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 era.

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 North Dakota.

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