by Nate Marshall
6 x 9
Wild Hundreds, the first book of poems by Nate Marshall, is a modern mosaic of the Windy City. On par with Carl Sandburg’s poem “Chicago,” this book illustrates the city of the big shoulders and the gas lamps it has outgrown while a steady drum of violence roars in the streets. “They tell me you are brutal.” Marshall displays that brutality to the world. The entire narrative is elusive. It drifts like a thought on the tip of your tongue before shifting to other topics: Liquor store landscapes, short-lined love poems, black bodies mutilated by bullets.
The poem, “out south,” for example, demonstrates an unambiguous reality of the south side of Chicago. “we Roseland stars made players/ for the press. apes caged from 1st grade until/ shake us. we make terrible tambourines.” From first grade, many black children come to understand what one’s color means in this country. It means a whitewashed history, lost, with no known place of origin but this land, which holds so much hatred in it towards you, the black boy or black girl, before you have even been born. Growing up with the mentality that the world is not for you can be suffocating and isolating, and you will start to wonder why the only time you see people like you is when they are going through the daily blotter of black faces committing crimes on the news– as if that’s your story, as if that’s the direction of your destiny, some dismantled tragic home. It is a set up. It is a constant shaking of the tambourine that sends the mind toward madness or the body toward the soil, reluctantly and young.
You do your best to drown the noise despite its constant repetition.
The poem, “Fame Food & Liquor,” demonstrates the day-to-day dependency of drinking alcohol in order to drown out the noise. Marshall writes the poem as a ghazal and like a camera, it captures snapshots of a typical inner city neighborhood. Each line of the poem ends, like many impoverished streets might, with “liquor store.” These stores stay open later than they should, and locals know, “when the liquor store/ is locked up the rolling metals make the window/ a pastoral, part of our natural habitat, behold the liquor store: the sugar waters, the Ziploc bag of coins/ & Nate’s tongue the color of loose pennies in the liquor store.” The power of the poem is its repetition. As long as impoverished communities are conditioned to the suggested normalcy of each street ending with a liquor store on its corner like every right corner line throughout the format of this poem, the people will suffer. And the liquor store will stay open late like it’s a favor, and close like a cruel joke.
In the last “love poem” of this collection, Marshall writes only this, “Graduation/333./hold me/before/I/disappear.” The abrupt line breaks disallow any ease of transition from line to line. It is like walking across any graduation stage and seeing all the friends and familiar faces that will soon leave your line of sight and quite possibly, your world immediately once you emerge from the graduation hall. The number “333,” Marshall notes at the bottom of the poem, is the number of homicides committed in the city of Chicago during the 2007-2008 public school year, a death toll more than the number of seniors a graduating class might have.
This poem alone attests to how socially aware and brilliant Nate Marshall, and his book of poems, Wild Hundreds, is. By documenting the life of a Chicago youth, the poem brings with it a last line that is simplistic yet emphatic; Marshall, like many black men in this country, grew up understanding mortality, how we can be casually buried, our faces buried in the ink freshly pressed on white t-shirts that always dirty, get washed, get worn, again.
Michael Augustine Jefferson is from New Haven, Connecticut. His work has been published by tNY.Press, Electric Cereal, Drunk In A Midnight Choir, and Long River Review. His dream is to see Powerline, live in concert and his favorite land animal is a bear.