Nate Marshall and the power of the word

By Emily Ruth Rutter, PhD

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The current poetic landscape is as dynamic and multifarious as ever, and Nate Marshall is a key exponent of its kinetic energy. A founding member of the Dark Noise Collective, a Cave Canem Fellow, the Director of National Programs for Young Chicago Authors and the Louder Than a Bomb Youth Poetry Festival, co-editor of the much-praised The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop (Haymarket Books, 2015), and author of the collection Wild Hundreds (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015), Marshall is an artist committed to dismantling the false separations between page and stage, individual and community, and poetry and politics. Moreover, for Marshall and his contemporaries who came of age in the spoken word scene, the performed lyric has to enrapture the audience in a compressed span of time in a genre characterized by often deeply personal expressions of identity and social critique. Both this vitality and vulnerability also characterize Wild Hundreds, the winner of the 2014 Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize.

Divided into three sections, Wild Hundreds invites readers into the socioeconomically stark yet culturally vibrant realities of growing up on Chicago’s far South Side in a neighborhood colloquially referred to as the Wild Hundreds, where Marshall himself was reared. Marshall’s dedication to his grandparents for “bringing us to the Hundreds and teaching us how to make home in a new place” (v) and to “the victims of state-supported and -sanctioned black death, from Emmett Till to Damo Franklin to Rekia Boyd” (v) likewise affirms the interlaced personal-political significance of the coming-of-age poems collected here. In an especially rich passage from James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” the narrator ruefully surveys the 1950s Harlem landscape: “These boys, now, were living as we’d been living then, they were growing up with a rush and their heads bumped abruptly against the low ceiling of their actual possibilities” (414). Marshall, writing over a half-century later about Chicago, evinces a similar socioeconomic and political terrain, whereby the “actual possibilities” for black boys and men are curtailed to getting ensnared in the criminal justice system and/or dying young.

Here, boys of African descent, like many of Marshall’s speakers, accelerate to men, their innocence snatched before they have the opportunity to fully revel in young love or dreams of socioeconomic and professional mobility. For example, riffing on both Gwendolyn Brooks’s famous lines from “We Real Cool” — “We / Jazz June. We / Die soon” (337) — and George Gershwin’s iconic tune “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess, Marshall’s “Indian Summer” paints an elegiac portrait: “summertime / & dying is easier. june is jazz / or a funeral dirge” (40). Encumbered by soaring temperatures and no relief from crushing poverty and the violence that it engenders, summer on the South Side is a minefield with none of the respite that the season signifies for Americans with privilege.

In fact, Wild Hundreds commences and concludes with the same poem, “repetition & repetition &,” but with the lines inverted, indicating the cyclical pattern that the collection as a whole traces. On the one hand, Marshall represents an affirming community — “ours is a long love song” (3, 65) — and on the other one filled with the knowledge that this affection and solidarity could be threatened at any given moment by the violence within and without the Hundreds. The “long love song, / a push out into open air” must contend with “a pool of grief puddling, / a stare into the barrel” (3, 65). The “repetition” of this pattern is not only a lesson for those within “the hood,” but also for readers, whom Marshall implies need to recognize that these realities are part of our own story: “a national shame / amnesia & shame again” (3), or, put another way, “amnesia & shame again. / a national shame” (65).

At the same time, Marshall utilizes the printed page to illustrate the yearning and tenderness that do not make the voyeuristic news cycle about crime and poverty but are nonetheless powerful testaments to lives that matter. For instance, distinct iterations of the poem “Chicago high school love letters” appear in each of the collection’s three parts, capturing various forms of intimacy, as well as an endemic fear of the hostilities that pervade life on the South Side. The initial iteration marks the “first day of school” with the speaker proudly proclaiming the sacrifice of personal safety he would make to see his beloved:

i would take the bus
to you, walk through
your neighborhood
& navigate the colors. (11)      

With the speaker’s willingness to brave the gang rivalries and neighborhood turf wars that have riven the terrain, Marshall reminds readers of the high stakes of young love in this vibrant but unforgiving landscape.

Indeed, the final iteration of “Chicago high school love letter” (this time a singular, rather than a plural), Marshall marks what should be a moment of celebration with a reminder of the grim statistics teenage South Siders face:

            graduation

                        333.

            hold me
               before
                         i
       disappear. (59)

A plaintive plea (“hold me”) to the imagined recipient of the letter as much as to us as readers, Marshall includes a footnote that contextualizes this series of love letters: “the numbers in ‘Chicago high school love letters’ represent the city’s homicides during the 2007-2008 Chicago Public Schools academic year” (59).

This focus on Chicago’s children and the institutionalized skin privilege and discrimination that determines their fate recurs in other poems, such as “the last graduation” and “the first graduation.” Read in tandem, Marshall elucidates the stark differences between the African-descended eighth-grader whose education, and the hopeful promise that it entails, has come to an abrupt end. Outlined as a series of instructions, Marshall imagines the careful transition from the boy with the graduation gown — “get home & take off the gown. / fold it perfect, put it in a plastic sleeve” — to the young man “ready to throw rock” (51). His change of clothes marks this transformation from childhood dreams to the circumscribed and racialized realities of adulthood:

tuck away the fake snakeskin shoes
& the polyester pantsuit.
reach for the Sox fitted.

it is crumpled;
a dull, deep black
we learn to be. (51)

Here is the “low ceiling” again, with eighth-graders already assuming the “dull, deep black” role that hegemonic forces have scripted for those hailing from the Hundreds.       

In “the first graduation,” by contrast, Marshall imagines an eighth-grader, presumably white, who is irritated at the whole exercise of the graduation: “when my parents try to take a picture / I pitch a fit” (52). Assured that this is only one in a long string of congratulatory milestones — “there will be other / moments to capture” (52) — this young man feels no pressure to undergo the transformation from boy to man that marked the experience of his counterpart. He is not responsible for preserving the moment any more than he is for a future that unfurls brightly before him:

slide out of the dress clothes.
leave them for the help to fold. reach 
for my tattered Cubs hat, the ease
that there will be other hats to wear.
bike to the park, summer baseball
to play. there are throws to make
& every opportunity
to catch. (52)                    

The baseball teams demarcating the boundaries between these two Chicagos — North Side (the Cubs) and South Side (the White Sox)—Marshall poignantly puts the lie to American rhetoric about meritocracy and rugged individualism. In other words, these two geographic regions, so close in proximity and so distant in terms of social realities, produce two very different young men: one with boundless “opportunit[ies] / to catch” and one with “crumpled” dreams whose horizons are delimited to “throwing rock” on “the asphalt pond” (51).  

Within this landscape, Marshall implies, innocence, love, and the intimacy of family and community are all imperiled by structural forces beyond the individual’s control. To this end, “picking flowers” meditates on various floral associations with both beauty and death, suggesting how closely they are intertwined in a grief-stricken landscape: “picking dandelions will ruin your hands, / turn their smell into a bitter cologne” (60). These dandelions are as much a sign of all of those slayed and buried as they are of new beginnings. Stability, therefore, is not characterized by the reassurance that all will be well in the end, but rather by inevitable violence:  

a man carries flowers for three reasons:

        • he is in love
        • he is in mourning
        • he is a flower salesman

i’m on the express train passing stops .   
to a woman. maybe she’s home.
i have a bouquet in my mind,
laid on 1 of my arms like a shotgun.
the color is brilliant, a gang war
wrapped & cut diagonal at the stems.
i am not a flower salesman.
that is the only thing i know. (60)

Marshall conveys a sense of powerlessness that accompanies the experience of living in a society that has deemed certain groups disposable. Even one’s associations with flowers — what has long been, especially in poetry, a sign of ardent romance — is informed by the possibility that the bouquet will be set atop a grave or will mirror the vividly bloody aftermath of “a gang war.” In this landscape, nothing may be taken for granted.    

At the same time, Marshall harnesses the power of the word to map out another kind of liberating “wildness,” an imagined space in which unfettered love is still possible for those within and beyond the Hundreds. For instance, the poem “the break” self-reflexively alludes to the musical starts and stops that occasion radical innovation, resonating with what Fred Moten conceives of “as a generative break, one wherein action becomes possible, one in which it is our duty to linger in the name of ensemble and its performance” (98). Marshall leans into this liminal space and exploits it for its creative possibilities: “the break / is the place in the funk record / everybody goes crazy” (20). “The break,” like much of Wild Hundreds, is borne of strife but is not defined by it:

the break is where drums take center .   
stage. the break is the center. the break
is the party. the break is built
from thrown-out equipment,
unused grooves. the break is struggle. (20)

Social and economic constraints abound, yes, but music and poetry will continue to chafe against those restrictions, constructing new sonic and epistemological patterns out of “used grooves.”

And, if the exquisite Wild Hundreds is any indication, Nate Marshall’s lyric breaks are on the ascendant, along with his brand of socially conscious poetry. “Political Poetry Is Hot Again” declares U.S. poet laureate Tracy K. Smith in a recent piece in the New York Times. Yet, as Ayana Mathis recently observed:

Even as African-American writing currently experiences an unprecedented mainstream appeal and critical recognition, the focus on black expression has another, uglier face: a deadly obsession with black bodies. Thus, it is possible for the Sacramento police to murder a black man holding a cellphone in his grandmother’s backyard and for [Colson] Whitehead to win the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award within a year. How are we to reconcile these truths? (138)

Marshall’s rich portraits of Chicago’s South Side remind us that a prestigious literary award, a coveted academic position, and/or a reinvigorated poetry scene will not cauterize the gaping wounds of systemic racism and abject poverty. Marshall’s Wild Hundreds, therefore, does not allow readers to forget the lives that institutions have, encouraging us instead both to bear witness and to refuse the “repetition & repetition &” of American history.         

 

Works Cited

Baldwin, James. “Sonny’s Blues.” The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Valerie Smith. Norton, 2014, pp. 413-435.

Brooks, Gwendolyn. “We Real Cool.” The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Valerie Smith. Norton, 2014, pp. 337.

Marshall, Nate. Wild Hundreds. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015.

Mathis, Ayana. “The Academy.” New York Times Style Magazine, 2 Dec. 2018, pp. 136-141.

Moten, Fred. In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition. University of Minnesota Press, 2003.

Smith, Tracy K. “Political Poetry Is Hot Again. The Poet Laurette Explores Why, and How.” The New York Times Book Review, 16 Dec. 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/10/books/review/political-poetry.html 


Read more in this issue: Interview | Poems | Writing Prompt


 
E.Rutter.Author PhotoEmily Ruth Rutter is Assistant Professor of English at Ball State University. She is the author of two books: Invisible Ball of Dreams: Literary Representations of Baseball behind the Color Line (University Press of Mississippi, 2018), and The Blues Muse: Race, Gender, and Musical Celebrity in American Poetry (University of Alabama Press, 2018). Her numerous essays have been published in journals such as African American Review, South Atlantic Review, and MELUS. She recently completed Revisiting the Elegy in the Black Lives Matter Era (Routledge, 2020), a collection of critical essays and poetry, which she co-edited with Sequoia Maner, Tiffany Austin, and darlene anita scott. 

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