Everything is a Verb: Poems
Book review by Ron Vossler,
Marquart, Debra K. Everything is a Verb: Poems. Minneapolis, Minnesota: New Rivers Press, 1995.
Deb Marquart's Everything is a Verb brings for the first
time to the public a poetry collection from this talented North
Dakota native. (Small irony: the book was a Minnesota Voices Project
Winner for 1994 from New Rivers Press of Minneapolis.)
One great strength of these forty-one poems is that though they
primarily draw on everyday speech, they also rise above the purely
literal; that is, the poems become, at times, visionary, exploring
territory we all know of or are reminded of, in that vast terrain
the size of a fist, our own heart.
It is a pleasure to note the absence, for the most part, in Marquart's
poems of that limited aesthetic currently bogging down so many poetic
efforts: the restrained narrative of "this happened, that happened,
and then I had an epiphany that I want to share with you."
No, these poems aim higher than that. There are no solitary poetic
musings, or writing about being a writer, no obscurities that cry
out for explanation - there is mostly the flesh and blood and bone
of poetry, sometimes angry, or stark, or lurching towards the grotesque,
as Sherwood Anderson defined that word. These are poems that, like
any good piece of art, raise more questions than are answered. No
neat endings or fragile realizations; just lingering, occasionally
haunting lines that stay with you - the truest test.
Some poems seem stripped bare of place and time, like bones bleached
white in the sun, poems which in their simplicity approach the mythic,
as in "I Am Upstairs, Trying To Be Quiet," or in "Finding
the Words," where we find this journey into, and out of the
labyrinth: "When I walk it, the path to the lost words will
be strewn with socks, gloves, earrings, all the twins of things
I've lost on this long journey out."
Just to indicate the variety in this collection, let this reviewer
point out many of Marquart's poems take an opposite approach than
that indicated above, dwelling on specific people, family members,
who at first glance seem typical, humorous eccentrics from small
towns on the North Dakota plains (where, as Larry Woiwode has so
aptly pointed out, people still retain enough character to be thought
eccentric): great aunts with one gold tooth and cats eye glasses
("Bronze These Shoes"); a grandfather who, after laying
wreathes on graves, drives all the way home with his car blinker
on ("Grandfather's Hands"); and, a repetitious father
stuck like that blinker in the on-mode, forever telling his one
and only story ("Wormwood").
But there is more. Beneath the polished poetic surfaces looms that
old prairie life of the Black Sea German immigrants and their children
and grandchildren, and ethnicity that informs and shapes the best
of these poems, that shows itself in flashes and turns, like the
snowy flanks of Moby Dick churning in uncharted seas: how another
language renders English meanings arbitrary (as in "The Long
Root," where a wart on the hand is thought to be an actual
war or battle); how emotional repression - a result of both immigration
and Germanic restraint - give rise to victimization (as shown in
"Behave" where a father screams into the face of a hyperventilating
child: "Now you just relax").
There is also something easily overlooked in many of these poems,
the snuffing of human potential - as we might define it from our
comfortable perch at the tail end of this century. We see a son's
desire to read snuffed out by a cranky father, subtly intertwined
in "My Father Tells This Story..." with the snuffing of
a lampwick; we also see a similar situation in "Doing the Twist,"
where four daughters, domineered by their father, perform a regimented
"twist" when company comes - comic on the surface, but
tragic in the long run.
Small world story: Deb Marquart grew up, as did this reviewer,
in what is sometimes jokingly referred to as "behind the Sauerkraut
Curtain" - a relatively isolated south-central North Dakota,
where Black Sea German immigrants settled so thickly at the turn
of the century. (Was that her brother, or cousin, in that area where
everyone seems related, looming above this reviewer as he frantically
drove the baseline in the district basketball tournament decades
ago?) She is also related to Lawrence Welk, the most famous Black
Sea German, who made his reputation on his wholesome music and heavy
accent. Her essay, "The Most Famous Person from North Dakota,"
which won the 1995 New Letters Essay Award, is based, in part, on
Welk's ambiguous influence on her and her family; readers will also
find in her poems numerous references to music, for besides writing
poetry and essays, Marquart is also a professional musician.
These are not homogenized poems, fit only for a genteel audience;
they are occasionally hard, with flashes of bitterness, or, less
frequently, as the title poem, nervous and schizzy with pulsing
revelations about boundaries "or the lack thereof." This
reviewer, anyway, appreciated that old "grob" quality,
a hint of toughness and vulgarity which cropped up in some of the
poems, a remnant of that odburancy required of grandparents who
tamed the prairie, and an obdurancy perhaps necessary for their
grandchildren to stake out new literary homesteads in the modern
Without dwelling too much on the complex, often tumultuous cultural
history of the Black Sea Germans (on their Macondo-like century
of solitude on the Russian steppes before settling, among other
places, on the Dakota plains; on their initial dissembling to U.S.
census takers about their real origins, and their later almost cumulative
amnesia about their own past; on the sad fate of those who stayed
behind in Russia, exiled to Siberia in Stalin's castle cars in WW
II, or drafted as canon fodder into both the German and the Russian
armies) - let this reviewer point out that this history informs,
however indirectly, many of Marquart's poems.
In an interview, Isaac Singer, the Nobel Prize winning novelist
said, "no great assimilationist can be a great writer."
In that regard, what seemed most authentic and powerful about this
collection were those places where the author caught - as in that
Brueghel painting which freezes the moment Icarus, reeling out the
heavens, slips unnoticed into the lake - the plunge of the old immigrant
past into modernity.
The most powerful poem in this collection about origins, since,
as Singer might say, literature is necessarily connected with one's
origins, is "The Long Root," which manages to ponder,
as several other poems do also, the arbitrariness of language. In
this case, the reader learns, in one swoop, or, better, in one quick
jerk, about both literal and figurative roots, when the grandfather
pulls a tooth from his mouth with a pliers, and, showing the long
root, declares, "I brought this tooth with me from Odessa."
There are other moments like that too, where the past surfaces,
as in "Wormwood," when a faith-healer, a "braucher"
- fetched from the south (of the country? And what that old "braucher"
the same one who attended this reviewer's grandfather?) - heals,
using medieval German methods; or, most tellingly, in the first
lines of "True Tribe," where Black Sea German fatalism
is the topic.
It is a medieval fatalism tempered with two centuries of travail,
with two and sometimes three emigrations, with sojourns and the
building up of new lives in alien lands - out of which came that
simple, but dogged idea that "blood follows blood," that
biology and family are destiny, that one must conform to the old
ways of religion, language, and family - which is the heart and
soul of that immigrant belief system. If one reads "True Tribe"
with a sociological bent, the Black Sea Germans in their North Dakota
enclave were, buy the middle of this century, however much that
group was assimilated in other ways, not completely comfortable
with the American ideals of individuality.
In "True Tribe" we see the narrator's struggle to establish
herself, her own identity, apart from her "old tribe"
- that universal struggle of all children to leave their family,
or define themselves against that family: but a struggle all the
more profound for someone from a traditional, or tribal structure,
where "boundaries" are both less, and more, defined.
Beyond the sociological history, which this reviewer has emphasized
here, there is, simply put, a lot of playfulness, love and searching
in these poems. There is the searching out of ambivalences towards
a place and people (read Logan County, North Dakota, and children
of settlers of Black Sear German descent) which have wounded, but
which one loves despite that wounding. It's the same theme, of course,
which crops up in Faulkner's Quentin, in Absalom, Absalom,
and his plaint about the South: "I don't hate it,. I don't
, I don't." - to which Deb Marquart adds her own prairie paean.
The most haunting of her poems was the final one, "Somewhere
In A House Where You Are Not," winner of the Guy Owen Poetry
Prize, and my own favorite. It would have made a striking title
for this collection - the simultaneous flight from, and towards,
one's own past - ethnic or not, (like the ending of the Great Gatsby).
"Somewhere..." is a poem that reminds us that, in one
sense or another, we are wayfarers, for, as Salmon Rushdie has pointed
out, "the past is a country from which we have all emigrated,
that its loss is part of our common humanity."
"Somewhere..." is a poem whose deceptively simple silences
and spaces reverberate an inner world we all recognize, a world
like that in the little known classic novella Pedro Paramo by the
Mexican writer Juan Rulfo, under whose tutelage Gabriel Garcia Marquez
learned magical realism. It's a twilight world of return and haunting
and loss, which is Deb Marquart's prairie's legacy - that bone and
heart workshop out of which she has fashioned this collection.
Ronald J. Vossler is a professor of English at the University of