When Our Fathers Return to Us as Birds

When Our Fathers Return to Us as Birds

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Author: Peter Markus

Publisher: Wayne State University Press (2021)

Over the course of two decades and six books, Peter Markus has been making fiction out of a lexicon shaped by the words brother and fish and mud. In an essay on Markus's work, Brian Evenson writes, "If it's not clear by now, Markus's use of English is quite unique. It is instead a sort of ritual speech, an almost religious invocation in which words themselves, through repetition, acquire a magic or power that revives the simpler, blunter world of childhood." Now, in his debut book of poems, When Our Fathers Return to Us as Birds, Markus tunes his eye and ear toward a new world, a world where father is the new brother, a world where the father's slow dying and eventual death leads Markus, the son, to take a walk outside to "meet my shadow in the deepening shade."

In this collection, a son is simultaneously caring for his father, losing his father, and finding his dead father in the trees and the water and the sky. He finds solace in the birds and in the river that runs between his house and his parents' house, with its view of the shut-down steel mill on the river's other side, now in the process of being torn down. The book is steadily punctuated by this recurring sentence that the son wakes up to each day: My father is dying in a house across the river. The rhythmic and recursive nature to these poems places the reader right alongside the son as he navigates his journey of mourning.

These are poems written in conversation with the poems of Jack Gilbert, Linda Gregg, Jim Harrison, Jane Kenyon, Raymond Carver, Theodore Roethke too—poets whose poems at times taught Markus how to speak. "In a dark time . . .," we often hear it said, "there are no words." But the truth is, there are always words. Sometimes our words are all we have to hold onto, to help us see through the darkened woods and muddy waters, times when the ear begins to listen, the eye begins to see, and the mouth, the body, and the heart, in chorus, begin to speak. Fans of Markus's work and all of those who are caring for dying parents or grieving their loss will find comfort, kinship, and appreciation in this honest and beautiful collection.

"Only in the transformative blaze of language this lucid, brave, and visionary, can we look through the thin flesh of a dying father and see a bird on a branch ready to fly, can we hear the songs of the gone: everywhere, alive, in river and air. In this astonishing collection, Peter Markus gives grief wings and current, gills and wind. Breathing into the glowing bones of these poems, I feel the momentary resurrection of being imperishable. And I am reminded how to live."

–Robert Fanning 

"The poems in Peter Markus's When Our Fathers Return to Us as Birds offer a potent, 'momentary resurrection' of father, river, bird-the swirling undertow of what is passing or has passed. Poetry here charts the struggle of grief and devotion within an encroached-upon Michigan landscape. Indeed, poetry is the lone footbridge between the present and the past, the living and the dead. I admire the depth of Markus's seeing and the emotional courage of this collection."

–Diane Seuss