fish (which, when the story demands it, also talk). Why should they not when the river "told us what to do"? Why not a river that sings and fish that sing from where they have been nailed by us brothers, on the telephone pole -- symbol, perhaps, of the power to communicate the unseen and the unheard voices that nevertheless are all around us? This, I think, is poetry. Ultimately, a novel may be reduced to an obsession with words. In the cosmos that an authentic writer brings into being, it is words that are its elements, objects, and fixtures -- that are, for him, the world. Us brothers -- speaking for their author -- understand the molecular nature of words:
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 words were sounds that our father did not hear.
Peter Markus has written a novel of amazement and beauty. He might also have written a cantata or work for the musical theater. Perhaps there is one who will read The Singing Fish and fashion for it a musical setting. I can only hope one day to hear Markus' novel sung.
Available from Calamari Press, New York, NY
Soft cover: $10.00 includes S/H
Cover design by editor and publisher Derek White