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  • Muddled Truths
  • Jason Cook (bio)
We Make Mud. Peter Markus. Dzanc Books. 145 pages; paper, $16.95; eBook, $7.99.

Peter Markus is a writer attuned to the power of language, like the mystics who once believed the universe was created with a word and that, just by naming something, it could be pulled into being. Or like a child just learning the power of language to evoke emotion or recreate the world. The brothers who narrate these stories of pulling dirty fish from the dirty river running through the middle of their dirty river town, chopping off their heads and nailing them to the creosoted telephone pole in the yard behind their house, revel in the words to describe the world they create for themselves nearly as much as they do the world itself. The river, the sky, guitars that become fish—Peter Markus builds We Make Mud from small elements such as these, simple stories with power that emerges slowly through repetition, retelling, and permutation.

Repetition is usually seen as a flaw, a technique most writers will only employ for emphasis or rhythm. Markus's narrators take it one step further, making the repeated words, phrases, and images into a kind of chant, the repeated images into ritualistic passages invoked in holy books and the sacred histories of oral traditions. "Those muddy river fish that us brothers used to catch out of the muddy river that runs its way through this muddy river town, those fish were muddy river fish that always tasted of mud." Repetition like this seems anything but sloppy, carefully crafted to hit the same words over and over: mud, river, fish, moon. These chants, coupled with the amazingly constrained vocabulary with which Markus has chosen to work, the child-like (not childish) voice in which the stories are told takes on a layer of awe with these chants, revealing deeper meaning in the words and objects which the brothers cannot articulate but know, nevertheless, is there.

Elements reappear again and again within the stories, as well—refrains of prose which, when not rewritten verbatim, have very little variation. "The sky above the river, the black metal mill shipwrecked down by the river's muddy shores, it was dark and quiet." Beyond serving the function of tying the stories together, the repeated choruses are powerfully written. The brothers share a look that "actually hurts the eyes of the brother doing the looking. Imagine that look." Like the repetition of individual words, the recurring sections take on, over the course of several stories, the aura of mythology. One cannot imagine the brothers looking at one another any other way, cannot imagine the father saying anything other than, "You boys be sure to clean up out there before you come back in" when they are nailing one another's hands to the pole.

In many respects, the stories themselves are repetitions, reworkings, and reimaginings of an event that, by the time the boys' imaginations have had their way with it, bears no resemblance to what actually happened. This is one of the most interesting and charming aspects of Markus's voice: the boys land a fish so big they can't cut off its head, their father lives as a fish in the riverbed, and, when the river dries up, they dig for "three hundred days and nights" to find a river running underneath the river they knew. Magical realism, when done well, is the child's flight of fancy made grown-up. Here, though, the wild and exotically unbelievable is told the way children do, with the aim of not so much relaying information, but in rendering a true experience, or just trying to impress one another. Even the violence, of which there is quite a bit, is told the way children imagine it: bloodless, extravagant, but without real consequence. The brothers cut off the heads of fish and their mother, and even fall victim to decapitation themselves. The insistence of the boys on these stories as they tell them amounts to a child-like assertion of truth. The narrators never ask you to believe them because it never occurs to them...


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