The New Guy Just Couldn’t Sing

I don’t remember, exactly, how I was introduced to Debra Marquart, or rather to her work, but right after I was, I found her e-mail address on the Iowa State University website and sent her an e-mail asking her how I could buy her two poetry books and one poetry CD, and a week later, a package arrived in the mail with all three items and a bill for about $35. I sent her a check and enjoyed her work, and then one day about five years later she showed up doing a reading at Bismarck State College, and I went and enjoyed it, and took my books and CD up front for her to sign. I introduced myself and she said “Oh, yeah, you’re the guy who e-mailed me. Thanks for the check.” We visited a bit, and I haven’t seen her since, except we’re Facebook friends and I noticed she was just in Bismarck at a North Dakota Humanities Council event, which I missed because we were at Cross Ranch enjoying a semi-spring day and night. I’m writing to recommend you read her work. You may have heard of her latest book, a memoir about growing up on a farm near Napoleon, ND. If not, you should probably buy it or run to the library and check it out, because, while it is not my favorite North Dakota memoir, it is really fine writing. Instead of me wasting words telling you about her, let her tell you herself, from the prologue to The Horizontal World: Growing Up Wild in the Middle of Nowhere.

“Farmboys. How we avoided them when they came around, their hands heavy with horniness, their bodies thick with longing. Be careful of farmboys, we warned each other. They know how to plant seeds.

“And who could say where their hands had been? On pitchforks, mowers, inside swathers, combines. They were patient boys, those  long hours in the saddle of the tractor, plowing dark furrows in the fertile earth. They might be grasping the teats of milk cows at sunrise, killing gophers in the afternoon, and be on you by nightfall. No, no. Best to stick with townboys, their soft saliva mouths, their round corduroy shoulders, their talk of plans for college.

“We were farmgirls running tall through pastures. We had long shiny hair and peach-fresh skin. Born to carry the milk bucket, the alfalfa bale, our hands soon mastered the manual transmission. We learned to speed shift, double clutch. Our feet never knew the brake. We roared down the section lines in our fathers’ pickups, empty gas cans clanging in the truck bed. We left trails of dust behind us.

“This was no little house on the prairie.We smeared musky blue shadow on our eyelids and raspberry gloss on our lips. We wore platform shoes and bell-bottom jeans. It was the times.We were hip-huggered, and tight-sweatered, amd navel-exposed. We walked around town like the James gang, tossing this and flashing that.

“We came in pairs sometimes, first cousins, second cousins, double cousins–it thrilled the imagination. Some  were brunette with delicate features, some had hair that hung heavy as gold down the angle of a jaw line. Some of us had wild laughs that never led to wild actions. Some had older sisters who got in trouble and had to get married or had to be sent away to homes for wayward girls.

“We had strong white teeth. We shone them on the world. We spoke the international language of beauty. All the immigrant grandparents gossiped in German about us. We were wayward girls looking for the untroubled way. We were best in show, the pick of the litter, the cream of the crop, too good for this place, everyone agreed. We were programmed for flight.

“We farmgirls lived north, south, east and west of town. In the middle of all this was me–the girl that I was then–the watcher, leaning toward the periphery.

“Grow Where You’re Planted, that poster I had on my bedroom wall as a teenager, I know I never believed it. Was it the image I liked that made me duct tape it to the wall? A daisy with a bent stalk growing out of a square pot. Two other posters, Label Jars, Not People and Make Love, Not War, I believed. But Grow Where You’re Planted, never. In my childhood, like those people with suitcases packed and waiting for the mother ship, I prepared myself for transplantation.

“Napoleon, the small town in North Dakota where I grew up–1,107 people , three bars, two grain elevators, a post office, a drug store, a courthouse, a funeral home, and farmland stetching for miles in all directions. The only jobs I saw around me were farmer, banker and priest. The prospects for women were worse–teacher, housewife, nun. Not one of the many occupations I imagined for myself.”

That’s a pretty good start to the book. You’ll learn she did run away, to join a rock and roll band, to tour the country, to earn a degree and then advanced  degrees, and to become a professor at Iowa State University. And a poet. A darn good one. I have some favorites, and I’ll share a couple, and then send you out to find her books and read some more. They are some of the best things ever written about North Dakota.

My Father Tells This Story About His Brother Frank and the Wick (Every Time I Ask Him For Money)

your grandpa marquart, he was a tight sonofabitch, you know, every night he’d come to the bottom of the steps and yell up, frank, go to sleep, you’re wasting my oil. because frank liked to read. he was always reading something. he wasn’t much for farmwork, but he liked school and reading and just wasting his time on  books.

so grandpa thought he better put an end to all that laziness and sloth. frank was pretty much worthless when five o’clock chores rolled around. it was more work getting him out of bed than just doing the chores yourself.

so this went on for years, this, grandpa coming to the steps at night and yelling up, frank, go to sleep, you’re wasting my oil, and frank setting his book down, leaving it open to the last page he was reading  and rolling the wick down into the lamp and dousing the flame.

so finally frank gets this town job and  makes a little money, and the first thing he does is buys himself some oil right off, see, so he can read as late as he pleases. then when grandpa comes to the steps at night and yells up, frank, go to sleep, you’re wasting my oil, frank gets out of bed and goes to the top of the steps and yells back down, this is my oil. I bought this oil  with my own money, and I will burn this oil as I see fit.

but grandpa, he had a way, you know, of seeing how things broke down, how they divided up, because he yelled right back, without even thinking, he said, but what about the wick? that’s what he said, what about the wick?

your grandfather, I’m telling you, now there was a tight man.

Dylan’s Lost Years

Somewhere between Hibbing
and New York, the red rust streets
of the iron range and the shipping yards
of the Atlantic, somewhere between
Zimmerman and Dylan, was a pit stop
in Fargo, a superman-in-the-phone-booth
interlude, recalled by no one but
the Danforth Brothers who hired
the young musician, fresh in town
with his beat-up six string and his
small town twang, to play shake,
rattle, and roll, to play good golly,
along with Wayne on keys and Dirk
on base, two musical brothers
whom you might still find playing
the baby grand, happy hours
at the Southside Holiday Inn.
And if you slip the snifter a five,
Wayne might talk, between how high
the moon, and embraceable you, about
Dylan’s lost years, about the Elvis sneer,
the James Dean leather collar pulled
tight around his neck, about the late night
motorcycle rides kicking over the city’s
garbage cans. And how they finally
had to let him go, seeing how he was
more trouble than he was worth,
and with everyone in full agreement
that the new boy just could not sing.

Note from Jim: There are a few versions of this story about Dylan getting fired from a band in Fargo. This one is as good as any (names changed to protect the guilty).  One even involves Bobby Vee. Whichever is true, the fact is, Bob Dylan did stop in Fargo, played a few gigs with somebody, and got fired because, as Marquart says, “the new boy just could not sing.” He who laughs last . . .