The Four Love Stories of Peter Markus

Matt Bell


Brother, river, mud, fish: As many of us know, these are the words Peter Markus has loved the most.

In my favorite of Peter's books, the collection We Make Mud, the word brother or brothers appears on 164 pages, out of 169. Together, they appear 1656 times.

The word river appears on only 136 pages of We Make Mud. Mud, 127. Fish, 121.

In his Art X artist's statement, Peter says that the word brother is his brother, and this is something I know is true.

Detroit appears on zero pages of We Make Mud, but another true thing I know is that Peter Markus is a Detroit writer, that despite never claiming the name the stories in We Make Mud are Detroit stories, about Detroit rivers, Detroit muds and moons, Detroit brothers. And so it is a pleasure to be in Detroit to celebrate Peter Markus, one of our own best brothers.

Asked about his long-standing affection for these words, Peter once said, "I love the way they sound when I say them, when they lift up from my tongue; I love the way they look when I look at them; I love the way they taste, and smell, and feel when I run my hands across them…. And that’s where it all begins: in that sensory place where pleasure meets up with the desire to make something out of nothing: to make love. To make something that didn’t exist until the force of my sentences called it forth. These stories that I write with these words that I love, they are to me love stories."

Brother and Brothers, River, Fish, Mud: These are the objects most loved on the pages of Peter's best-known works, these words as objects through which we know his worlds.

This is word as love story, built by repetition.

What makes these repetitions so strong, so seemingly expansive and inexhaustible? In his book Telling It Again and Again, the critic Bruce Kawin says this about the device's power: "Every day the sun comes up, stays up, goes down. We experience this cycle of light and warmth 26,000 times in an average life time, and find that not enough. What is more important for our purposes here: we do not find the cycle boring. It has rhythmic sympathy with the way we function. It is important. It is dependable. It is like us, and good and bad to us. It is not exhaustible; novelty is exhaustible. The search for novelty leads in the end to boredom. We are bored when we run of out of 'interesting' things to do, or when our own lack of vital energy disgusts us. We are not bored with our personal obsessions, our natural functions, or the periodicity of nature—no matter how familiar to us they might be... The sun comes up every day (and we receive it) in perfect attention; it does not fear that it is being repetitious, nor presumably does it remember what it has done before or consider what it will do in the future. It is the strength of assertion, the assurance of identity, that is the force of repetition; it is the apologetic consciousness squeezed between past and future, unsure of itself and its intentions, wavering, faltering, that gives the sense of repetitious to recurrence. The present is eternal, and eternity is repetition."

I. Brother

So Peter Markus is in love with the word brother—but why does he love it? In another interview, Peter told of the origins of the brothers he's spent so much of his career writing about, a story I'd never read before this week. He said, "The brothers were born some ten odd years ago when my wife and I found out that there was the seed of a boy growing inside her belly. We already had a daughter, a little girl of two or so, and I was having trouble at the time figuring out how to make room for this son. The way I figured out that I could wrap my brain and heart around it was to bring my daughter into the mix as much as we could, so at night in bed my daughter and I would talk to my wife's belly and what was there inside it. The word 'brother' for the first time in my life entered violently into my life in this way. It was brother this and brother that. It was in this way that the word brother came to own me, and it exerted a great force over my life. Out of this word brother and the way that it owned me both with its musicality and the mystery behind it I started making sentences with the word brother in it and little by little these sentences driven by the word brother became stories that then, for many years following, became the obsession of my making. I couldn't stop that word brother and the locomotive way that it wanted to be made into its own sibling world."

This is one of the love stories I can see now in Peter's books: The love of the word brother, of the character—the brother—that word demanded, and then the sibling that character the brother needed—all of these things stemming from his own love for his children, for his daughter and her brother, the brother given his station even before he was born.

I believe that, for many of us, the repetition of important beliefs or ideas is an almost unseen daily practice, something done without recognition of it having been done before and having been done before and having been done before, or at least without recognition of the effects of that repetition: For instance, this morning I told my wife I love her, as I have told her every morning for almost ten years. The act is not diminished by having been done before, and this is, perhaps, because it has not been done before, in exactly this way, although many acts much like it have been: This morning's I love you reinforced, yes, but also it added, and afterward there was no way to go back to what there was before, no way to unhear, to unknow, to unfeel this newest. And yet is it not the fear of just such unhearing, unknowing, and unfeeling that keeps us repeating, that keeps us saying again what it is we have to say, what it is we want heard?

In Peter's books, we find the acknowledgment of this kind of powerful repetition everywhere we look, starting with the words.

II. River

Other experiences, as repetitions: What is guilt but the repetition of a moment forever, one that you cannot escape, that can be recalled from memory and relived at will? What is shame but the same? What is obsession, but the unwillingness to let a thought or feeling end, unresolved? What is addiction but a transcendent moment or feeling constantly interrupted by sobriety, with its resumption and reinstatement the addict's only goal?

What is memory but an unended endless moment, the imperfect recall, the repetition of something not truly repeatable?

We remember, and so try to live again, but so often the best we can do is get close, to approximate, and as we remember we change, as we tell the story again and again it shifts beneath us, and never does it become a static thing, a truth revealed and preserved, but rather a series of almost-copies, each one a progression of moments: Peter says, "When I write the word 'river' just the word itself makes me think of a stretch of the Detroit River where as a boy I spent many a day and night." All it takes is the word river, and he is back inside a previous experience—a previous love—while also, simultaneously, experiencing it again, anew, in his mind; while also, simultaneously, creating a new world upon the page with ever rivery sentence he writes.

III. Mud

Imagine a book where the pages turn forward, front to back, left to right, but where after a certain point, the page numbers cease to advance, even as you turn the pages forward. The book advances, but it is always page 42 now, as the action rises. It is still page 42, at the climax. It is still page 42, at happily ever after, at the ride off into the sunset, at the last page of text, and then at the blank pages that come after. Even on the inside of the back cover, perhaps it is still page 42, according to the small number printed at the center of the footer. Now imagine trying to quote that book, trying to cite it: Now everything after p. 41 happens on page 42, on some page 42. Now page 42 contains not a scene, but the whole of a character's life.

Some kinds of repetition create a way of experiencing time that is not linear, or at least less so: instead, it becomes an eternal moment, a continuous present. To experience such a time is as potentially awful as it is potentially beautiful, but within its borders there exists the opportunity for more life that should fit within it, stretching and expanding the limits of the moment.

It is this time I am most concerned with in Peter's books, the time of structural and poetic repetitions, born of other effects of staging and acoustics, of love for Peter's endless words, his personal words that can never be said enough: The time of Brother, brother, brother. The time of Mud, mud, mud. The time of Fish, fish, fish. The time of River, river, river.

Imagine: the different story-time the word brothers makes, when said instead of brother.

Peter says, "To get sucked in and to be sucked in by a word is what every writer should be after. Hopefully that sucking word will then suck in other words that will be made into a sucking-in sentence. Sucking-in sentences seek out the company of other sucking-in words. And so that’s how I move through the making of a story: word by word, suck by suck, sentence by sentence."

IV. Fish

In yet another interview, Peter said that "In my world, a fish is a thing of beauty, and things of beauty sing for me on all levels (emotional, physical, lingual)… I might also add that the brothers love the fish and the river so much that it is the potency of their brotherly affection for said fish that make these otherwise songless creatures possess the ability to be acoustical objects. As a writer of sentences and of sentences that might be tuned and turned into fictions, I am always on the lookout for those acoustical objects. In other words, those lingual events that might be the genesis for conjuring up an otherwise unseen and unknown world."

To pick one bit of this and run with it, as a way of coming to an ending: Peter says that it is the brothers' love for the fish and the river that makes the fish sing, that makes them "acoustical objects" capable of conjuring worlds. I know that is Peter's love for his words that makes them powerful—that it is that these loved words were born of his love for his family, and his loves for the river of his youth, and for other loves I don't know to name—and it is by their repetition that he increases their strength, their effect, their wonder, his love. No matter what Peter reads tonight, I know you will be able to hear the love for language that defines Peter's work, and hear the love of life that generates it, and you will hear how that love, when repeated over and over, can create a world, a physical place of words as real as any other, containing a multitude of love stories.