Thursday, November 17, 2022

When Our Fathers Return to Us as Birds

by Peter Markus
(Wayne State University, 2021) 

Reviewed by Erica Goss

Encounters with birds carry a potent significance for human beings. Whether a goose chased us, or we tamed a crow, or kept parakeets in a cage, birds enhance our lives in countless and unpredictable ways. Birds embody contradictory beliefs; often seen as portents of menace and calamity, they also symbolize transformation and rebirth. Whether common or exotic, we’ve woven birds into our human mythology.
Peter Markus explores these connections in his first book of poems, When Our Fathers Return to Us as Birds. Each poem in this taut, highly focused collection revolves around the decline and death of his father. Largely filtered through Markus’s experiences with birds during the years before and after his father died, the book examines this period of emotional travail recursively, revisiting the territory of loss and grief from a number of closely viewed perspectives. 
Birds haunt Markus. They come to him in the voice of the priest who gives his father last rites, in the eerie calls of loons at night, and in that common and too frequent encounter, “the bird that flew into the window,” from “More Birds Than I Know What to Do With.” As he disposes of the bird’s body, the speaker reflects:
     [ … ] when I walked the bird 
     over to the garbage can and dropped it gently in,
     it made a sound. The final note
     in its song.

In spite of the bird’s apparent weightlessness, its body makes a sound when it drops, a sound it will never hear. This fact reverberates with the speaker, who observes “I was held by it— / like when you hit your hand once on a drum.” In these lines, Markus evokes the physical presence of loss, a theme he will return to throughout the book.
Over the course of a long illness, the father loses his ability to speak. Markus gives him voice in “Look at Those Birds”:
     Whatever words my father might speak
     now that he is dead are obvious ones: look
     at those birds, he tells me.
The poem ends, “Father. Father. Father. Bird. Bird. Bird.” With these one-word statements, each ending in a period, Markus releases his father. The repetition suggests that letting go is bird-shaped—as his father’s presence diminishes over time, the existence of birds brings an unexpected comfort.
Although birds are named in the book—crow, swan, duck, seagull—the poems don’t describe them in detail. That they remain mostly mysterious emphasizes the unavoidable fact that even though our imaginations bestow fantastic abilities and power upon birds, we know little of their daily lives. In “We Just Wanted to Get Him Home,” Markus describes an encounter with a Great Blue Heron:
     [ … ] maybe he is waiting for me to see him,
     though as soon as I get too near his wings
     unfold open as though pulled by a string from above
[ … ]
     I stand and watch
     as he disappears.
The poem jumps to “the last time my father was in the hospital, / I told the doctor: We just want to get him home. / I did not have to end this sentence with / to die.” The departure of the bird, prompted by the speaker being physically too close, echoes the predicament we find ourselves in while watching a loved one decline and die: we’re with them, but still completely separate from their suffering.
In “I take a Walk with the Gods,” Markus writes,
     I take a walk with the gods down to the river
     to see if we might reach an agreement.

Those lines bring to mind one of the five stages of grief, specifically bargaining. In this case, however, the speaker doesn’t ask the gods to extend his father’s life: “I do not beg for one more day. / Those days are over.” The gods’ jaded attitudes, as they go through the motions of ferrying the dead, seem to echo the speaker’s understanding of the inescapable outcome of his father’s illness: “The gods have a job / to do. There is no pleasure in their actions.” The poem ends with a concession to the inevitable: “My father is a fish / who will swim away once we choose to release him.”
Several poems center on how grief observes its own unsettling schedule, doubling back and leaping forward, leaving the mourner stunned anew. In “What Was Never His to Begin With,” Markus describes keeping “a tiny silver urn / with his father’s ashes in it [ … ] / because / he isn’t yet ready to give / his father back.” At the end of the poem, the Great Blue Heron returns, auguring change that the speaker is only dimly aware of:
     its long yellow beak stabbing
     at the dark and muddy waters
     moving steady in between its legs.

Similarly, in the book’s title poem, “When Our Fathers Return to Us as Birds,” the death of a friend’s father evokes awkwardness, an inability to comfort: “I had words to say back / but they’re never the right ones [ … ] / Maybe what’s best is to not say anything. / To let silence have its way with grief.” The poem ends with the reminder that no matter what, life goes on:
     And the stars will be there too, as they always are,
     as they always will be, when there’s nothing more to say.

Two poems, “For My Mother” and “What Did I Know about Work,” spotlight Markus’s mother’s role as primary caregiver for his father. In “For My Mother,” the father’s death is just one link in a long chain of coming tragedies:
     Now he’s dead. Now my mother sits alone in the quiet
     waiting to join him. I try to imagine what that must be like.
     But I can’t. I want to live. 
No matter how bad things were with his father, “nights / it was like something primal in him had been awoken,” Markus knows it’s worse for his mother, his father’s constant companion as he deteriorates. Even after a long day at work, Markus knows he can leave, a freedom his mother does not possess; this knowledge brings the uncomfortable realization: “Work, I would think. What did I know / about work? / [ ... ] I’d step outside, / [ … ] looking away from where the real work was taking place,” (from “What Did I Know about Work”).
Losing a loved one, whether suddenly or in the painfully protracted manner of Markus’s father, results in a new and precise awareness. For Markus, it’s the mysterious visits of birds, loaded with a meaning just beyond his grasp. No matter how terrible things are, whether Markus’s father is having a good day or a bad one, the birds appear, enigmatic, detached, ever-present. Markus doesn’t try to figure out whether these visits are random or not—he accepts them, gifts from the same forces that caused his father’s death.

Erica Goss is the author of Night Court, winner of the 2017 Lyrebird Award from Glass Lyre Press. Her flash essay, "Just a Big Cat," was one of Creative Nonfiction's top-read stories for 2021. Recent and upcoming publications include The Georgia Review, Oregon Humanities, Creative Nonfiction, North Dakota Quarterly, Spillway, A-Minor, Redactions, Consequence, The Sunlight Press, The Pedestal, San Pedro River Review, and Critical Read. Erica served as Poet Laureate of Los Gatos, California, from 2013–2016. She lives in Eugene, OR, where she teaches, writes, and edits the newsletter Sticks & Stones.


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