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Review of

Debra Marquart's The Horizontal World: Growing Up Wild in the Middle of Nowhere

Counterpoint, 2006


By Todd Davis

I like reading best when I’m lost. I don’t mean intellectually befuddled. But, I suppose, that’s okay, too. I mean the way I feel when I’m a few hours out from any road, maybe a day in the middle of July, up in the mountains, and I’ve stumbled upon a remnant of old growth hemlock that’s not on the map, a sliver of a stream making it cool in the green ravine of late afternoon.

I got lost with Debra Marquart like this, out on the North Dakota plains, a place as foreign to me as a dark crater on some moon. Instead of July, it was August. She was talking to me about the horizontal world, the vast place in the middle of the country where the sky opens, and when the wind blows, parts of the heavens may just let loose.

I was in the backseat of her car, her husband driving. I could overhear everything, feel the tight-wire of tension as she approached the home she had always worked hard to escape. All of us were nervous because we were late for her father’s funeral, the patriarch who never quite approved of her rock-and-roll singing exploits, who somehow worked out a kind of forgiveness for her because maybe he understood someone had to run off so that they all could survive, that grit and determination and discipline can make wheat grow in soil where nothing should grow yet such accomplishments have their limitations.

There’s a house being moved ahead of us, and it blocks the way into town. Work crews carefully move power lines over its eaves and peaks. We’re going to be late for the funeral. We’re going to fulfill everyone’s low expectations for us.

We turn around to take the section line through the fields that surround this road, hoping we’ll get to the service on time, be able to hear last rites. As we bounce over the ruts where frost has heaved the earth, we come upon an old farmstead, one without a memory or anyone to remember it. And we’re lost—geographically, historically, personally. But it feels right to be lost, to discover this place within a place, to discover that the banality, which had grown out of over-familiarity, was misplaced, misnamed, that there’s always something new a place has to give us.

In the end the road peters out. We go back the way we’ve come, as we usually do in life. The old man is entered into the ground he worked so hard to salvage, to save, to resurrect. And that old farmstead: Debra’s brother, who still farms the home place, can’t recall having seen it. Try as she might—like most places we stumble upon when we’re lost—she never finds it again.

Of course, all of this is like reading—knowing there’s a passage in some book, knowing it because it’s become a part of you, and not even worrying that you can’t say the title, pull it off the shelf and find the page. It just doesn’t matter because you’ve already been there. You’ve been lost. You’ve been found. And something or someone has helped you get there—and back again.

Todd Davis teaches creative writing, environmental studies, and American literature at Penn State University—Altoona. His poems have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and have appeared or are forthcoming in such journals and magazines as The North American Review, River Styx, Arts & Letters, Indiana Review, Quarterly West, The Christian Science Monitor, Green Mountains Review, The Iowa Review, and Poetry East. He is the author of two books of poems, Ripe (Bottom Dog Press, 2002) and Some Heaven (Michigan State University Press, 2007)