(What can I say, in offering this review on the last day on August, except "I respond best to deadlines...")
The Singing Fish
Calamari Press, 2005, 87p.
When I was a kid, I remember one time my younger brothers and I (we must have been about eight and five and four) went with my cousin (he was seventeen) to a country pond we’d never been to before, out beyond the far border of the property we had north of the Catskills in New York State. We were all raised in the suburbs of Long Island, but there was something elemental in the rural nature of this country region we all took to in some sense. We’d catch frogs along the pond's edge, back in those days before global warming and pesticides had killed 90% of the frog population. We took the job of killing for ourselves back then. My cousin had a bb gun and when we found this far pond, we discovered that it was a better frog pond than we’d ever seen before, a frog pond where seemingly no one had ever hunted frogs before.
Older cousin was a machine with the bb gun: pop, pop, and the frogs at the pond’s edge went belly up. But that wasn’t nearly the end of it. There was a barbed wire fence nearby and we carefully waded in and salvaged the frog carcasses my cousin created and hung them one by one along the fence, one frog-foot each twisted in the wires of the fence.
I saw my youngest brother this past weekend at the old farm where my mother now lives in a house that’s slowly being worn down by the elements until, one day soon, it will crumble in rot back into the sodden, grassy mountainside. He and I were alone together at one point when he said to me, “Do you remember the old frog pond we found that day, and Timmy with his bb gun? Do you remember how we strung nineteen frog carcasses up on the barbed wire fence?”
I remembered. It was one of those stories that you and your brothers remember and you don’t tell in mixed company unless you want to be forever regarded thereafter as having a little bit of Hitler buried deep inside you. Mixed in this case meaning in any other company than with your brothers, whose eyes you hardly wish to meet.
In Peter Markus’s The Singing Fish, the Treblinka massacre-as-spectacle scene is a creosoted old telephone pole in the backyard where the two brothers of the novel-made-of-stories nail fish heads with bent rusty nails. But lest you think Markus’s book is a straight-ahead recollection of lazy days of boyhood in the neighborhood where narrator and brother once romped and strove in their circumscribed worlds of play and violence, let me add a distinction. Markus’s slender book is written not in reflective but in refractive prose.
I take reflective here to mean the old sense of art’s holding a direct mirror up to nature: the verisimilitudinous illusion of being able to bend light away from its origin into a new location or occasion while keeping its outlines, its very nature, intact. The Latin root of reflection describes this as an act of “bending,” with its implicit assumption that the thing rerouted retains pretty much the same nature as the thing that was its source.
To refract, on the other hand, means “breaking.” This is how Markus creates the world of two brothers presented in The Singing Fish. The familiar details – repeated so as to emphasize their familiarity within this world of boyhood: brothers, fish, mud, river, father, moon, telephone pole, rusty nails, more mud – are broken apart, made into riffs, riffed upon again at further removes from the directly reflective, until they morph into dreams, imaginings, constituent elements of language, symbols, rich lumps of clay, diamond, and legend:
“Boy points with one hand up to the moon floating fish-belly-white above us, but it’s Boy’s other hand that make our eyes see. It’s the hand of Boy that is reaching back down towards the mud, and it’s up from the mud picking some other thing up. What this other thing is, it becomes clear to us brothers what it is, when the moon’s moonlight lights up for us what this something other is. What this something other is is, it is a picture, it is a photograph. But no, look again: it is not a picture of us. What it is, this picture, is it’s a picture of Boy. It’s a picture of Boy back when Boy was a boy littler than the boy he is now. In this picture of Boy, Boy is just a baby – he is just a boby Boy – and in this picture, Boy’s mouth, it is a hole with whole lot of light shining out. Boy’s mouth, that hole on Boy’s face with no tongue inside it, it is a moon in this picture, it is a lighthouse light – it is the marbled eye of a fish.”
Fishes get pulled from the river and clubbed on the head. Heads get cut off and nailed to the creosoted pole. Boys walk on water on each side of a fish, one brother each with a fin in his hand. One brother takes a bent rusty nail and rears back with a hammer to drive the nail through the other brother’s hand. One brother drives the bent rusty nail through the other brother’s eye. The father appears at the backyard door, looking out at the brothers. The brothers freeze. “’You boys remember to clean up before you come back in,’ our father said.” The brothers look at one another. “It was the kind of look that hurt the eyes of the brother who was the one of us doing the looking.
“Imagine that look.”
Markus’s book is one that makes clear the act of imagining in every act of remembering, seeing, or acting. The act of imagining which is clearly refraction rather than a simply conceived reflection.