My two-year-old daughter can ID cardinals, blue jays, mourning doves and crows in books and in the world. We go on walks and name the birds we see or hear, sometimes doing our best to sing back to them. I learned about these same birds from my mom and dad, and from viewing the habitat and houses that they built for them. My dad is dead but he’s with us on these walks. “Knowing the birds” is a stitch that binds us, living, dead, past, present, future. This stitch is not at all unique to my family, and certainly other families are much more hardcore birders than we are. Understanding this stitch provides a great entry point to the poems in Peter Markus’ When Our Fathers Return to Us as Birds.
Our dead fathers are always leaving because they’re never really gone, and always returning because they aren’t exactly here. Markus opens the book with “What my Father Did Not Have to Say,” a poem that begins as a litany of things that Markus’ father would say in life, but that now hang in silence, echoing. Immediately after the death of his father, the poet goes to the river because he “thought maybe [he] would find something there to tell [him] what [he] was supposed to do now.” He finds silent loons who stay silent until night falls and then he describes “their voices crisscrossing the river in the April dark.” This crisscrossing of voices is another stitch.
Poet-father-bird remain in this crisscross orbit throughout the collection. Or, as Markus writes in the second poem of the collection, “when I go down to the river. When I walk through the trees. When I look at the sky. Father. Father. Father. Bird. Bird. Bird.” As you move from poem to poem in the book, and you should read the poems in order, front to back, as this is not a book to skip around in, losses accumulate. A father, a family dog, a seagull killed by a stone thrown on a dare, a bird that flies into the window, whatever the subject, Markus describes death as “the final note” in their song, and then just as quickly reminds us that the song is forever, even in its silence.
This idea of song is very prominent in the book. Bird song is obviously important but also the lullabies and comforting songs sung to children, who later sing those songs or others to dying parents. Markus explains, “this is how I kiss my father goodbye. This is how I hold his hand and sing.” In one particular poem, this means one thing, but really the whole book seems to fit this description as well. As a reader makes their way from poem to poem, the scene of Markus’ father dying returns again and again into focus, and so do the loons, now silent now singing. Along with this, a scene of the poet walking down to the river to gather water to anoint his father with the signs of a fish, a moon, a cross, the river itself, returns each time. Markus keeps walking to the river, gathering the water, anointing his father with the signs. This repetition works like an incantation.
Many readers will know that this river is the same river that runs through all of Markus’ writing and while this book of poems may possibly seem more personal than his fiction, there is still the same charged language. “I want to learn to speak the language where sky means bird and father and fish” becomes a sort of ars poetica, “a handful of words to put into a sentence” that can be said “in a single breath.” The grounding intimate nature of this book of poems, Markus’ first, might actually throw the rest of his books into a new light for some readers. It’s a book that works like a dream, and like grief. It’s a book filled with images and scenes that cycle and change and return slightly different each time, always in motion, always in place, like rivers and birds and dead fathers.
Michael Sikkema is an internationally published and award winning poet if you care about that sort of thing. More importantly, he's a big fan of Swamp Thing, Halloween III, and the extended Les Claypool universe. He enjoys conversation and correspondence and collaboration at Michael.Sikkema@gmail.com.