What Remains Between What Is and Isn’t Said: Peter Markus Interviewed by Zach Davidson

A poetry collection that probes the complexities of grief.

When Our Fathers Return To Us As Birds 4

I first met Peter Markus seven years ago, in a writing workshop orchestrated over email. Markus introduced himself to the class via an attached letter, in which he wrote: “All I can ‘teach’ you about the writing/fiction-making that you are here to write/make is some of what I think I know and what has sometimes worked for me in my own process of fiction making.” Markus’s guarded introduction not only conveyed his pedagogy—writing/fiction-making is a fluid, individual process, albeit one that can benefit from company—it communicated the declarative nature of his writing. This dual effect—the transmission of the effort required to make a thing clear while making a thing clear—is characteristic of Markus’s work. 

In When Our Fathers Return to Us as Birds (Wayne State University Press), Markus’s first collection of poetry, what the speaker is trying to make clear is his experience of his father’s death. “I am here to translate my father’s death / into fruit.” The speaker recalls the yogurt he tried to get past his father’s lips, and the shaving soap he used on his cheeks after his father died. What haunts the speaker is not the fact of death as much as the possibility of communicating it. In the poem “There Is Always Some Other Way to Say It,” the speaker reports, “He was dying. Departing. Passing on. Taking flight. / Then dead. Then dead. Then dead. Then dead.” For the speaker, the endlessness of language is a source of comfort and despair. He is forever able to describe in new ways his perception of his father’s death; the experience of his death lacks the relief of an ending. 

At the same time, the speaker has permission to continue on his quest: “He writes. In this way language is the only living thing / between him and death. What else is there in the end? / What better reason to keep on writing and pushing back / against time and death with the heart in his body still singing.” When Our Fathers Return to Us as Birds makes clear that the fruit of death is bountiful. This informs our misery as well as our delight.

—Zach Davidson


Zach Davidson These lines are excerpted from the introductory letter that you sent to your fiction workshop: “My belief is that you will learn to write the writing that only you can write—the writing you were born to write—by writing the writing that you ultimately want to read. There is no reader. You are the reader.” 

I’m curious—how would you describe the writing that you were “born to write”?

Peter Markus Who’s to say what any of us is ever born to do? And yet when I send such words out to my students, when I ask them to enter into such a daring relationship with language, I suppose what I’m thinking about are those writers whose work, when I encounter it, again and again and again, feels as if I’m reading it for the first time. There’s a newness to it each time that I gaze into those pages, and yet there’s also something inevitable about them. I’m thinking of writers such as Beckett and Stein; I’m thinking of painters such as Pollock, Basquiat, and Van Gogh. We all live and write and make things under the influence of others, but the writing that we are born to write might lead us to believe otherwise.

I take pride in the very small—you might even call it cultish—readership I’ve managed to cultivate over the years, with a handful of short-ish books, as that guy who writes fiction about fish and rivers and mud. I can’t say that when I pick up these books of mine from time to time that I see too much of any other writer in the writing I’ve produced. And yes, that pleases me no small amount too. I like it that I can be boiled down to such basic words, to fish and river and mud. Mix in boat, mix in brother, mix in the word “not.” I’m not unambitious in my wish, as a writer, to do something new, to break new ground, to stand out from the crowd. 

In this regard, I was most pleased with something that the poet Russell Thorburn said to me in a conversation about my latest book: that this is the book, Russ said, that I’ve been waiting my whole life to write. So maybe that’s what I mean when I say the words “born to write”—to arrive at such a destination where others might say that such waiting has been achieved. I know that I’d like to think so.  

ZD When Our Fathers Return to Us as Birds is your first collection of poetry. What distinguishes a story from a poem for you? And what led you to write a collection of poems about the death of your father as opposed to, say, a collection of stories?

PMNot sure I can speak from any vantage point of authority as to what makes or does not make a story be a story, let alone what a poem is or what the difference is between the two. All I can say about this most recent book is that there is very little fiction in it, and that I wouldn’t think of making things up in relation to the truth that I was brought closer to during the extended illness and subsequent death of my actual father. That word “father” in a fiction is a different word entirely than it is when I put the word “father” into what I might be able to call a poem.

I’m not even sure that a case can be made that the pages in this new book are made up of poems. It says that they are on the cover of said collection, but as with any book I’ve ever written, as with any text I am ever in a situation to speak about, I prefer to look at what is there as words, as sentences, as pages that might, or might not, be turned one against or into the other. But I can assure you, if nothing else, that these particular texts are not fiction, that nothing has been made up, that I wouldn’t think of telling lies or stretching the truth when it comes to my experiences as my father’s son.

Older white man on the beach, salt and pepper hair, smiling, sun-kissed, wearing a blue T-shirt.

Photo of Peter Markus courtesy of Peter Markus.

ZDMany of the titles in the collection contain “not,” including the very first poem, “What My Father Did Not Have to Say.” For me, this echoed the experience of the aftermath of death—the presence of absence. You are aware daily, at times hourly, of who is not there. And yet in your collection he who is dead is there—albeit in a new form. Can you talk about how you see negation operating in this collection? 

PMIt was in my previous book of fiction, The Fish and the Not Fish, where I first explored or played around with the notion of the word “not.” Maybe it has only a little to do with Kafka’s claim that “The positive is already given.” Or maybe I saw somewhere in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury some word-play bent around the use of “not” placed in front of a noun. Or maybe it was in Stevens and his claim that “It was evening all afternoon,” which is to say it was not-light, or not-yet night. In all of these instances I am open to the possibility that it is in my mis-reading of a text where something new might be found.

As for the use of “not” or negation, as you say, in this new book, it is likely true that what was not said informed much of what is behind my saying, or the idea that what could not be done or undone also gives shape to what I was hoping to get at in these pages. When I say “get at” what I really mean to say is “get closer to.” So much of what I wanted to do was to turn away, to not look, to not have to see, as it was, my father in the particulars of his dying. And yet, as you say, it was everywhere I looked. It was everywhere even when I did not look. It was what I woke to each morning at 5:00AM as I was prone to doing during this time as yet another way of being like or connecting up with the rituals of my father. My father—the sentence was always in my head—is dying in a house across the river. There was no denying that. There was no way for me to negate that. There was very little for anyone to do, other than to be present to the needs of what needed to be done. The book, I think, speaks to those particulars. No use to get into any of that now.

But yes, any number of these poems play around with what is and what isn’t, as might be encountered in the titles of poems such as “I Did Not Hear the Loons Until Later” and “What Is Always There Even When It Isn’t” and “What a Fish Is Not Supposed to See,” and I’d be remiss if I did not mention the title of the poem “The Sentence I Am Trying Not to Write.” What remains between what is and isn’t said is maybe what I am most trying to say and what is maybe most unsayable. And what remains is as you’ve already said in regards to the “he who is not there” being ever-present which keeps insisting and pressuring his presence through the writing itself.

ZD When I think about your writing, I think about something like the rubbing together of sticks: objects having similar qualities are brought into intimate and repeated contact with one another, and the effect is a new event, a new sensation. In this collection, the recurring interaction of nouns—“river,” “father,” “fish,” “boat,” “bird,” “steel”—effected a sense of unboundedness and imprisonment, which seems appropriate to our ideas about death. What is the experience like for you, as a writer, to work with such a select lexicon of words? 

PM I am in love with your description of how my work so often works as the rubbing together of two sticks. I’ve heard others use the comparison of the squeezing of a sponge or the juicing of a fruit, but rubbing sticks seems more fitting to the world of my fiction-making and to what some have also called its primal nature. Sticks and friction leading to fiction and maybe even fire. I’m most pleased with that as a kind of methodology behind the work. Pleased, too, with your choice of words: intimate, repeated contact, new sensations. I’ve always been of the belief that, as the big book says, “In the beginning was the word…” Fish, river, mud. There’s three and there’s a world right there asking to be made. Bird, bed, father. All nouns. 

When my son was a small boy, for hours he used to entertain himself completely in a world made up of his play-things, of tiny action figures about which he knew things that only he knew. Maybe that’s what I’m hoping for when I sit down to enter into the business of making with language or of making sense of the world through words, through these poems—of making sense, these past six or seven years, of the business of my father dying. The rubbing together of these few sticks, and hoping for smoke, for fire, for music, not to mention beauty. In the end, after all’s been said and done, I do my best to make of the page beautiful things, even when, or even if, the path to beauty might have been difficult, or even when the subject itself gave shape to everything I was looking at.  

ZDSticking with the relationship between unboundedness and imprisonment, the perspective of the speaker changes across poems. In most of the poems, we are the audience for a first-person “I”; in other poems, the “I” is replaced with “he.” I interpreted this shift in perspective as an attempt by the speaker to get outside of himself—outside of his experience of death. Or, perhaps, the speaker is outside of himself:death has alienated the speaker from his identity. Can you speak to this, including your choice of perspectives? 

PMThere were times when I felt the need to step outside the first-person point of view in order to look at what I was seeing with fresh eyes. The risk always when writing about death, or love, or grief, is sentimentalizing the subject, a line I know I often straddle (and sometimes probably cross). So, the shift to the more muted or objective third-person was my attempt to gain some emotional distance and perspective and to see what new details might emerge in the process. 

Throughout the writing of this book, throughout the experience of watching my father move closer to his own death, I kept going back to the Raymond Carver poem, “Sunday Night,” and Carver’s directives at the beginning and end of this poem: “Make use of the things around you… Make use. Put it all in.” In Carver’s poem, which is written in a detached first-person, he speaks to the ordinary things going on around him, like the light rain falling outside against the window, or the cigarette burning between his fingers, though he also speaks to the more private or intimate goings-on such as “the woman bumping drunkenly around in the kitchen.” 

To be able to be or to step outside in order to look in and to look more closely, to be able to drive away from what was going on, all of this was a buffer and allowed me to find the strength to carry on and to wake up each day to what I was keenly aware was happening across the river: Across the river my father is dying in a house. My father is dying in a house across the river. In a house across the river my father is dying. I couldn’t turn that sentence, or those sentences, all of which are saying the same thing, off. I couldn’t look away from that fact. And I did what I hope is my very best, which never is enough, to put what I could of it into the writing of this book.

When Our Fathers Return to Us as Birds is available for purchase here.

Zach Davidson’s writing has appeared in NOON, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Believer, Paris Review Daily, and New York Tyrant magazine, among other publications. He is a senior editor of NOON and a contributing editor to BOMB.

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